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Branch Davidians:

The Waco standoff

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Sponsored link.

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Topics covered in this essay

bulletThe Waco standoff
bulletWhat is known
bulletWhat is not known
bulletEvents from the Branch Davidian perspective
bulletEvents from the FBI perspective
bulletSummary by Time magazine
bulletA documentary film
bulletLink to the Oklahoma bombing

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What is Known about Waco:

A major tragedy happened at Waco in the Spring of 1993. There is a general consensus that the sequence of events included:

bulletThe ATF decided to arrest David Koresh on firearms violations. He could have been easily arrested away from the compound while jogging or while visiting Waco. But apparently it was necessary for them to arrest him at the compound near the guns in order to have a chance of winning a court case.
bulletA group of 76 armed ATF agents entered the compound on 1993-FEB-28 and attempted to serve a search warrant
bulletA shot was heard; it is unclear whether it was an accidental firing by an ATF agent, or an intentional or accidental discharge from within the buildings.
bulletIn the resultant firefight, 6 Davidians and 4 ATF agents died; at least one Davidian and 24 agents were wounded.
bulletThe ATF withdrew. The FBI took charge; a 51 day siege followed.
bulletBased on a report from a psychiatrist at the Baylor College of Medicine, the FBI believed that the Branch Davidian children were being sexually and physically abused inside the compound. (The FBI has since acknowledged that the report was false. It is apparently based on false memories implanted in the children).
bulletThe FBI consulted a number of experts on new religious movements with knowledge about destructive cults, who warned of a high probability of mass murder or suicide if aggressive action was taken. The FBI also consulted a number of psychiatrists who had no specialized experience with doomsday cults, who assured the FBI that the chances of major loss of life was slim. They also received advise from members of the Anti-cult movement.  The Bureau decided that it was safe to attack the compound with tear gas. The FBI seem to have ignored the religious experts and accepted the beliefs of the psychiatrists.
bulletThe FBI emergency response team had been at the site for almost 2 months. If the siege lasted much longer, then the team would be in need of refresher training; there was no replacement team.
bulletOn 1993-APR-19: 
bulletAbout 6 AM, two incendiary tear-gas grenades were fired at a concrete bunker some distance from the frame buildings of the compound. They bounced off the roof and fizzled out harmlessly in a nearby puddle.
bulletAbout 12 o'clock noon, specially adapted tanks approached the building to penetrate the walls and inject a form of tear gas inside. A group of fires started almost simultaneously in different locations within the compound; they combined to form a great conflagration.
bullet8 followers were able to escape during the attack; many were severely burned
bulletKoresh and about 75 of his followers [numbers differ in various sources] died of stab wounds, gun shots, and from the effects of smoke and flames. This included 21 children.
bullet5 followers were convicted of voluntary manslaughter and firearms violations. Two others were convicted of arms charges.
bulletLater, a video has been distributed which appears to show a flame-throwing tank igniting the compound. This has been proven to be a fake: a forged picture of a flame superimposed in a film laboratory on top of actual footage of the tanks at Waco. The latter was taken about 2 hours before the fire.

Whenever a high-profile and tragic event occurs (e.g. the assassination of President Kennedy, the bombing at Oklahoma City, etc.) facts become mixed with fantasies. Waco is no exception; the truth will probably remain unknown. There have been many individuals and groups who have disseminated information of varying quality, including:

bulletsurviving members of the Branch Davidians still faithful to David Koresh's beliefs
bulletdisgruntled ex-members of the group
bulletthe ATF
bulletthe FBI
bulletcounter-cult groups
bulletanti-cult groups

We believe that none of the above are reliable sources of information. Some seem to have intentionally disseminated misinformation in order to further their own agendas and/or to protect themselves and/or to project their religion in a very positive or negative light. Others have given versions of events as they remember them to be, but which may have been colored by their intense emotional involvement.

It is difficult to separate fact from fiction, although rumors of attacks by helicopter gun ships do seem most improbable, and flame throwing tanks have been proven to be a hoax. We feel that the main fundamental, preventable causes of the tragedy were:

bulletDavid Koresh refused to recognize a government search warrant.
bulletDavid Koresh and the FBI were unable to communicate effectively. 
bulletKoresh and his followers anticipated death at the hands of government agents; most were willing to commit suicide rather than surrender.
bulletThe FBI ignored the advice of new religious movement experts; they accepted the advice of mental health professionals who had no specialized knowledge of destructive/doomsday cults. They also relied on anti-cult movement specialists.
bulletThe FBI believed (incorrectly) that children were being abused.
bulletMany of the Branch Davidian parents refused to recognize the danger and send their children out of the compound to safety.

