Burning Questions
By Jacob Sullum

The Ashes of Waco: An Investigation, by Dick J. Reavis, New York: Simon & Schuster, 320 pages, $24.00

Armageddon in Waco: Critical Perspectives on the Branch Davidian Conflict, edited by Stuart A. Wright, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 394 pages, $15.95 paper

Why Waco?: Cults and the Battle for Religious Freedom in America, by James D. Tabor and Eugene V. Gallagher, Berkeley: University of California Press, 252 pages, $24.95

In 1979, the year after more than 900 followers of Jim Jones committed suicide in the Guyanese jungle, I attended a gathering sponsored by the National Conference of Synagogue Youth (NCSY) where a speaker warned us about the dangers posed by "cults." He said cult members reach out to young people, pretend to be their friends, and invite them on retreats where food is meager, group activities such as prayer and singing are emphasized, and new recruits are never left alone, lest they start thinking for themselves. To me and several other wise guys in the group, this sounded a lot like an NCSY convention. It was an observation we could laugh at, because clearly there was a big difference between a youth group run by the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America and loony cults like the Moonies and the Hare Krishnas. Superficial similarities aside, one was legitimate and respectable while the others were weird and vaguely sinister.

That sort of confidence, reinforced by decades of propaganda against unconventional religious groups, helped set the stage for the deaths of 80 men, women, and children at the Mt. Carmel Center near Waco, Texas, in 1993. As Texas journalist Dick J. Reavis writes in his thorough and lively account, The Ashes of Waco, "The line between churches, which Americans believe should be protected from government interference, and cults, which most Americans hold in disdain, has nothing to do with the Constitution — whose First Amendment in theory shields both — and everything to do with the prejudices of a nation that has grown fearful of the diversity that made it nearly unique."

Several contributors to Armageddon in Waco, an informative but sometimes dry and repetitive collection of essays edited by Lamar University sociologist Stuart A. Wright, make similar points. "The failure of normally open-minded people to protect religious pluralism has allowed contemporary witch-hunters to declare open season on marginal religions or 'cults,'" writes James R. Lewis, editor of Syzygy: Journal of Alternative Religion and Culture. "The Branch Davidians' chances for a fair hearing were severely damaged as soon as the label 'cult' was applied."

Two professors of religious studies, James D. Tabor of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and Eugene V. Gallagher of Connecticut College, argue eloquently and persuasively in Why Waco? that the central failure of federal negotiators after the aborted February 28 raid by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms was their unwillingness — or inability — to take the beliefs of the Branch Davidians seriously. The cult stereotype told them that David Koresh was a cynical con man who had tricked or brainwashed his followers for his own personal gain. Furthermore, the negotiators did not have the background to understand Koresh's extended biblical exegesis ("One of the FBI negotiators admitted," write Tabor and Gallagher, "that some of them initially thought the Seven Seals of the book of Revelation, about which Koresh talked incessantly, were animals"), and they failed to consult with anyone who did. So they soon lost patience with Koresh's "Bible babble," which they considered a meaningless distraction.

From the perspective of the Branch Davidians, however, the religious significance of the standoff with the federal government was all important. "The only effective way to communicate with Koresh," write Tabor and Gallagher, "was with-in the biblically based apocalyptic 'world' he inhabited, taking advantage of the inherent flexibility that the situation at Mt. Carmel presented." If the Branch Davidians perceived the standoff with the FBI as fulfilling the martyrdom foreseen by biblical prophecy, they would prefer to die rather than surrender. But if they could be convinced that the final confrontation had not yet arrived, a peaceful resolution was still possible.

Tabor and another Bible scholar, Philip Arnold, apparently succeeded in convincing Koresh, by way of a discussion on the radio, that the Seven Seals passage in the Book of Revelation, central to the Branch Davidian faith, did not require him and his followers to die in the spring of 1993. Tabor and Arnold argued that the relevant prophecy left open the possibility of an interlude during which Koresh would explain his interpretation of the Seven Seals to the world. On April 14, Koresh released a letter to his attorney, Dick DeGuerin, in which he declared that God had given him permission to surrender once he had completed a written explanation of the Seven Seals. "As soon as I see that people like Jim Tabor and Phil Arnold have a copy I will come out and then you can do your thing with this beast," he wrote, offering "to stand before man to answer any and all questions regarding my actions."

Upon being informed of the letter, Jeff Jamar, the FBI special agent in charge at the scene, reassured DeGuerin that "we've got all the time it takes," even though he knew that meetings were being held in Washington that day to plan the tank-and-tear-gas assault that the FBI would mount four days later. After Mt. Carmel went up in flames, Jamar said he viewed the letter as a delaying tactic, a claim he reiterated at congressional hearings last summer. Yet Koresh was in fact hard at work on his exegesis, and he completed the first section of it just before the final attack. A survivor brought it out with her on a computer disk, and the text appears in an appendix to Tabor and Gallagher's book. They estimate that he would have completed the document in another week or so.

