Waco: the siege 25 years on

A 51-day confrontation between the FBI and the Branch Davidians – a small offshoot of the Seventh Day Adventists – came to a tragic end outside Waco, Texas on April 19, 1993. The trouble started on February 28, as agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) attempted to storm the Davidians’ “Mount Carmel” compound in a search for illegal weapons. A firefight ensued, in which six ATF agents and five Davidians were shot dead. The raid transformed into a tense standoff, with the FBI taking control.

The authorities’ patience finally ran out in April. After puncturing holes in the walls of the Davidians’ building using tanks, CS gas was fired into the compound, hoping to flush group members out. Instead, smoke began to billow from the building, which was quickly engulfed in flames. At least 76 group members, including 24 children, lost their lives in the conflagration. The heat was so intense that bodies melted together.

Controversy still rages over whether the Davidians started the fire in order to commit mass suicide, or if it was the FBI’s assault which was responsible for the inferno. Conflict researcher Jayne Seminare Docherty has described the siege as a “critical incident” – an event that highlights and exacerbates existing fault lines in society. “Waco” has therefore become cultural shorthand for expressing tensions within American politics and culture.

A complex theology

Much of the scholarship on the siege has focused on the failure of the FBI to take the Davidians’ religious positions seriously. The group held to a complex theology, in which the prophecies of Revelation played a key role. Their leader, David Koresh, viewed himself as the Lamb of God, predicted to open the seven seals that would lead to God’s judgement. The group believed they were fated to be involved in an apocalyptic confrontation with “Babylon” – a term Koresh applied to the US authorities.

David Koresh, leader of the Branch Davidians. Wikipedia

As the political scientist Michael Barkun and others have noted, by assaulting the group directly, the government confirmed their prophecies and reinforced their beliefs.

Government narrative in the aftermath of the siege placed the blame squarely at Koresh’s feet. Authorities portrayed him as a dangerous, and probably insane, individual who had perpetrated an act of mass suicide.

President Bill Clinton reacted to criticism of the government’s handling of the siege by expressing incredulity that “anyone … would suggest that the Attorney General should resign because some religious fanatics murdered themselves”.

The official enquires that followed supported this view. In 2000, the official report prepared by former senator John Danforth vindicated government agencies, concluding that Koresh and “certain Branch Davidians” set fire to their own compound.

These findings were supported by Kenneth Newport’s work on Branch Davidian theology and its potential to justify martyrdom in fire. Recordings from the compound, featuring discussion of spreading fuel, appear to back this up.

But other research has questioned these claims. The recordings are open to debate, and Davidian survivors have often stated that Koresh preached against suicide. Sociologist Stuart A. Wright suggested the FBI’s assault accidentally started the blaze.

Given the possibility that CS gas is flammable in confined spaces, and that some in the FBI seemed determined to provoke the group, several scholars have argued that the government should be held responsible for the Davidians’ deaths. Scepticism over the government narrative was shared by the public, with a 1999 CBS poll suggesting that 62% believed that the government had covered up its failings at Waco.

View of the right

For many on the right, the siege became a symbol of government attacks on religious and civil liberties. On the second anniversary of the fire, Timothy McVeigh planted a bomb at the Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people in revenge for the government’s actions. Today Waco remains a potent symbol that continues to motivate many within the survivalist and militia movements in the US.

The events were quickly politicised in popular media. Within months of the siege, NBC’s In The Line of Duty: Ambush At Waco portrayed heroic ATF agents and a diabolic, controlling Koresh. Images of “brainwashed” cultists at Waco, merging with cultural memories of the Jonestown massacre, and later, the 1997 Heaven’s Gate suicides, permeated popular dramas’ presentation of fictionalised new religious movements.

However, as religion scholar Joseph Laycock notes, a more nuanced narrative developed in line with public scepticism surrounding Waco. For example, shows such as South Park satirised disproportionate ATF militarism, while HBO’s The Leftovers featured both a controlling cult and militaristic and an abusive “Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, Explosives and Cults”. Michael McNulty’s documentaries, including the Oscar nominated Waco: Rules of Engagement, have also done much to question the government narrative.

Most recently, Paramount’s Waco offered a direct dramatisation of events. Based on books by FBI negotiator Gary Noesner and former-Davidian siege survivor David Thibodeau, the series was criticised in some quarters for an overly sympathetic portrayal of Koresh, including papering over accusations of child abuse.

As Noesner concluded, the siege was “a very complex situation where both good and bad decisions were made on both sides that led to a very tragic conclusion”.

Some positive outcomes did follow. In the aftermath of the siege, the FBI’s Critical Incident Response Group worked with the American Academy of Religions to modify its approach to religious groups. This helped them reach a peaceful solution to the standoff with the Montana Freemen in 1996.

The Davidians also survived and developed. Today, a new Branch Davidian church sits on the site of Mount Carmel. It serves as both a memorial to the events of 1993 and as a testimony to the resilience of their religious belief.