(Originally published April 9, 2003)
Ten years ago this month more than 80 people were shot or incinerated at Mt. Carmel, Texas. The multi-racial community, led by David Koresh, was made up of Christians who played music, worked on their cars, conducted a legal arms business, and loved their children – or who were children. The body count for the kids under 16 was 21 corpses. The events of February through April 1993 – the first raid, the siege, and finally the orgy of brutal slaughter – became known to our collective consciousness as “Waco.”
Some years later, a renewal of public interest came about because of the persistent and obstinate questions asked by several determined investigators, chiefly Mike McNulty of Fort Collins. They have done brilliant work on all the details of the attack, FLIR technology, “overlooked” and mishandled evidence, missing pages, military secretiveness, delays in carrying out orders, lies about use of tear gas and snipers, a heinously altered crime scene, a power failure in a morgue that rendered the bodies useless for further study…..and on and on.
Waco: The Rules of Engagement drew nearly 800 people to screenings held in Fort Collins. Subsequently the film was nominated for an Academy Award, captured an Emmy in the investigative journalism category, and won a major international prize. A sequel garnered more attention, and the government finally had to hold hearings.
Amongst all the thousands of items of evidence and the fascinating mass of information uncovered and exposed, we might forget something important. The big picture is, no government agents should have ever interfered with those people in the first place, period.
The word “compound” has been extensively used for the Branch Davidians’ home and place of worship. Call a thing a compound, and there’s nothing else to do but attack it. This is spin doctoring at its finest – whereas ranch, settlement, community or other neutral term at least pays lip service to fairness. The destruction of this community, and the events leading up to it, are precisely the sort of activities the word “infamy” was coined for.
Remember what Martin Neimoller said about the Nazis? “They first came for the Communists and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up because I was Protestant. Then they came for me…. and by that time no one was left to speak up.”
“I could be next” is a selfish reason for caring, but a reason those of us who are not saints can relate to. “Waco” makes us ask who will be the next to fall. Hippie communes, Amish farms, artist colonies, ashrams, convents, summer camps, extended families – nobody is safe. When the Nazification quotient of a society reaches the level displayed at Waco, anybody could be next. It’s no longer a matter of whether they will come for you, only when.
The affidavit that started the whole thing was authored by a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agent. This document, on the strength of which warrants were obtained, was full of third-hand hearsay “evidence” of wrongdoing, plenty of irrelevant material for padding, and a number of flat out lies.
The most inflammatory statement attributed to Koresh in the affidavit was a conversation with a social worker in which he supposedly said his activities would make the riots in Los Angeles pale by comparison. The woman’s last visit to Mt. Carmel was three weeks before the L.A. riots, making either Koresh a true prophet, or the social worker a true bullshit artist.
There is also the matter of a legal detail called “timeliness.” In the affidavit, designed to establish probable cause to search for evidence of the illegal conversion of weapons to automatic, the freshest information was eight months old. Even Marc Breault, a former Davidian and an enemy of Koresh, a man who could be expected to blow the whistle on the most tenuous grounds, claimed no knowledge of illegal firepower at Mt. Carmel.
Don’t Know Much About a Science Book
What else was in the affidavit? Well, it seems that an informant had once seen a Davidian designing a weapon on a computer screen. There were copies of magazines like Shotgun News. And Koresh made his people watch shoot-em-ups like Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, and Hamburger Hill.
Koresh was said to have been asking around for where to get a copy of The Anarchist’s Cookbook. (This was pre-Amazon) Hell, even I knew three or four different sources for that book. If Koresh couldn’t figure out where to get it, he certainly was not the terrifying criminal mastermind the feds portray him as.
What About the Atrocities?
The most harmful allegations concerning the treatment of children at Mt. Carmel stemmed from a disgruntled parent involved in a custody case, and we all know how that goes. The worst evidence a visiting social worker could report was that one little boy said he wanted to grow up so he could have a “long gun.” Possibly, kids were disciplined by being sent to bed without supper.
The affidavit mentioned a child abuse investigation, but did not mention that the investigation was closed due to lack of evidence. Later, interviews with children who left during the 51-day siege failed to turn up any evidence of abuse.
Far from being a neglectful parent, Koresh, himself the son of a 15-year-old single mother, actually provided for the support of his progeny. He took care of not only his own children but everybody at the settlement. A Waco musician who knew some Mt. Carmel residents said, “It’s a free ride. Koresh feeds and clothes you. He was even paying off Thibodeau’s school loan. You’re free to play guitar 24 hours a day.”
