What Really Happened at Waco

HISTORY, 17 Apr 2023

Thirty years later, an avoidable tragedy has spawned a politically ascendant mythology.

The Branch Davidians appeared to see a kinship between their struggle and those of other victims of state violence. In the decades since, the people who have got the most mileage out of the tragedy have told a narrower story.
Photograph by Susan Weems / AP The New Yorker

12 Apr 2023 – The federal raid on the Branch Davidian compound, thirty years ago, was flawed from the start. The Branch Davidians were a fringe offshoot of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and, in the early nineties, they were led by David Koresh, a charismatic long-haired man who believed that the end of days was imminent. The Davidians lived on a compound called Mount Carmel, twenty miles northeast of Waco, and were well known to local law enforcement, who considered them relatively benign.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms suspected the Davidians of illegally converting semi-automatic rifles into fully automatic weapons. (The weapons allegations seemed to inspire more reason for action than reports that Koresh was sexually assaulting his followers’ underage daughters.) During the ensuing investigation, A.T.F. agents repeatedly overestimated their capacity for subterfuge. When a group of undercover agents posing as college students moved into a house across the street from the Branch Davidian compound, their rental cars gave them away. The agents hosted a party to deflect suspicion, but it had the opposite effect: “Some of the Branch Davidians showed up, mingled, and reported back to Koresh that these were federal agents for sure,” Jeff Guinn writes, in the recently published “Waco: David Koresh, the Branch Davidians, and a Legacy of Rage.” Another agent, Robert Rodriguez, posed as a potential follower to gain access to the group. Koresh quickly pegged him as a Fed but kept inviting him to Bible study anyway; after all, as he reminded his followers, Jesus had preached to a Roman centurion.

The day before the Sunday-morning raid, Treasury Department officials in Washington attempted to call it off, concerned that it relied on unnecessary force. Why couldn’t Koresh be arrested when he was away from the compound? But a plan, once in motion, has a certain momentum, and the A.T.F., which had a congressional budget hearing approaching, was in need of a splashy, successful operation. One A.T.F. agent was so confident that the mission would be over in a few hours that he booked tee time in Houston for Sunday afternoon.

On the morning of February 28, 1993, Rodriguez, still ostensibly undercover, listened as Koresh was tipped off that a raid was imminent. Rodriguez rushed to report the news to his superiors, sure that they would abort the mission, since the plans relied on maintaining the element of surprise. Instead, the raid proceeded, disastrously. Agents swarmed the compound and were met with heavy gunfire. When the battle ended, a few hours later, four federal agents and six Branch Davidians were dead, and many more wounded on both sides.

The fifty-one-day siege that followed deteriorated into the most dangerous kind of conflict, one in which both sides felt as though they were backed into a corner. This was much more true for the Branch Davidians, of course, who were barricaded in a compound with plenty of canned food and bullets but a dwindling water supply. But the federal agents surrounding them also felt a sense of desperation. The raid, intended as a show of A.T.F. competence, had instead devolved into a prolonged spectacle of defeat. “The hostages were not those Davidians in there,” Bob Ricks, the F.B.I. special agent in charge of the operation, said later. “The hostage in this whole process was the F.B.I. We had to respond to the demands of David Koresh. We were like actors in his play . . . In the final analysis, everything rested under the control of David Koresh.”

As the siege wore on, tensions emerged between the F.B.I.’s negotiators and its Hostage Rescue Team (H.R.T.), specialized units that preferred to resolve conflicts quickly, through the tactical use of force. (Shortly after the shoot-out, the F.B.I., which is responsible for investigating the deaths of federal agents, took command of the operation.) Negotiators believed that Koresh could eventually be coaxed into surrendering peacefully, though the dominant H.R.T. view was that Koresh was a liar who would never emerge of his own volition. The two F.B.I. factions were working at cross-purposes: a negotiator would make headway with the Davidians only to learn that the tactical team had just run over one of Koresh’s beloved vintage cars with a tank.

Weeks into the siege, Koresh claimed that he would surrender peacefully as soon as he finished writing a treatise on the Book of Revelation. Davidians had been communicating with the outside world via messages painted on bedsheets, hung out of windows. Then they displayed one reading “Let’s Have a Beer When This Is Over.” Instead, the tactical faction received approval to end the situation more rapidly. Early on the morning of April 19th, federal agents rammed the Mount Carmel building with tanks and pumped tear gas into the holes they had created. Around noon, someone reported seeing flames. Agents expected to see people flooding out of the building to surrender, but only nine did; more than seventy others, including two dozen children, were crushed as the building collapsed, died by suicide, or were killed in the fire. (One toddler died of a stab wound to the chest.) The government’s heavy-handed, deeply flawed approach enabled Koresh’s transmutation into a martyr.

The Branch Davidians appeared to see a kinship between their struggle and those of other victims of state violence; one of their bedsheet messages read “Rodney King We Understand.” In the decades since, the people who have got the most mileage out of the tragedy have told a narrower story, one of a powerful and oppressive federal government waging war on gun-loving, God-fearing citizens. (In this fable, the Davidians are implicitly coded as white, even though at least two dozen of them were not.) Timothy McVeigh travelled to Texas during the siege, where he sold bumper stickers with slogans like “Fear the Government That Fears Your Gun” and “A Man with a Gun Is a Citizen, A Man Without a Gun Is a Subject.” McVeigh, who was already steeped in white-supremacist rhetoric, became obsessively focussed on Waco. On the second anniversary of the fire, he blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, in Oklahoma City. Five years later, Alex Jones attached himself to efforts to rebuild a church in Mount Carmel. Jones was then twenty-five, had recently been fired from his job as a talk-radio host in Austin and had just launched Infowars. He led a memorial service, during which other speakers referred to the events in 1993 as “our second Alamo.” “All of it—it’s all about public opinion,” Jones told a reporter that day. A few months later, Jones would release a video, “America: Wake Up or Waco,” in which he claims that F.B.I. agents intentionally machine-gunned women and children. The film follows the template that Jones has used successfully ever since—using the government’s real failures to build a paranoid mythology that he bends to sinister ends.

That mythology, and its attendant rhetoric of grievance and aggression, is politically ascendant in many parts of the country, even as its most vocal proponents consider themselves beset on all sides by enemies. Earlier this month, congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene staged her own mini-confrontation with the A.T.F., showing up at a gun store in Smyrna, Georgia, during a routine inspection. “This is a prime example of Joe Biden and the Democrats weaponizing federal agencies to silence and intimidate their political opponents,” she tweeted later. “I fear this is just the beginning and they are directly targeting our Second Amendment and our right to protect and defend our families.” Koresh and his followers wanted to be left alone; the growing cohort of self-identified Christian nationalists want control of school boards, city councils, and state legislatures. The kind of tactical-firearms training that the Davidians used to prepare for their war with Babylon is now a significant nationwide industry, one that attracts dentists and real-estate agents to weekend classes on urban combat. And there are twice as many privately owned firearms in the U.S. as there were when the Waco siege took place.



Rachel Monroe is a contributing writer at The New Yorker, where she covers Texas and the Southwest.


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