More than four years after the fact, the federal government’s raid on the Branch Davidian compound in central Texas remains contentious. And it’s not just right-wingers harping about the government’s “atrocities.” Waco: The Rules of Engagement, a new, much-acclaimed documentary made by liberals, asserts that federal agents went after David Koresh and his followers, intent on slaughter and with their guns blazing. Where does the Waco debate stand now?
| David Koresh: Apocalyptic Nut?|
Several prominent academics and journalists argue that the government and press unfairly caricatured the Branch Davidians as “madmen” and “crazed fanatics,” when in fact Koresh and his followers have much in common with Pentecostal sects similarly obsessed with apocalyptic passages from the Bible’s Book of Revelations. The Davidians split from the Seventh-day Adventists in 1934, believing that the latter had strayed too far from the teachings of their apostle, Ellen White. The group’s only new theological twist: It believed that after Jesus’ Second Coming, the ancient Kingdom of Israel would be re-established in Palestine.
After Koresh assumed control of the Davidians in 1990, he added wrinkles of his own. He proclaimed himself a “latter-day Christ,” and believed in UFOs and the virtues of “killing for God.” He also cited Scripture to justify sleeping with young girls, and he forbade the 17 children he had sired from leaving the Mt. Carmel compound, outside Waco. But various independent accounts argue that Koresh attracted his several hundred followers (more than 100 lived with him in Mt. Carmel) using persuasive biblical exegesis, and not by brainwashing them.
| Why Did the Government Pursue Koresh?|
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, a division of the Department of the Treasury, began investigating Koresh in May 1992, suspicious that he was illegally converting semiautomatic guns into automatics. This suspicion appears to have been well founded: UPS delivered the parts needed to convert the weapons, a fact that several ex-cult members corroborated. (Also, two Davidians were later found guilty of possessing automatic weapons, and authorities found 48 automatic weapons at the scene after the fire.)
| Did the ATF Overreact?|
On Feb. 28, 1993, more than 80 well-armed ATF agents entered Mt. Carmel with a search warrant, looking for illegal arms. The agents had just completed three days of assault training with Green Berets at a nearby military base, having practiced for their Mt. Carmel raid with helicopters and armored trucks. The ATF says the firepower was a necessary precaution because its agents suspected that the Davidians possessed a large cache of grenades and guns. (Grenades were, indeed, found after the fire.) Critics say that the threat posed by the Davidians was dwarfed by the size of the assault, saying that the ATF could have avoided a confrontation by arresting Koresh outside the compound. The ATF says Koresh had not left Mt. Carmel for a month.
Eyewitnesses on each side say that the other side shot first. Regardless of who shot whom when, ATF agents say they were greeted by heavily armed men who used their guns within minutes of their arrival. In the course of the Feb. 28 battle, four agents and five Davidians died.
Should the FBI Have Waited Before Ending the Standoff?
When the Feb. 28 ATF raid ended in a cease-fire, the FBI began a 51-day blockade of the Davidians’ compound. More than 720 federal agents were imported to Waco for the operation. The FBI even engaged in psychological warfare, blasting the compound at high volume with a recording of Tibetan chanting. Koresh agreed to surrender in the first week of the siege, then recanted. Negotiations eventually resulted in the release of seven Davidians on March 21.
By mid-April, the FBI concluded–after 949 telephone conversations with the Davidians spanning 214 hours–that the group would only surrender under threat of force. In 1996, the FBI blockaded the radical Freemen group in Montana for 81 days, eventually convincing it to surrender. Critics charge that the FBI could have convinced Koresh to back down by displaying such patience and deploying negotiators who better understood Davidian theology.