In arguing that Koresh could not be trusted to keep his promise, the FBI noted that he had agreed to come out on March 2, after a one-hour message he prepared was broadcast on the radio, only to renege because, he said, God had told him to wait. But as Tabor and Gallagher note, after this point Koresh's position was consistent: He was waiting for permission from God. On April 14 he said he had received it. The FBI agents not only did not believe that Koresh was communicating with God; they did not believe that he believed it. And it was this blindness, more than anything else, that made a violent end inevitable.

In Armageddon in Waco, Nancy T. Ammerman, a theologian who prepared a report on the operation for the Justice and Treasury departments, quotes a March 8 memo from two FBI agents, Pete Smerick and Mark Young, who had more insight than their colleagues: "It has been speculated that Koresh's religious beliefs are nothing more than a con, in order to get power, money, women, etc., and that a strong show of force (tanks, APC's, weapons, etc.) will crumble that resolve, causing him to surrender. In fact, the opposite very well may also occur, whereby the presence of that show of force will draw David Koresh and his followers closer together in the 'bunker mentality,' and they would rather die than surrender." Smerick and Young warned that "we may unintentionally make his prophecy [of martyrdom] come true, if we take what he perceives to be hostile or aggressive action."

Trying to explain why the FBI did not heed such warnings, Ammerman reports that her interviews with federal agents suggest they were inclined to dismiss Koresh's beliefs for various reasons. "For at least some of those involved," she writes, "religion itself is a foreign category. They have little experience with religion themselves, and they do not really understand how anyone could believe in a reality not readily provable by empirical means." Others grew up with religion but later rejected it, while still others were themselves religious and considered the Davidians heretics. (As all three of these books show, the Davidians' beliefs were close enough to those of "respectable" religious groups to elicit charges of heresy. Koresh's followers were essentially deviationist Seventh Day Adventists, not some random cult inspired by extraterrestrials. And Koresh, by the way, claimed to be a Christ — from the Greek for messiah, meaning "anointed one" — not Jesus Christ.) I would add a fourth category of skeptics to those suggested by Ammerman: Many people who are ostensibly religious — going to church, celebrating holidays, observing rituals — do not truly believe, and have difficulty understanding those for whom religion is not just something cozy and familiar but the central organizing principle of life.

The upshot of all this was a fundamental misperception of the situation at Mt. Carmel. Confronted by deeply committed believers who were happy where they were, the FBI saw hostages who needed to be rescued. Even if that perception had been correct, the bureau's handling of the situation can only be described as bizarre. As the Justice Department report would later concede, the negotiators were working at cross purposes with the FBI's tactical personnel, trying to build a rapport while their colleagues sought to intimidate and harass the Davidians by crushing their cars, blaring loud music and obnoxious sounds, and cutting off their electricity.

One of the strongest impressions left by these three books is that sheer incompetence goes a long way toward explaining what happened at Mt. Carmel. Reavis's description of BATF preparations for the bureau's February 28 raid is comical. To conduct what was supposed to be clandestine surveillance of the Branch Davidians, several BATF agents moved into a nearby house. They told residents of Mt. Carmel they had come from West Texas to attend Texas State Technical College in Waco. Yet they were all in their 30s and 40s, and they drove new cars that (as the Davidians discovered) were registered in Houston, on the eastern side of the state. When Branch Davidians who had attended TSTC asked about teachers and administrators there, they got blank stares. One of the agents claimed to have been a ranch foreman in West Texas, but when he was asked how many head of cattle an acre of land there could support, he had no answer. Another agent said he was a novice with guns yet showed off expensive weapons that had been specially modified. Finally, passers-by could see telephoto camera lenses in the windows of the house.

After you read about this little misadventure, it's not so hard to believe that BATF officials would choose to proceed with the "surprise" raid even after they learned that the Davidians were expecting them (though Reavis doubts the element of surprise was ever considered that important, since the BATF was accustomed to bad guys who surrendered when confronted by overwhelming force). Four agents and six Davidians were killed in the ensuing shoot-out.

In a sense, The Ashes of Waco answers the question of who fired first: BATF agents, shooting the Davidians' dogs. Under the circumstances, it would not be surprising if residents of Mt. Carmel responded to these initial shots by firing at their attackers. But Reavis concludes there's not enough evidence to decide if that's what happened, or if, as the Davidians claimed, the BATF fired at them first. Tabor and Gallagher note that "the surviving videotape footage of the shoot-out shows BATF agents firing heavily and randomly at the building, but the cars and trucks behind which they are crouched show no signs of return fire — windshields are intact, no dust is being kicked up around them. As Reavis reports, the two attorneys who visited Mt. Carmel after the raid said they saw bullet holes consistent with the Davidians' claim that they were fired upon from a helicopter. In this context, the indignation displayed last summer by Rep. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) at the very suggestion that the BATF might have fired first is almost as silly as his amazement at the price of breakfast cereal.