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What is not known about Waco:

bulletWere there illegal weapons at Waco?: Probably there were. Koresh implied so in a telephone conversation with the FBI; he also admitted it to his lawyer. There is also evidence in the form of a famous video clip showing bullets emerging from within the building and penetrating the outside wall; the firing rate and uniformity indicates an automatic weapon. The McLennan County Sheriff's Office determined that UPS had been delivering components which could convert legal firearms into fully automatic (illegal) weapons. 4 live grenades, 6 grenade launchers and 48 automatic weapons were recovered after the fire, in addition to 151 legal weapons. Countless rounds of bullets and a number of hand grenades exploded during the fire. When the "bunker" was excavated, about 750,000 bullet casings were found.
bulletWas Koresh guilty of statutory rape? Probably not. There is one rumor from former members of the BD that Koresh believed that he had an obligation to father two dozen children by mothers who were virgins, and that he obtained permission from parents to engage in sexual activities with some of the children. Yet a number of investigations by Children's Protective Service found no evidence of any wrongdoing. A report issued by a psychiatrist at Baylor College of Medicine concluded that the children of the Branch Davidians were being sexually and physically abused. This report is now known to be false. The children initially denied any such abuse and only told stories of sexual assaults after intensive and improper interrogation.
bulletWere Army personnel present at Waco? There are claims of helicopter gun ships and tanks equipped with flame throwers being used at Waco. But this appears to be intentional disinformation. The Pentagon has said that three special-forces officers from the Delta Force were present, but only as passive observers. To have active armed forces individuals involved in any role other than mere observers would require special permission; this was never requested.
bulletWho fired the first shot? Only the person responsible knew that, and he/she may be dead. Some believe that an ATF agent accidentally discharged his firearm and shot himself in the foot; there is a rumor of one or more guard dogs being shot; others believe that someone within the compound fired the first shot.
bulletWas a non-fatal resolution possible? Probably. On April 14th, Koresh promised to surrender if he was given time to write a document explaining the seven seals of Revelation. The attack started 5 days later, while he was writing the book, and after he had completed writing on the first seal.
bulletHow were the fires started?: There is one belief that when a tank punched a hole in a compound wall, it overturned a propane tank which broke into flames. However, this scenario cannot account for the large number of small, separate blazes that were observed to start about the same time in many buildings. There is another belief that Koresh ordered quantities of kerosene to be placed around the compound and lit manually. This is supported by the video evidence which seems to show a number of small fires that quickly combined into a general conflagration. The engineering consulting firm Failure Analysis were hired by the National Riflemen's Association to study the fire. They presented their findings at a seminar at MIT, concluding that a series of small fires were most likely set by the Branch Davidians themselves. An anti-government propaganda film shows a tank equipped with a flame thrower attacking a building. The film was crudely doctored and a phony flame was added in a film lab. Time.com started a web-site poll on 1999-AUG-26. It asks the question: "Who do you believe started the fire at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco." The results, as of 2000-MR-6 were: Law enforcement 60%, Branch Davidians 34%, Not sure 6% These values should not be considered to be an accurate estimate of American public opinion. Contributors to the poll were self-selected.
bulletWho is responsible for the deaths? This question has as many answers are there are investigators into the tragedy. It is our belief that the responsibility should be divided among:
bulletDavid Koresh for:
bulletassembling a large cache of weapons,
bulletexciting his followers into a fever pitch anticipating the end of the world
bulletbeing unable to communicate his beliefs and intents clearly to outsiders,
bulletrefusing to submit to a government warrant.
bulletThe Branch Davidians membership generally for staying at Waco (and keeping their children there) in spite of all of the warning signs that they were members of a destructive, doomsday cult.
bulletSome of the experts hired by the FBI who were apparently so unaware of the dynamics of doomsday cults and of the Branch Davidian beliefs and practices that they advised the FBI to take aggressive action, assuring them that the possibility of resistance and of mass suicide was low.
bulletThe anti-cult movement for having created a paranoia in the U.S. against new religious movements. This fear has generated intolerance of unconventional religious groups which in turn has legitimized violent government intervention against "cults."
bulletThe Baylor College of Medicine for using intensive and improper interrogation techniques on Branch Davidian children. The result was disclosure by the children of stories of sexual and physical abuse which never happened. Those false disclosures had a major influence over Attorney General Janet Reno when she authorized the attack.
bulletThe FBI for:
bulletbelieving the wrong "experts" in the presence of contradictory recommendations.
bulletfor not allowing two theologians access to Koresh.
bulletfor total lack of understanding of Koresh's message; it was discounted as "Bible babble" by one agent. Another agent thought that the 7 seals were sea creatures. A careful study of his teachings would show that they formed a consistent, although unusual, interpretation of the Bible.

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Events from the Branch Davidian perspective:

Koresh had been preaching the imminent end of the world in which the Branch Davidians would play a major role. He himself would break the seven seals mentioned in Revelation 5:2. The BDs fully expected to be attacked by the government. But there were several confusing features to the ATF raid and subsequent FBI siege:

bulletthey had calculated that the end would occur in 1995, a full two years in the future
bulletthey were surprised that no tanks and fire were involved in the initial raid by the ATF agents as their interpretation of prophecy predicted. (The tanks and fire were to come later).
bulletthey believed that they would be transported to Jerusalem for the final battle; this was not happening.

David Koresh was apparently confused by the lack of agreement between reality and prophecy.

