THE month-long stand-off between Federal agents and armed cult members barricaded in their compound near Waco, Texas, reminds me of the night, more than a decade ago, when I received a frantic phone call from a friend's mother. ''You've got to help me,'' she pleaded, her voice taut with anxiety. ''Peter has joined a religious sect.'' She choked back the tears. ''I don't know him anymore. When I look into his eyes, I'm terrified.'' I hadn't talked to Peter - an old high school chum - for a couple of years, though we had been quite close at school. Somehow the news didn't surprise me. Even as a teenager, Peter had been an intense, spiritually restless young man in search of big answers to big questions. I was astounded, however, by the transformation when I saw him the next day. The edgy, brooding expression that had always hung over his face like a dark cloud was gone. In its place was a spooky radiance, an almost feverish glow. He had obviously found some answers. That evening, it turned out, the religious sect he had joined - I think it was called the Church of God - was holding their annual national gathering at the Los Angeles Convention Centre. Peter was eager for me to come along because he was confident that I, too, would see the light. Praise the Lord. What I did see was one of the most chilling examples of mass hypnosis I have ever witnessed. (But not the only one - I have attended qigong meetings in China every bit as possessed as the gathering.) By the time we arrived, the auditorium, which seats several thousand, was almost full. I felt like a spy. No, I felt like an infidel among the born-again believers, because that was exactly what I was. Somehow, others sensed that I did not belong, that I was not one of the flock. I didn't have that beatific smile, and I couldn't bring myself to greet everyone as my brother and sister. The main event of the evening was a long, spell-binding sermon by a Korean minister (not Reverend Moon). His words bonded the group together like wet leather thongs dried under a scorching sun. I watched Peter, at my side, slip into the powerful communal current carrying the faithful into a trance. Today, Peter is a senior hospital administrator in Southern California. ''I was floundering,'' he recalled. ''I didn't know where I was going or what it all meant. I was overwhelmed by life's choices. And then someone came along and gave me all the answers. That feeling of certainty, of being able to turn over my problems to a higher authority, was a great relief.'' A relief, even when that certainty was apocalyptic. Like the Branch Davidians in Waco, Peter's cult believed fervently that the world was coming to an end, and soon. And like the Branch Davidians, it was held together by a single, charismatic figure. The leader of the Branch Davidians - a splinter sect of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church - is a 33-year-old man named David Koresh, a frustrated rock star with a passion for guns and violent Vietnam war movies. He says he is the Second Coming, the son of God, Jesus reincarnate. His hundred-odd followers believe him. Koresh, who usurped leadership of his cult by force and by sleeping with his rival's mother, apparently has charisma flowing from his fingertips. In 1987, he even charmed his way out of an attempted murder conviction despite the fact he had led a commando-type raid and shot his arch-rival. Some of the jurors even hugged him after the trial. But charisma, explained Peter, is a two-way street. ''One has to be vulnerable or susceptible in order to feel the magnetic pull of a charismatic leader. But once that commitment is made - once you have given up your individualism - you become almost completely dependent. Anything the leaders says, you believe. Anything he tells you to do, you do.'' The testimonials of Peter and other ex-cult members prompts one to ask whether the United States is an especially fertile breeding ground for extreme religious groups, and, if so, why? What is it about American soil that encourages the growth of both cult leaders and charismatic demand? The US, of course, does not have a monopoly on religious fanaticism. We don't have to look any further than the World Trade Centre to see that. But it does seem to have an abundance of isolated sects, built on cults of personality, that have withdrawn from society unto themselves. Ironically, it is, in part, precisely America's highly-prized individualism - the sometimes stubborn insistence that we ''go it alone'' - that pushes people into communal associations in which they check their independence at the front door. The task ofbeing a solitary individual seems especially burdensome in the United States, where one is confronted with hundreds of decisions, trivial and crucial, every day. How comforting, then, it must be to discover a set of hard answers and absolute certainties in a world that seems bereft of either. How reassuring to be among others who feel exactly the same way. And how dangerous. Hanging over the crisis in Waco is the horrible shadow of Jonestown, the transplanted religious community in South America in which more than 900 people committed collective suicide along with their megalomaniacal and deranged leader,Jim Jones. Koresh has been preparing his disciples for the final reckoning for years. We can only hope that Federal negotiators can convince him that this is a false Apocalypse, or convince his followers that Koresh is a false prophet.