When I was a child my grandfather had a coffee mug that always grabbed my attention. On one side it read “Ruby Ridge Never Again” and on the flip side it read “Waco Never Forget.” He wasn’t an anarchist or a gun nut but my grandfather recognized that what happened in Waco in the early Spring months of 1993 was a breach of our constitutional liberties and a painful twisting of the institutional rights that govern a separation of religion and state. Over 80 Branch Davidians and four ATF agents would die during the course of a 3-month standoff that culminated in what amounted to a nationally televised snuff film paid and orchestrated by our federal government. Today, as we witness the 25th anniversary of the event, the aftershocks of Waco still command rabid debate.
Waco would come to politicize the modern gun rights and religious freedom movements in ways that still linger today. Waco was the convergence of many political and cultural manifestations of the late baby boomer generation that found itself in the jaws of a modern state that seemed to care little for our Bill of Rights. Aggressive and centralized power authorities, the politicians and federal agents that led this massacre were the embodiment of everything our founding fathers had hoped to protect us from.
The President was Bill Clinton, the Attorney General Janet Reno, and Waco their stomping ground. In the weeks leading up to what would become one of the gravest examples of government’s force on its own, freedom fighters, observers and a domestic terrorist gathered a mile away from the site to document, protest and discuss the developing situation. Among the members of the gallery included future Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh who was radicalized in the events during and after Waco.
For many in the anti-government movement, the months-long standoff at the compound verified many of their worries about an all encroaching state. For the men and women who believe the second amendment stands as a testament to the right to defend your property and loved ones against a tyrannical government, this was the moment of truth. Today, it should be remembered as a point of reference to those that critique the idea of American citizens protecting themselves in their own homes from an unruly and dictator-like central authority which expresses little humanism or care for their constituents. The second amendment does not guarantee you victory but it does give individuals the right to fight and die on their own terms and that’s exactly what the Davidians did.
The leader of the Branch Davidians was a charismatic, egotistical man named David Koresh. Growing up, Koresh suffered from dyslexia and learning disabilities but he preached the word of the gospel with passion and his following grew. His sermons were filled with readings from the book of Nahum which proclaimed a coming war with an apostate state. Koresh and his followers were obsessed with the idea that they would one day have to battle with a Babylonian government and the federal government’s aggression on the compound was a sign of the coming end times.
The Branch Davidians had a history in Waco, Texas. In the early 1960’s the Davidians leader Victor Houteff moved the organization to the Mount Carmel compound just a few miles north of Waco. Seventh Day Adventists, the Davidians believed they were living in a divine end time of biblical prophecies that would witness Christ’s Second Coming. Seen as an extremist Christian sect, the Davidians were people who truly believed their sole purpose to be the attainment of eternal life.
This all played a major role in the standoff as Koresh and followers honestly believed they were living through end times and that Koresh was a divine prophet. In recordings of top members, it became clear that the Davidians only desire was to get to heaven and they were willing to go the whole way (die) to prove their devotion.
On February 23, 1993, authorities arrived at the Mount Carmel compound with the intent to search the premises for illegal weapons. The story of what happened next depends on who you believe. What is agreed upon is that David Koresh came out the front door of the Mount Carmel compound and that’s where the agreement ends. According to ATF agents, they witnessed Koresh armed and began firing on the suspect. A bullet pierced Koresh’s wrist while another one bit through the closed door behind him, mortally wounding member Perry Jones. The Davidians argued that neither Koresh nor Jones was armed at the time. In the ensuing firefight between ATF agents and a well-armed Davidian complex, four ATF agents and six Davidians were killed. After this, there would be no turning back.
The videotapes of three video cameras that agents trained on the building that day had vanished by the time a federal inquiry was raised in the aftermath. All of the daily logs for the federal agents and deputies from that day also vanished in the months following the attack.
Federal agents were angry and they would show this anger in the following months through a series of psychological and physical attacks on the Davidians. Four of their people were dead and there would be hell to pay. For the Davidians also there appeared no way out of this predicament. The Davidians knew they would be arrested and charged with conspiracy to commit murder of a federal agent which carry life sentences. The standoff stalled and federal agents grew frustrated.
