Waco, Cults, and Ordinary Madness
A review of Waco: The Rules of Engagement
by Jon Lebkowsky
Originally published in Fringe Ware Review

Author's preface to this article.

Wake Up and Smell the Napalm

The oddest event at this year's South by Southwest Music and Media conference in Austin was a panel called "Koresh and the Waco Disaster: What Really Happened at Mt. Carmel?" Moderated by Texas Monthly's Joe Nick Patoski, the panel included Waco survivors Clive Doyle, Sheila Martin, and Catherine Matteson, along with attorney Terrence Kirk and Dick Reavis, the Dallas author who's writing what might be the definitive book on the Branch Davidians and the BATF raid. Media-saturated and rockroll exhausted, Monte and I managed to miss most of the SXSW panels this year, but we made a point of attending this one, if only because it was so contextually WEIRD. I mean, SXSW is about ENTERTAINMENT, folks are there to rock out and do bizness, they're not in town to have their shit disturbed by lawyers, jornalistas, and religious fanatics...

Fanatics, yes. The Branch Davidians have the kind of commitment that's easily classed as fanaticism, and they're also stereotyped as cultists armed to the teeth, demonized as the brainscrubbed mindless followers of a maniac with a God complex, who would rather burn to death in a fire than surrender to the forces of reason and social stability represented by the U.S. gooberment, the FBI and the ATF, and o'course the local citizenry, the residents of a town which before this was known to Texans as a drab god-fearing Baptist community where the streets roll up at night and everybody's punctual for the Sunday morning hymnfest.

My late father, whose relatives live in and around Waco and who lived his last years in Midland, another god-fearing Texas town, rose early Sunday morning to drive downtown and buy his stack of newsrags. "Let's go before the cultists hit the streets," he'd say to me, and it was sorta true... the fundamentalist Baptist, Church of Christ, and other Christian sects commonly found in mainstream Texas are cult-like after a fashion, if you look at 'em from the outside, but they seem so fucking normal when you're smack dab in the middle of that world. It's hard to grasp the strangeness of Christianity-as-blood-cult, and it's even harder to grok the stranger offshoots, the non-mainstream, clearly unorthodox branches, including the Branch Davidians, an Adventist sect that welcomes prophets as messengers of God deserving of transhuman amenities. Though monogamous, for instance, the Branch Davidians could accept David Koresh's multiple procreative liaisons with Davidian women, some of whom were fairly young, though as Clive Doyle notes, they were "mature" and had their parents' consent.

The prophecy thing is tricky. Though Texas fundamentalists might accept the validity of prophecy in principle, it's different, i.e. much more difficult, to accept a rock 'n rollin' arms dealer's claim to be a prophet, especially when he lives just down the road and seems, well, human in stature. Here you can get into the contrast between the portrait of clean blonde blue-eyed Jesus that hangs on so many southern walls with the dark-skinned wild-eyed radical that is the all-too-human historical Jesus. The Son of God and his prophets should be clean, thrifty, brave, reverent, and not especially weird... and weird guys claiming special favor with God may just be the kind of blasphemers that make good charcoal.

Lenny Bruce had a bit about the return of Christ and Moses... the priest and the rabbi were damn worried to see the boys coming back, it could be the end of a pretty good run. Or dig this from Sir James George Frazer's classic anthropological study The Golden Bough:

"In the thirteenth century there arose a sect called the Brethren and Sisters of the Free Spirit, who held that by long and assiduous contemplation any man might be united to the deity in an ineffable manner and become one with the source and parent of all things, and that he who had thus ascended to God and been absorbed in his beatific essence, actually formed part of the Godhead, was the Son of God in the same sense and manner with Christ himself, and enjoyed thereby a glorious immunity from the trammels of all laws human and divine. Inwardly transported by this blissful persuasion, though outwardly presenting in their aspect and manners a shocking air of lunacy and distraction, the sectaries roamed from place to place, attired in the most fantastic apparel and begging their bread with wild shouts and clamour, spurning indignantly every kind of honest labour and industry as an obstacle to divine contemplation and to the ascent of the soul towards the Father of spirits. In all their excursions they were followed by women with whom they lived on terms of the closest familiarity. Those of them who conceived they had made the greatest proficiency in the higher spiritual life dispensed with the use of clothes altogether in their assemblies, looking upon decency and modesty as marks of inward corruption, characteristics of a soul that still groveled under the dominion of the flesh and had not yet been elevated into communion with the divine spirit, its center and source. Sometimes their progress towards this mystic communion was accelerated by the Inquisition, and they expired in the flames, not merely with unclouded serenity, but with the most triumphant feelings of cheerfulness and joy."