Reavis, who is meticulous and fair-minded in sifting through conflicting accounts, also remains agnostic on the question of how the final conflagration started. He does not rule out the possibility that the government's tanks helped start the fire by knocking over lanterns and cans of fuel, and he notes that the rounds of tear gas (technically, CS powder) that the FBI fired into the building contained the petroleum derivative methylene chloride. "Used in a confined space," he writes, methylene chloride "threatened to create conditions conducive to fire, explosion, and death by poison gas." Reavis suggests that the fire may have been ignited by incendiary devices used by the Davidians against their attackers. "Those tanks are not fireproof, you know," Koresh had warned the FBI in March.

Whoever started the fire, the government clearly made it more lethal, and not just by failing to have fire-fighting equipment nearby, despite fears that the confrontation would end in flames. "Rather than creating escape routes," Reavis writes, "the tanks that rammed Mt. Carmel closed them. They demolished the stairways connecting the building's first and second floors, and also pushed debris over a trapdoor leading to a buried school bus, whose exit opened to the fresh air outside. The bodies of six women were found within feet of the trapdoor, dead of smoke inhalation."

Six other women and children were killed by falling chunks of concrete knocked loose during the attack (which was accompanied by the incantation, "This is not an assault," over the FBI's loudspeakers). In light of these details, President Clinton's summary of Mt. Carmel's demise — "some religious fanatics murdered themselves" — is obscene.

As these books show, that was just one of the more egregious whoppers in a pattern of public deception that began the moment the BATF raid became known. With almost complete control of information reaching members of the press, who were not permitted to contact the Davidians or approach Mt. Carmel, FBI officials were free to pass propaganda off as news. Some of their lies were petty, such as the claim, dissected by Reavis, that the Davidians refused to accept a delivery of milk for their children. Others had serious consequences, such as the recycled allegations of child abuse, carefully examined by University of Texas sociologist Christopher G. Ellison and doctoral student John P. Bartkowski in Armageddon in Waco, that Attorney General Janet Reno claimed had motivated her decision to approve the final attack. "We had information that babies were being beaten," she said.

But Ellison and Bartkowski find that, while the Davidians (like millions of parents throughout the country) did use corporal punishment, the allegations of severe beatings were based on accusations by a few apostates prior to 1990. While they reserve judgment on the accuracy of those reports, they note that Texas investigators did not find evidence to substantiate them and that the children released during the siege, who seemed genuinely fond of Koresh, showed no signs of abuse. Reno also suggested that the children were suffering because of unsanitary conditions at Mt. Carmel, but she failed to note that the siege had contributed to those conditions (by preventing the Davidians from disposing of human waste, for example). On the other hand, Ellison and Bartkowski conclude that Koresh probably did violate Texas law by having sex with teenage girls (with their parents' consent) as part of his effort to produce offspring that he believed would play a special role in fulfilling biblical prophecy.

As Reavis reports, much of the government's incompetence and duplicity was revealed at the trial of 11 surviving Branch Davidians in 1994. The jury rejected the main thrust of the prosecution's case, acquitting the Davidians of conspiring to murder federal agents. (Because the prosecutors argued that the defendants joined the conspiracy by becoming Koresh's followers, the "crime" essentially consisted of adopting certain religious
beliefs.) Three Branch Davidians were found not guilty on all counts. Seven were found guilty of aiding and abetting the voluntary manslaughter of federal officials; of these, five were also found guilty of carrying a firearm during the commission of a violent crime. Two were found guilty of the weapon violations that were the pretext for the BATF raid that set the whole fiasco into motion. Subsequent comments by the forewoman made it clear that the jurors expected the convicted Davidians to be lightly punished. "Even five years is too severe a penalty for what we believed to be a minor charge," she said.

But the jurors made a mistake. They were not supposed to find the Davidians guilty of carrying a firearm during the commission of a violent offense unless they also found them guilty of the murder conspiracy charge. Judge Walter Smith Jr. initially said he would resolve the inconsistency by setting aside the firearm conviction. Later he changed his mind, declaring that the Davidians were guilty of conspiracy to murder the BATF agents, even though the jury had found the opposite. Smith imposed 40-year sentences on five of the defendants and gave three others sentences of 20, 15, and five years, respectively. He ordered each of these eight to pay $1.2 million in restitution to the BATF and FBI.

After relating this final outrage, two of the books conclude by alluding to verdicts yet to come. In Armageddon in Waco, Dean M. Kelley, counselor on religious liberty for the National Council of Churches (and author of a fine retrospective on Waco that appeared in the May 1995 issue of First Things), notes that history sorts out the great religions from the obscure cults. Centuries from now the Davidians who died at Mt. Carmel may be remembered as saintly martyrs. Reavis closes The Ashes of Waco by noting the survivors' confidence that God will vindicate them on the Day of Judgment, when Koresh will return to Earth. The record of the government's dealings with the residents of Mt. Carmel suggests that it's more reasonable to hope for justice from heaven or history than to expect it here and now.


Jacob Sullum (JSullum@reason.com) is a senior editor of REASON.


The Waco Massacre Serendipity Home Page