No tactic was deemed too unsavory for our federal agents. They stood on tanks outside the compound and flicked off women and children inside. Agents regularly pulled down their pants and mooned the inhabitants of the church while scrawling “David we are watching you” on the compound windows. Eventually, after the Davidians made it clear they would not surrender, federal agents resorted to psychological warfare in the form of playing loud noises and repetitive music day and night. One of the songs the ATF agents blared at the compound was Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made For Walkin:”
You keep playing where you shouldn’t be playing
And you keep thinking that you’ll never get burnt
Well, I’ve just found me a brand new box of matches
And what he knows you ain’t had time to learn
These boots are made for walking, and that’s just what they’ll do
One of these days these boots are gonna walk all over you
The same morbid and bizarre strategies used against terror suspects during the Bush presidency were found first on American soil in Waco in 1993. Frustrated with the resolve of the Davidians, federal agents eventually shut off all electricity to the compound in hopes of forcing members out. They stayed, resorting to rationed rainwater as the onslaught of force continued.
There was never going to be a happy outcome to the events at Waco. FBI agents twisted and turned the Davidians in a sick game of good cop/bad cop until there would be no clean exits left. This strategy created increased distrust amongst Davidians and had the counter effect of emboldening their prophecies of an apostate state and the coming end times.
On the morning of April 19th, the time for discussion had come to a close. Federal agents called the Branch Davidian compound and instructed members that they would be commencing tank activity and to “take cover.” To this, the Davidians threw their phone out the front door. The end was near.
What happened next is still the source of great debate. According to the official timeline presented by our government, armored tanks approached the compound and poked holes in the building before pumping tear gas into the complex. At around 11:30 AM a small fire broke out on one side of the building and FBI surveillance records claim to have audio recordings of Davidians suggesting they set fire to the building themselves. It would be another hour before the fire department was called to the scene.
In all, 76 Branch Davidians would die in the fire that day and in the months and years following questions continued to linger regarding the timeline of events as portrayed by federal officials. The first major criticism was lobbed by Houston attorney Dick DeGuerin who went inside the Mount Carmel complex during the siege and testified at trial that the bullet holes found on the front door from the initial approach by agents on February 23rd showed incoming rounds, not outgoing. This suggested that it was ATF agents who fired on the complex first instead of the official statement that portrayed ATF agents returning fire against the Davidians who initiated the fight. At the trial, officials claimed to have ‘lost’ the door referred to by DeGuerin and Texas Trooper David Keys testified to seeing the missing door placed into a U-haul by two men after the siege, never to be seen again.
Another cause of controversy was the manner in which the tanks administered tear gas on the morning of April 19th. Survivor David Thibodeau claimed that damage to the building from the tanks allowed the gas to spread. Although the FBI had planted surveillance devices along the walls of the compound to use as evidence in the trial, members of the jury had trouble making out much of the conversations over the noise and hiss present throughout the tapes. While the FBI insisted the conversations provided audio evidence of Koresh and followers talking about lighting the compound on fire, many of the members in the trial audience claimed that they could make out no such conversations over the imperfect recordings.
Furthering questions of the state’s case was the element of pyrotechnic devices found in the rubble of the compound. Attorney General Janet Reno denied use of the devices and from 1993 to 1999 the FBI denied under oath the use of any pyrotechnic devices in the assault. So then why were there pyrotechnic devices found in the rubble? When the FBI turned over documents to Congress in 1994 for an internal investigation, the page listing the use of pyrotechnic devices was missing. Years later, a senior FBI official told Newsweek that more than 100 federal agents were aware of the use of pyrotechnic devices on the compound on April 19th, 1993.
We still don’t know, fully what happened. Perhaps Koresh and his followers did indeed attack ATF agents. Perhaps they did, indeed, set fire to their compound in an attempt to verify the claims of their prophecies. However, many believe it is more likely that the federal government had no business being on the property to begin with and that their use of force in the approach on February 23rd backed Koresh and his followers into a corner they would never get out of.
We remember Waco as a prime example of the power and authority that our modern federal government commands over free American citizens. The escalation of force and the trampling of religious freedoms by Janet Reno and federal agents crystalized what many saw as an increasingly dogmatic and ill government run by authoritarians. Our government targeted a group of off the grid end-timers on paper thin gun charges and met true believers of the second amendment and their religious rights.
We remember Waco not as a footnote of our American history but as a major expression of a new era of American politicians that sought to discontinue the prescriptions of liberty as laid out in our constitution. The memory of the men, women, and children who died in a blaze of fire that day in Waco remind us all that there are still those amongst us willing to live and die by the sword of eternal freedom.