If you were near a television set on April 19, 1993, you will never forget
the sight of the Mt. Carmel religious community in Waco, Texas, going up in
flames. For weeks we followed the standoff with bewilderment. What precisely
had these people done to justify the Feds surrounding them with tanks? Yes,
some members of the community shot at some federal police, but in
self-defense: their home was being invaded by a horde, and evidence suggests
the Feds fired first.

Whatever the reason, as the weeks passed, the officials were growing
frustrated and increasingly angry. The Davidians were humiliating them. This
was clear from the television interviews with officials. They felt that they
had given David Koresh more than enough chances. And then, as the tanks
moved in and began pounding down the walls, the building went up in flames,
killing more than 90 men, women, and children.

The government killed them. Or least most people assumed so. Coming on the
heels of several military aggressions abroad, big government appeared to be
riding high after Clinton’s 1992 victory, and with the dramatic increase in
the size and aggressiveness of the federal police state, it seemed highly
likely, even certain, that the BATF and the FBI simply decided to send these
problem people to their deaths.

What was to stop the agents from doing so? Does anyone really believe that
these agents were just too caring and law-abiding to have done it? If that
were true, the Feds wouldn’t have tortured the people inside with recorded
rabbit death screams played at high volume, cut off their water and
electricity, and generally tried to drive them out of their homes, let alone
pumped the church full of a poisonous tear gas banned for use against
soldiers under international law. One by one the excuses for federal
behavior evaporated: drugs, guns, child abuse, and aggressive political
dissent weren’t the reason.

After the massacre, the denials began. Clinton said they killed themselves.
Reno echoed that same view. At congressional hearings, all the officers
involved denied setting the fire. Elaborate scenarios were concocted,
without a shred of evidence, designed to show how Koresh had started the
fire. The Feds were indignant that anyone would doubt their word, and
insulting to anyone who questioned their motives.

It’s taken six years, but this may be coming to an end. Senior FBI types
have always denied using any weaponry that could have ignited the church.
But a former FBI official, Danny O. Coulson, has said that the FBI fired
devices called M651 CS tear gas grenades before the compound went up in
flames. This is the first time any government official contradicted
assertions to the contrary.

An Army training manual says that these devices lead to fires and sometimes
even explode on impact. And yet even this whistle-blower doubts the devices
led to the fire itself. That has led some people to doubt that Coulson
himself is telling the whole truth. After all, his admission comes only
after independent research got hold of pictures of the empty canisters held
with other evidence by the Texas Rangers.

Even if Coulson is serving as a front man, the Justice Department at first
denied it. “We are aware of no evidence to support the notion that any
pyrotechnic devices were used by the federal government on April 19.” After
all, agents have testified under oath that they did not introduce firebombs
into the building.

With reluctance, the FBI is now inching towards telling the truth. Janet
Reno now says, “It is
absolutely critical that we do everything humanly possible to learn all the
facts as accurately as possible and make them available to the Congress and
public.” But her statement assumes she is somehow the victim of lies as
versus the leading perpetrator of them. Are we to assume that the government
has switched from a six-year cover-up to being a source of truth and

The government’s handling of this case from beginning has been a moral
outrage. It is not enough that the Justice Department targeted the peaceful
Davidians for reasons that are still unclear. It is not enough that they
attempted to starve them out of house and home and then massacred them. It
is not enough that the Feds immediately plowed the land under and destroyed
evidence, arrogantly planting a US government flag in the mass grave.

But to continue to show no regret, much less remorse, about the incident,
except to attempt to make martyrs of the attacking agents themselves, and to
continue to tell lie after lie, raises fundamental questions. The federal
law-enforcement apparatus is misnamed.

For my perspective, it wouldn’t affect the question of federal guilt if the
Davidians did burn their own community. It is an outrage that the Davidians
were targeted in the first place. It is an outrage that the government,
filled with officials who have sworn to uphold the Constitution, tried to
starve out a religious community. If it turned out that Koresh, driven crazy
by the government, finally set the place on fire, it wouldn’t change the
fact that Waco represents an appalling abuse of power.

But, as usual in these cases, suspecting the worst of the government is the
best posture for getting at the truth. Anyone who has seen the movie, “Waco:
The Rules of Engagement” — which shows that the FBI machine-gunned the
burning building to prevent anyone from getting out — or read any of the
shelf of books out on the subjects, knows precisely who is to blame. And
politicians and intellectuals wonder whatever happened to the civic pride of
the good old days? The answer: it went up in flames at Waco. No amount of
back peddling can change that now.

Beyond the precise details of the case, Waco teaches us something important
about the nature of government. It hates dissent, and it doesn’t hesitate to
kill its opponents. What happened to the Branch Davidians also happened to
the Serbians, and continues to happen to the Iraqis. We are reminded once
again that the State, as Albert Jay Nock explained, is the enemy of
civilized life.

Note: Read our discussion guidelines before commenting.