Twenty-five years ago, the FBI assaulted the home and church of a religious sect in Waco Texas. Seventy-six Branch Davidian members were left dead, including 27 children.
Curious about how this history is taught or known by millennials, I asked my nephew, a well-informed college history major, what if anything he knew about this stain upon our history. I asked, “What do you know about the FBI raid at Waco?” He seemed to have heard something about it, but couldn’t think of what. When pressed, he guessed, “[i]t has something to do with Nixon?”
For some Americans, myself included, the federal government’s activities at Waco represent a realization and dissolution of trust or belief in the benevolence of those in power akin to Watergate. Here’s a thumbnail sketch of the history we mourn on this anniversary, which has nothing to do with Richard Nixon, and everything to do with malfeasance, and indifference at the hands of many, and chiefly, the FBI.
ATF Publicity Raid Goes Wrong
On February 28, 1993, almost 80 agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms conducted a dynamic entry, assault-style raid on the Davidians property at Waco*. This was the location of their church, and where many of them lived as well. After a UPS driver saw some inert grenades** from an open package, he complained to the county sheriff, who informed the ATF.
An offshoot of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, the Davidians were led by David Koresh, who had been profiled on Australian T.V. and in print in the U.S., and unflatteringly so. His hometown paper dubbed him “The Sinful Messiah” for alleged sexual improprieties. The ATF opened an investigation on him after the UPS driver report. At the time the ATF as an entity was on the ropes. In doubt due to numerous scandals including pervasive and severe racism and sexual harassment, as well as incompetent mismanagement, they thought the Waco raid was to be their saving grace.
ATF officials thought raiding a “crazy” cult leader would put them back in the spotlight in a positive way, ensuring good will and funding in Congress at the forthcoming budget hearing in March. According to policy analyst and researcher David Kopel, 60 Minutes host Mike Wallace said that almost all the agents he talked to believed the attack “was a publicity stunt–the main goal of which was to improve ATF’s tarnished image,” and that “[t]he code-word for the beginning of the BATF raid was showtime.”
It did not go well. Choosing a Sunday, when all parishioners and their children would be present, the ATF stormed the Davidians’ property on February 28, 1993. They drove cattle trucks with agents hiding under tarps up the long driveway to the main property. They claim the Davidians started shooting first, but the Davidians claim the agents started shooting first. Four ATF agents were killed that day, and many more were wounded, while six of the church members were killed. ATF would later claim they were “ambushed” by the Davidians, but the undisputed facts counter this claim. Koresh called 911 imploring “[t]here are 75 men around our building, and they’re shooting at us. … Tell ’em there are children and women in here and to call it off!” Hardly an ambush.
This was a prolonged firefight, and the ATF ran out of ammunition. The Davidians could have killed all or most of the federal agents if that’s what they desired. ATF agent Chuck Hustmyre said:
About 45 minutes into the shootout, the volume of gunfire finally started to slacken. We were running out of ammunition. The Davidians, however, had plenty.
After the ATF stopped shooting at them, the Davidians let the federal agents recover their casualties and retreat from the property. Thus began a 51-day standoff.
The FBI assumed command of the area shortly after the botched assault.
The weeks that followed included nine tanks patrolling the property, continually demolishing many of the structures, as well as sleep deprivation measures such as blasting the sounds of rabbits being slaughtered all-night.
Aware of successful efforts against other groups using similar tactics, President Clinton thought they should simply wait them out. Attorney General Janet Reno had other plans. She fought hard for another assault on the compound, arguing that the siege was costing upward of a million dollars a day and that the FBI’s elite Hostage Rescue Team was tired from being deployed for so long.
To Save the Kids, Sometimes You Have to Kill Them
Reno won, getting approval from Clinton for her plan to attack the property and those inside. Instituting a chemical weapons attack on the Davidians, tanks broke through the building walls with huge appendages pumping their poison directly into the Davidians refuge. Among the most disturbing results of the assault was the broken back disfigurement of children — the result of the gassing, severe enough to invoke involuntarily muscle contractions with enough force to break bones.
Then there was a fire. The federal government says the Davidians started the fire. The Davidians say they did not, that the FBI assault caused it. Broadcast live to the world on CNN, it engulfed the property with great speed, killing all the adults and children who remained alive.
This sketch is not close to complete, but does, hopefully, indicate the horror of it all. It’s fair to say that 169 more deaths can be attributed to the incident. Two years after the slaughter at Waco, Timothy McVeigh committed the deadliest attack in U.S. history prior to September 11th with the Oklahoma City bombing. He visited Waco during the standoff, and after. He chose April 19th, 1995 to attack the Murrah federal building in response to the massacre of the Davidians two years prior.
For a thorough look at these issues and the many more space prevents us from covering, see the film Waco, The Rules of Engagement, posted below.
*The Davidians’ property was at the time of the raid and thereafter, often referred to as a “compound.” This gives rise to the notion that it was fortified or otherwise unwholesome. This was typical of the coverage, where what was essentially a large church property was defined, without evidence or explanation in ways to make the Davidians seem aggressive or anti-social.
** Inert grenades are perfectly legal and used for paperweights and such. They are as explosive as any piece of metal, which is to say, not at all, but they may look scary to the uninformed. Containing no parts of a grenade beyond the metal shell, they are legal and completely non-dangerous or hazardous.