On Oct. 24, 1999, in the Austin, Texas newspaper, the FBI supervisor
at the Waco raid defended the agency’s actions. Aside from gross
distortions of fact, his thesis came down to this: if the Davidians had
simply complied with the government’s demands, there would have been no
fire and no deaths.
A defense of the NKVD in 1929-30 Russia might make the same point.
Sure, more than ten thousand priests were arrested and killed. Sure,
nearly 7,000 churches were closed or destroyed. But the Soviets never
made the mere practicing of religion a crime; they only imposed the
death penalty for “destabilizing the state” while doing so.
The promise of a free society is that all of us, even eccentrics, can
live in peace so long as we don’t bother our neighbors. Certainly a
far-away central government is not justified in attacking peaceful
people. Yet here we had the feds surrounding a group of believers and
attempting to drive them out of their home by gunfire; most of the
killings took place later,
once the government realized they weren’t going to give in. Even to this
day, the victims of the aggression are the only ones to be put on trial.
The political symbolism of Waco refuses to go away. For millions it
represents the true face of the U.S. government, not an enforcer of
rights or a keeper of public order, but a threat to rights and a creator
of mayhem. Far from being a victory for government, then, the episode
served as a landmark in the collapse of a huge range of myths about the
central state. This is why the issue of precisely what happened in this
remote area of Texas continues to be so politically charged.
I recently visited Waco, and it was a tremendous experience. The
weather was bleak and the land flat and dry. Mt. Carmel sits on
something of a hill, and is therefore windier than the surrounding
territory (which explains why the flames spread so quickly). The spot
where the church stood is most definitely in the rural middle of
nowhere, miles from the city limits, and could not have bothered anyone.
In the little shack that serves as a museum, there is an aerial photo
of the “compound,” as the government called it, as it used to exist. The
picture is quite startling. It was a huge complex of interconnected
buildings, not unattractive architecturally, with a church, gym, rooms
for married and single residents, kitchens, and everything else a small
community would need.
The structure was wood, painted beige with green shutters and a black
roof. It was not fancy construction, but it was nice. It was surrounded
by lawns, an orchard, beehives, gardens, and a huge swimming pool for
the children that was being built by the men of the church when the
attackers came. I can see why this or similar photos were never shown.
It does not look like the headquarters of a crazy sect.
The mountain of debris created by the tanks and the fire has been
removed, although there are still two huge, burned-out buses that were
far from the house, but which were torched by the feds anyway, just as
they crushed every car and tractor. There are still children’s bikes
there, broken and ground into the dirt. In the museum are the “trophy”
photos of the FBI and BATF agents in military dress, yucking it up in
victorious “high-five” poses against the ashes of a mass grave.
The town of Waco itself is a nice, small city traumatized by its
association with the Branch
Davidians, break-off Seventh-Day Adventists. Like every other town in
Texas, and most other places in the country, there is a huge number of
churches, some undoubtedly with beliefs just as unorthodox as the
Davidians. I passed a strange-looking church in town called The Open
Door for Hiz Kidz. Such is the nature of religious freedom.
Most inspiring, there are more than 100 volunteers working to rebuild
the church, and, they hope, the entire complex. None of them is Branch
Davidian; all the remaining church members are in jail, too old, or
brutally burned in the fire, some with no fingers or toes. The
volunteers are nice, ordinary people, traumatized and radicalized by
what they saw their own government do. The day I visited, everyone was
happy because the dog who lives at the site had just given birth to six
puppies. The first thing the initial BATF assaulters did was to kill all
the dogs and puppies outside the “compound.”
People come from hundreds of miles to help. They do so, as an Austin
businessman told me, “to strike a blow against the New World Order,” to
help the “victims of the government,” to “try to make up in a small way
for the murders the government committed.” A lady rancher donated a
flagpole for the church flag she is having sewn. Another volunteer has
lived there seven-days a week, 24-hours a day in a tent to guard the
site. There have been vandals (some who’ve tossed rocks at the man
guarding the place), and all the volunteers fear the half-built church
being burned down and are determined to prevent it. The slogan of the
volunteers: You Burn It, We
The money trickles in, some of it from the visitors who come every
day from all over the country and the world. Why do they come? To see
for themselves, to mourn, and to express their anger. The press is there
too, particularly the European press. I just missed the BBC and the
London Daily Mail.
Nearby, the church volunteers have planted a grove of crepe myrtles
for all those killed, including the two babies born in spontaneous
abortions during the fire. There is a small marble plaque at the base of
each tree, with the name, birth date, and death date (all April 19). One
is reminded of just how many children died. Not the 17 of federal
propaganda (since they counted as children only those eight and under), but
30 (17 and under).
There is also a large marble tombstone with everyone’s name on it,
placed by the Northeast Texas Militia of Texarkana. And there are
memorials to the four BATF agents killed in the original assault, and to
those killed in the Oklahoma bombing. The fancy BATF memorial in Waco
does not mention the Davidians. Their lives, after all, don’t matter,
any more than their privacy and property mattered. That is the message
the feds sent at Waco, and continue to send to all of us.