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The government and the Branch Davidian attorneys are both spinning
madly in the wake of a re-enactment of the infamous assault of April 19,
1993 on the home of this minority religious group in Waco that led to
the fiery deaths of more than 80 Davidians including at least 20
children. And as long as the judge has sealed the tapes pending review
by independent experts for the court, both sides can spin as actively as
they like.

The question at issue, of course, was whether the FBI or other
government agents fired shots into the Davidians’ home on that fateful
day — perhaps even firing at people who were trying to escape the
holocaust that was certainly caused by government action. Filmmaker Mike
McNulty, who managed to obtain the Forward Looking Infrared (FLIR) video
shot from a surveillance plane circling the site that day, has made a
strong case in his two films that the government side fired shots, which
the government has denied from the outset. On the FLIR tape certain
flashes certainly look like gunfire, and respected experts in
interpreting FLIR material are willing to say it looks like gunfire to
them.

Thus the re-enactment. If conditions were duplicated as closely as
possible and the same type of camera was used to record the action, and
shots were fired during the re-enactment, would they look the same as on
the 1993 FLIR tape? Federal judge Walter Smith, who has been
surprisingly willing to hold the government’s feet to the fire on a
number of issues and ordered the re-enactment, says, “the tapes are not
part of the public domain.” But government and plaintiff attorneys
looked at them and they will be released later.

So government attorney Mike Bradford can maintain in public that “the
preliminary review that we saw, we think, does substantiate our position
that there was not gunfire that day. And Davidian attorney Mike Caddell
can say that “It clearly demonstrates that there was government
gunfire.”

In the end, after close study by experts, the re-enactment might not
prove conclusive. It might be that shiny objects and junk on the ground
look the same to a FLIR camera as muzzle flashes, as the government has
contended.

The test is undoubtedly important to the Branch Davidian survivors
who, after being stonewalled and abused by the government have finally
made some progress through a civil wrongful death suit. But other
questions and issues are relevant to the wrongful death suit. And from a
public policy perspective, while what happened on April 19, 1993 was the
most attention-grabbing and horrific aspect of the siege of Mt. Carmel,
it might not even be the most important aspect of the overall event.

It should be remembered that the tragic — or murderous — events of
April 19 were the culmination of a 51-day siege by an increasingly
impatient group of federales. As we try to get to the bottom of what
happened that day, however, it should be worthwhile to remember what led
up to it.

The initial assault on the Branch Davidian church was undertaken by
the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, based on extremely faulty
affidavits alleging that illegal weapons alterations and sales were
going on at the Waco retreat house. In order to bring the U.S. military
into the fray to provide equipment and training, the BATF also alleged
– on the basis of evidence many of its agents almost surely knew was
totally bogus — that the Davidians were involved in drug manufacturing
and trafficking. They also recycled discredited — or at least unproven
– allegations of child abuse.

It might be difficult to remember, but at the time the BATF had some
reasonably valid fears for its institutional life. Both the Reagan and
the Bush administrations had entertained thoughts of abolishing the old
Prohibition-era relic and folding its few remaining functions into other
agencies. Congressional hearings into the BATF budget were scheduled
within the next couple of weeks. It is almost certainly true — at least
there’s plenty of circumstantial evidence — that the “dynamic entry”
assault on the Branch Davidians was intended as a showy display of BATF
prowess intended in part to justify a boost in the budget.

If the main object had been to capture David Koresh, the Branch
Davidian leader who was supposedly the chief perpetrator of the
imaginary weapons violations, that could have been accomplished without
an assault. Koresh went into town regularly to buy supplies and he went
jogging. He could have been picked up without much fuss. But this wasn’t
what the BATF — a poster child for the increasingly militarized and
brutal federal law enforcement minions — wanted. They wanted a big
show.

The big show was planned with almost criminal incompetence, however.
The Branch Davidians knew it was planned and some were ready to resist.
The “dynamic entry” didn’t go smoothly and the battle devolved into a
standoff.

At that point, the decent thing to do would have been — as I
suggested in a column during the standoff — to apologize profusely to
the Davidians and withdraw. But the macho instinct was aroused and the
pressure on the Davidians was intensified. Most of the evidence
indicates that the FBI, which took over chief responsibility for
managing the fiasco the BATF had created, never negotiated in good
faith, but instead laid the groundwork for an eventual attack.

The feds never tried to understand the religious impulses that drove
the Davidians and repeatedly rebuffed the good-faith offers of numerous
religious leaders to try to mediate. The holocaust of April 19 or
something like it thus became virtually inevitable.

This touches on another issue that received a good deal of attention
at the time but has faded in many memories since then. Just what were
the feds doing targeting — to a shameful extent with the active
participation of the “free press” — a minority religion in the first
place? Certainly David Koresh and the Branch Davidians were unusual in
their beliefs and practices. But in a country whose First Amendment
grants virtually absolute religious liberty — what else could “Congress
shall make no law” mean? — being weird and unusual in one’s religious
practices should be protected by the government rather than assaulted by
the government.

As horrific as the events of April 19 were, therefore, they were
preceded by acts that, from the standpoint of traditional American
liberties, were possibly even more horrific if not so deadly. The plot
to assault the Branch Davidians and the 51-day stand-off — during which
the news media were tightly (and for the most part happily) controlled
by stonewalling feds — deserve at least as much attention as the final
holocaust. In terms of future public policy and preventing future
tragedies, they may hold more lessons than the final day does.

Presumably the commission led by former Missouri Republican Sen. John
Danforth, by all accounts a decent and honorable man, will investigate
and report on these aspects of the case as well as poring over FLIR
films of the final day. If it doesn’t, it won’t do the country much
good.

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