What was the government supposed to do, just walk away?
That’s what some people ask. For many, the question answers itself. In the heat of debate over the later complications, we need to recall that there was no justification for the federal presence at the Branch Davidian community in the first place. And it didn’t start with the arrival of the BATF forces. Before the first paperwork had been drawn up, Special Response Teams from three cities were already at Fort Hood practicing for the raid on Mt. Carmel. Months before a single warrant was issued, the full-scale hostile invasion had been mapped out. But why?
When your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail
This ancient wisdom was proved once again in Waco by the blundering and heavy-handed tactics of a law-enforcement agency armed with tons of expensive gear and a bad attitude. The BATF had blown a wad on fancy equipment whose purchase needed justification before the budget came up for review. The initial raid went down on February 28. Had it gone well, the glorious victory would have been quite fresh for the annual appropriations hearing on March 10.
To make matters worse, the BATF has a long and proud tradition of shooting first and asking questions later. It was still licking the wounds inflicted by the TV show 60 Minutes the month before. Like a bloodied and enraged bear, the BATF was in search of something to shred with its claws. The surrender of a wacky cult leader and his followers would be the media event to take everybody’s minds off all that loose talk about incompetence and corruption in the BATF. David Koresh was elected scapegoat.
Sex, Drugs, & Rock’n’Roll
The fabled “powers that be” were mightily pissed off by Koresh, representing as he did the entire unholy trinity of the Sixties. Drugs: A story about a suspected methamphetamine lab was released, but not because there was any truth in it. Problem was, the National Guard wouldn’t put their helicopters in the air unless dope was involved. So the G-men said what they needed to say.
Rock’n’roll, the Davidians were definitely guilty. Like many other charismatic figures in the news, Koresh was a musician. He is said to have owned 30 guitars, many of them custom-painted by an airbrush artist who was a member of the group. One featured a portrait of Koresh on a cross with a half-naked woman at his feet. He gave out t-shirts that said, “David Koresh – God Rocks.”
Occupationally, the Mt. Carmel community was musician-heavy, with all the equipment set up in the main parlor. The jazz-rock fusion group Messiah played occasional gigs at Cue Sticks, a club in Waco. There the band had the opportunity not only to perform but to invite people home for Bible study.
“He couldn’t be a rock star,” the local music store owner said of David Koresh, “so he decided to be Jesus.”
The Men Don’t Know, but the Little Girls Understand
And now we approach the heart of the matter: sex. Most men would love to be able to get away with what Koresh achieved effortlessly: to have simultaneous affairs with several women who know about each other and put up with it. But a person just can’t keep a harem in the U.S. of A., not even when (as the evidence suggests of Koresh) all his relations with women are consensual. One theory insists that he was a coercer, and that would be bad enough. But even worse – what if he was actually a seducer? If all those women volunteered, if every female on the premises yearned to slide between the sheets with him – the public cringes at the thought.
Koresh was, let’s face it, an attractive fellow. How many federal agents have spent years anticipating their chance to nail a guy like that? A guy to stand in for the bastard back in Junior High who scored with all the chicks, who stole their first girlfriend. Koresh was indeed the sacrificial lamb: sacrificed to the long-smoldering resentments of unpopular adolescents, victim of their atavistic, primal hatred for the alpha male.
David Died for Somebody’s Sins, but Not Mine
The embarrassing 60 Minutes expose’ had revealed the unacceptable behavior of male federal agents to their female colleagues. To divert attention from its own culture of sexual abusiveness, the bureau arranged to turn the spotlight on the much more colorful story of a backwoods preacher who was getting a lot of nookie.
The government has tried to sell the idea that some kind of hostage situation existed, justifying the massive attack. How so? The adults present at Mt. Carmel were there willingly. People came from other states and even other countries to join the community – how could they be termed hostages? And the children were no more hostages than the children of Catholics or Presbyterians. In this country religious adults control hundreds of thousands of children, most of whom manage to grow up and go their own ways. If those Mt. Carmel kids had been polled, I bet they would have said that religious instruction, even on a daily basis, beats being roasted.
Desperado, You Better Come to Your Senses
Federal spokesmen have tried to excuse the original raid by claiming that Koresh was holed up like a rat, hadn’t shown his face in weeks, so needed to be cornered and captured on his home ground. “Wrong,” say the inhabitants of Waco. Koresh was away from the ranch frequently. He could have been apprehended while out jogging. In town he could have been picked up at a gun show or the auto parts store. He stopped in at Lone Star Music once or twice a week. Even if there were justifiable reasons to arrest Koresh, everybody except the government agrees that he could have been collared any day of the week with no muss, no fuss. And no publicity for the BATF.
