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THE Freemen siege in Montana has reached the point where continued failure to act by federal authorities can only do serious damage to the premise that this is a nation of laws.

For months now, a group of criminals masquerading as patriots has been allowed to ignore federal warrants for their arrests while the FBI - cowed by memories of Waco - has spent millions of taxpayer dollars trying to talk these bums into surrendering.Even the most militant of the anti-government groups want nothing to do with the Freemen. Those who occupy neighboring ranches want this nightmare over. In Jordan, Mont., a petition was being circulated urging the FBI to use reasonable force to end the stalemate.

Charles Duke, a Colorado state senator known for inflammatory rhetoric and one of the militia movement's best friends, walked away from negotiations so disgusted the other day that he urged the FBI to make the arrests, no matter the consequences. He said the culprits weren't about to surrender and face a variety of state and federal charges.

Well, it's time to get over Waco. The fact is that those who died in the holocaust of the Branch Davidian compound were there by choice - that is, except the children, whose moronic parents had placed them there.

The FBI did not set the fire. Evidence is overwhelming that the madman David Koresh and his followers deliberately torched the compound.

Where are the mourners for the federal agents who were murdered by Koresh and his band while trying to serve a legally authorized search warrant? The four Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents who died there have been all but forgotten.

Further dishonor is being done to their memories by the Justice Department's refusal to end this militant disrespect for the law in Montana.

Those who have tried to talk to the Freemen have come away convinced they have no incentive to give up.

The result of all this is likely to be more and more incidents in which the espousal of some cheap political philosophy is used to thwart the law. The cost to the taxpayers will be astronomical, but far more costly will be the damage done to the rule of law in a civilized nation.

If the failure to act against criminals is the fruit of Waco, then it is one of the monumental tragedies in our history.