Sounds kinda familiar, at least parts of it... like that last part, expired in the flames. Nonstandard Christians been doing that for a long time, mistaken for devils. Then again, if I was the devil come back to earth, I would tell everyone I was Christ, or maybe schwa, but I certainly wouldn't be self-revealing. Which is to say that the devils may all be saints, after all, and the saints may all be devils...

The Branch Davidian sect in Waco, which had lived quietly there since 1935 doing nothing in particular to attract attention, met an apocalyptic end in a battle with forces of government that we might charitably say were into Camus' definition of evil as ignorance, implicitly lacking malicious intent. Or we might say that this was a mistake that grew exponentially from the initial raid on the compound. BATF knew that the Davidians had guns, and they engaged, perhaps provoked, an armed response with their raid. Some of the BATF guys died, possibly from friendly fire, and a standoff began that went on almost two months before the fiery climax. According to Clive Doyle, the Davidians were all packed and assuming they would leave the compound when the final raid began. They had in fact been leaving , a few at a time, but their reluctance to leave grew as they saw how they would be treated. When grandmotherly Catherine Matteson left, for instance, she was cuffed and hauled to solitary confinement. Doyle also says that the government negotiators requested that they leave a few at a time for security purposes. So when all hell broke loose, they were sorta surprised. Ironically, they called 911 seeking help.

Since the SXSW panel I've been asking folks in the Austin and Waco areas about the Branch Davidians, the raids, etc. I get two kinds of responses, depending where the respondent goes for information. The folks whose media ecology is filled with mainstream news sources say that the Branch Davidians were a dangerous cult and the BATF and FBI were justified in their raid. It was a great media event, similar to Iraq; a marshmallow roast where you don't quite get from the media that those marshmallows are flesh and blood, including women and children.

Those who get their news from the Internet or from Libertarian sources have a different take. The government engaged in a conspiracy to harass the Branch Davidians, to wipe them out, and this conspiracy was followed by a coverup that continues, the cost being not only the lives of those who died at the compound but the absolute value of the lives of those few who are wasting away in prison...

The evidence seems to support the latter contention more than the former, but I'm not sure there was a conspiracy in the sense we'd normally think. I'm not sure that the U.S. Government is capable of organizing for conspiracy and pulling it off, though it's not clear that they've pulled anything off here (a later story, to be deferred for now). What I think really happened was that the BATF guys heard some bad reports about big weapons, and they'd seen too many movies, or too many episodes of COPS. They just went a little bit fucking bananas, and now they're covering their tracks... and probably sleeping at night, too, because the still believe they've ridded the world of a clear and present danger.

What they've really done is destroyed a community of men, women, and children who were perhaps deluded in their perception of the world, the universe, and the nature of things, but no more deluded than anyone. We live by our delusions. And they were armed, but they believed they were legally armed. They clearly weren't the Symbionese Liberation Army or an Arab terrorist front... they were just a bunch of folks living out their lives in a style that was a bit weird, in a cultural context that clashed with the mainstream. They died partly because they were misunderstood, but mostly because the media redefined and demonized them so that the simpler truth of their existence was lost.

The message in this, I think, is that you should turn off your television set, toss out your philosophical and religious tracts, quit believing what you read in the newsrags... step outside, take a deep breath, meet yer neighbors, and try fucking hard to live your life without destroying the fragile web of community and survival that are probably the only meaning you'll ever really have.

This article originally appeared in Fringe Ware Review #08, ISSN 1069-5656.
Compilation copyrights belong to FringeWare Inc.; article copyrights revert back to the author upon publication.
Please email comments to the author directly, or to the issue editors at fwr08@fringeware.com
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