Once the siege started, it was so easy for the government and media to whip up public hysteria about a supposed gargantuan weapons stash. But one expert has pointed out that no matter how much noise we’ve heard about those heavily armed lunatic Davidians, the numbers say their arsenal averaged out at two guns per person. In the great state of Texas as a whole, the average is four guns per person.
Like a Burning Ring of Fire
It’s amazing how apologists will deny that the tear gas could have contributed to the conflagration. The same thing happened in the notorious attack on the MOVE community in Philadelphia several years back: law enforcement had no idea that tear gas was flammable, and were shocked when a whole block of homes went up in smoke.
When the Davidians’ flag disintegrated and fell to the ground, the BATF hoisted its own banner. Clearly they were declaring a military victory. The government’s forces also showed their true colors as deadly clowns. During the siege, federal law-enforcement agents on the outside pulled down their pants and mooned the trapped Davidians.
They Didn’t Shoot the Sheriff, but They Might as Well Have
Jack Harwell, Sheriff of McLennan County, characterized the Mt. Carmel residents as “basically good people” who had settled in his county way back in 1935. The Sheriff went on record describing Koresh as a man who had willingly complied with the requests of law enforcement personnel on several previous occasions, and who had never been convicted of any type of crime. On one occasion, when the legality of a modified weapon was questioned by a neighbor, Koresh had even brought it in to the Sheriff’s office for an opinion.
Once the BATF, FBI, etc. moved in, Sheriff Harwell was ignored. Rather than utilize his experience and expertise in dealing with the Davidians, the invaders shoved him aside. During the final apocalyptic attack on the ranch, with Koresh on the line wanting to negotiate, the sheriff’s office couldn’t even get a federal agent on the phone.
The Annual Government Employees Picnic with Texas-Style Barbecue
However the children were treated (and the likelihood of ever knowing the truth grows fainter with each passing year), child welfare is definitely not under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, nor of the FBI. No matter what real or imaginary peril the minors of Mt. Carmel might have faced previously, the actions of these two federal agencies put them at infinitely greater risk and of course ultimately killed many of them.
Critics try to justify the raid and firestorm on the grounds that the Davidians were cult members, victims of brainwashing. Since when is wrong-headedness a capital offense? Did they deserve to be transformed into crispy critters because they were zealots? As we know, America was started by religious nuts (with guns.) None of the founders intended for any branch of government to be in charge of protecting people from false messiahs. The notion that the government has a duty to kill the followers of a false messiah, or even the false messiah himself, is the flimsiest defense heard since Nuremberg.
Basically, the inhabitants of Mt. Carmel were eliminated like cockroaches for belonging to a minority religion. They practiced a non-mainstream version of Christianity, therefore they were deluded fools who needed killing. Does this mean it’s okay to exterminate anyone who is deluded? For instance, is it all right to exterminate men who believe that drinking beer adds to their sex appeal? Is it okay to exterminate people who suffer from the delusion that the government is capable of solving problems? How about people who believe that one brand of laundry detergent is superior to another?
Yes: what the government was supposed to do was to walk away. Better yet, to never have been there in the first place. In the whole heinous, shameful mess, the biggest atrocity was that those people were not simply left the hell alone.
Note: For activist Mike McNulty, the event we call Waco set off alarm bells because, as a member of a minority faith, he was sensitized by the knowledge of a government massacre of Mormons in the past. Who knows what will happen when the seeds ripen that were sown by the Mt. Carmel massacre?
“I had been involved in the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints for a number of years and become familiar with the history of an incident that occurred in October of 1837. A group of Mormons had been entrapped by a group of state militiamen from Missouri, where the governor had issued an extermination order. Any Mormons found within the boundaries of the state of Missouri after such and such a date were to be killed on sight. (That order, interestingly enough, wasn’t repealed until 1978.)
“This group of people, forty or fifty of them, were rounded up by men on horseback and herded into a grist mill and the doors were closed. The men dismounted and put their muskets to the chinks in the logs of the grist mill and fired until everyone inside was wounded or dead. That was called the Haun’s Mill Massacre. That kind of conflict between government and religion has always been an interesting point of history for me. When I saw the Branch Davidians’ church being burned to the ground on April 19, it struck a resonant chord.”