He initially offered to surrender if his sermon was broadcast nationally. It was broadcast over the local Evangelical Christian radio station in Waco TX and over the CBN Network on March 2. However, he changed his mind after having received a revelation that God wanted him to wait. Believing he had received this directive, it is inconceivable that he would surrender at that time.

During the siege, Koresh made repeated requests to communicate with Biblical scholars. Two academics did offer to help in the negotiations, but were turned down by the FBI. 7 David Koresh repeatedly stated that he would not surrender until he received instructions from God. On April 14, he believed that he had received his long-awaited revelation. He was instructed to write a description of the Seven Seals and then to surrender to the FBI with his followers. He was apparently engaged in this task when the attack occurred 5 days later. One of the followers who escaped from the compound during the fire carried a floppy disk containing the part of Koresh's book that he had just completed. It probably would have taken a few weeks more for him to complete the task. There is every likelihood that if the BDs had been allowed a little more time, that the standoff would have been ended without loss of life.

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Events from the FBI perspective

They looked upon Koresh as a deranged individual. He believed himself to be Jesus Christ. They knew that he had a huge arsenal of illegal weapons. They genuinely believed that he sexually and physically abused children. Some believed that he was producing illegal drugs. They were totally insensitive to the religious nature of the conflict, and treated the standoff as a conventional hostage situation. They discounted Koresh's obsession with the 7 seals, and interpreted it as an indication that he was psychotic. They assumed that he was lying when he said that he was waiting for a revelation from God with instructions how to proceed. He said that he had received the revelation, to write about the seven seals and then give himself up. The FBI interpreted it as simply another delaying tactic. Seeing no end to the standoff, having received an "expert" opinion that mass suicide or murder was unlikely, and being concerned about the fate of the children in the compound, they decided to risk mass suicide and killing. They attacked with tear gas.

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A summary by Time magazine:

A ten page article on the Waco tragedy concludes:

"In the end, even the fiercest critics could not deny that it was Koresh who placed 25 children in harm's way, who preyed on people who were weak and lonely and hungry for certainty. Certainty he gave them, and abundantly. He was certain of his vision of good and evil, certain of his special insight into the deepest mysteries of faith, certain of an afterlife that promised glory for those who had suffered for their souls."

As we noted in the overview to this topic, perhaps the ultimate message of the Waco tragedy is that seeking religious certainty and security while eliminating religious doubt and skepticism from one's life can have very dangerous, potentially deadly, consequences.

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A movie about the Waco tragedy:

A number of videos have been released concerning Waco and the Branch Davidians. It is difficult to assess their objectivity, particularly since there is so much misinformation, disinformation and doubt about the real events circulating.

One movie that has received quite a few positive reviews from leading newspapers is William Gazecki's documentary: "Waco: The rules of engagement."

Stephen Holden of The New York Times states: "This methodical indictment of the U.S. government's siege of the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas, four years ago has awful lessons to teach about governmental hubris and how a deliberate failure to communicate can have catastrophic consequences."

Robert Healy of the Boston Globe writes: "It is provocative because it tries to prove that after the botched ATF raid in February, the FBI, in an act of revenge, trapped the Davidians in a section of the compound with automatic-weapon fire and then created the fireballs with an ignited tear gas spray. The documentary does not prove this case. But there are disturbing elements in the film."

Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times writes that the film: "...is a major documentary, a meticulously detailed, step-by-step and terrifyingly persuasive all-out attack on government agencies and officials for their handling of the siege of the Branch Davidian sect outside Waco, Texas, in early 1993, which resulted in more than 80 deaths. What emerges here is an acute sense of the ongoing struggle in American society between protecting the constitutional freedom of religion and protecting the public from the lunatic fringe. Gazecki and his colleagues make clear the need for law enforcement agencies--and the public at large--to understand the thinking of religious sects to communicate better with them and, when standoffs occur, to designate highly skilled, highly trained individuals as negotiators."

The film received an Emmy and was nominated for an Oscar. 1

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Link to the Oklahoma City bombing

The federal office building in Oklahoma City, OK, was bombed 1995-APR-19, on the second annual anniversary of the disaster at Waco. Timothy McVeigh was charged and convicted as the person primarily responsible for the bombing. According to his former army buddy, McVeigh was primarily motivated by a desire to avenge the 1993 government siege at Waco TX. McVeigh allegedly believed that the "orders were issued" for Waco from the building in Oklahoma City. He was wrong. McVeigh allegedly compared the government workers to storm troopers from the movie Star Wars. At one point, McVeigh allegedly was considering a suicide bombing by staying inside the rented truck to make certain that the bomb went off. 2

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Reference used:

  1. "Waco: The rules of engagement," at: http://www.waco93.com/
  2. Nancy Gibbs, " 'Oh, My God, They're Killing Themselves!' -- FBI agent Bob Ricks," Time Magazine, 1993-MAY-03, at: http://www.time.com/

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Copyright © 1995 to 2008 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally published: 1995-SEP-28
Last update: 2008-APR-21
Author: B.A. Robinson

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