FROM THE FIRST wild film clips on TV through all of the explanations and second- guesses so far, what happened in Philadelphia Monday still has a mad quality to it. No matter how crazed and dangerous those fanatics in the bunker were -- and certainly they invited a violent response -- the police plan went haywire, leaving hundreds of innocent people homeless and without possessions. Mayor W. Wilson Goode, who commendably took responsibility for the city's actions, clearly did not anticipate the horrible result. He described the situation as a "war" against a radical cult barricaded in what was an incredibly fortified bunker/rowhouse. The question wasn't whether the enemy had to be dealt with forcibly, but how thoughtfully and patiently that force could be applied. The result was a terrible misjudgment on the part of authorities.
That MOVE, a violent group, had to be routed somehow was not in dispute; its members had been terrorizing a neighborhood, creating serious health hazards, stockpiling firearms and explosives and threatening everybody and everything around. All negotiations had failed this time as in 1978, when MOVE's members were involved in a similar confrontation with police, during which an officer died.
Exchanges of gunfire, heavy doses of tear gas and floods of water also failed to subdue the group -- all of which led to the order to drop an explosive charge from the sky to try to blast a thick steel, lumber and tree-trunk-lined bunker that the group had built on the roof of a building. Still, given the knowledge that members of this group were heavily armed, that kerosene, naptha and other highly flammable material might explode and that this was in an area of rowhouses, authorities should have realized that a fire could rage out of control, as this one did so fiercely. Did patience simply give out -- without resort to other tactics? Could the bunker ultimately have been flooded, demolished by a wrecker's ball or contained at least until neighbors could rescue their belongings?
Or -- and here's the most disturbing possibility -- did the police mission itself get blown out of proportion? Police Commissioner Gregore Sambor, who took responsibility for ordering the explosive charge dropped from the helicopter, said the explosives had not been intended to start a fire. "That was an accident," he said. "No one could have known that. . . . My purpose in ordering that charge was again to reduce the threat from what might be considered the high ground against not only police officers but firemen in the area . . . and that was the only intention."
But it was far from the only result. To this Mayor Goode has replied that "whenever you are engaged in a difficult attack of this kind, there's always the worst-case scenario. And what we see here is the worst case that could in fact happen."
With hundreds homeless, with adults and children burned to death in the bunker and with an enormous rebuilding project ahead, the worst case is precisely what did happen -- and, much evidence so far suggests, didn't have to.