Waco and 20 Years of State Terror
There is something about April. From Columbine to Virginia Tech, from Oklahoma City to Boston, mid-to-late April occasions some of the most infamous massacres on U.S. soil. At least, these are the ones we are told to focus on. The killers are called terrorists. Unless they wear uniforms, as they did on April 19, 1993, just outside Waco, Texas. That time, as we are urged to believe, the terrorists were the ones who died. In all these massacres, regardless of specifics, the government portrays itself as all that keeps chaos at bay.
The state claims to stand against terrorism, but killing people is its stock in trade. Slaughters come in various forms, almost all of which feed the health of the state. The state conducts much killing outright. The state officially poses against other killing, while nevertheless encouraging it through its own violence. Even the killing that the state has no hand in serves as a pretext for the state to grow.
In Boston this Monday, someone left bombs that murdered three people, including an eight-year-old boy, and injured 176 others. President Obama called the crime an “act of terrorism.” The establishment definition of “terrorism” was always flawed, in that it categorically absolved the government, but at least it specified the targeting of civilians for political goals. Yet these days, even before the motive is known, such as at Boston, or when the targets are not civilians, such as American soldiers abroad, the U.S. government calls any dramatic acts of violence of which it disapproves “terrorism.”
This February, they called ex-cop Chris Dorner a terrorist. Then the police surrounded him in a cabin to burn him alive, asking the media to cover its eyes like at Waco. Everyone who knew how the state operates had no reason to expect he would get due process. They were going to hunt him down and kill him no matter what. The media dropped the formality of calling him an “alleged” murderer. The LAPD tried and convicted and executed him all on the same day and no one batted an eye. Meanwhile, liberals say all talk of American tyranny is irresponsible and conservatives continue to worship law enforcement.
Today, violent resistance to the state is called terrorism. Many of the “terrorists” rounded up and imprisoned at Guantánamo Bay were at most guilty of defending their country against an invading army. Some of these people continue to languish in that dungeon, seeing their desperate hunger strike in protest of declining conditions go unanswered, except by an administration willing to cut off their water.
From February 28 to April 19, 1993, the Branch Davidians resisted. On the morning of February 28, about one hundred ATF agents, concealed in livestock trailers, descended upon their property. The agents had planned and trained for eight months, having practiced their histrionic assault on model buildings. There was no reason for all this other than publicity. The agents could have easily arrested Koresh, whom they had befriended. The agents had conducted an investigation of weapons violations and found nothing. Koresh had cooperated with them. 60 Minutes had recently focused on an ATF sexual harassment scandal, and the agency was accused of racial discrimination during a House subcommittee meeting. The bureau wanted to improve its public image. Officials reached out to the press to make sure reporters could witness their heroics on the last February morning of 1993.
Unlike the vast majority of the hundreds of daily domestic militarized raids in America, the ATF’s surprise raid “Operation Showtime” faced resistance. When the agents ran out of ammo, the Davidians ceased fire. There were casualties on both sides, although one anonymous agent told the Dallas Morning News that he suspected some agents had fallen from friendly fire. Once the raid became a clear disaster, the ATF forced the press away.
Then came the standoff. The FBI took over and turned it into a full-blown military operation on American soil. Psychological warfare came down hard on Koresh’s followers. The FBI blared loud, obnoxious music, and sounds of animal slaughter, while shining blinding lights through the night. Agents gratuitously drove a vehicle to defile a Davidian grave. The government cut off this group’s access to family, media, and lawyers. It destroyed their water supply.
The media demonized the Davidians as a heavily armed cult that abused its children. Journalists tended to report government claims as fact. But they became increasingly critical of the ATF and FBI as well. After weeks of looking like fools in the mainstream press, particularly after a critical exposé in the New York Times on March 28 revealed the initial raid’s bad planning and recklessness, government officials became increasingly hostile to the media. On April 11, ATF intelligence chief David Troy stopped holding his regular press conferences altogether.
Attorney General Janet Reno, who took office in the middle of the standoff, finally decided to put an end to it. At about 6AM on April 19, the FBI began pumping flammable and poisonous CS gas, banned in international warfare, into the Davidian home. Officials knew that women and children were holed up in the section of the home exposed to this gas. The government continued to deploy gas for almost six hours.
Chemistry professor George F. Uhlig testified in congressional hearings that he estimated there was a sixty percent chance that the gassing alone killed some children. “Turning loose excessive quantities of CS definitely was not in the best interests of the children,” Uhlig said. “Gas masks do not fit children very well, if at all.” He intoned that the gassing could have transformed their surroundings “into an area similar to one of the gas chambers used by the Nazis at Auschwitz.”
The FBI brought out an Abrams tank, the Army’s heaviest armored vehicle, to replace its Bradley fighting vehicles. Agents drove the tank, which Attorney General Janet Reno later obscenely compared to “a good rent-a-car,” into the building. FBI sniper Lon Horiuchi, who had shot and killed Vicki Weaver in August 1992 at Ruby Ridge as she held her infant in her arms, was at the scene. FBI agents launched incendiary tear gas canisters. Justice Department spokesman Myron Marlin later declared, “We know of no evidence to support that any incendiary device was fired into the compound on April 19, 1993.” The FBI finally admitted six years later it had indeed used such projectiles at Waco.
The Davidian home went up in flames in the early afternoon. More than seventy people died, all of them civilian targets, many of them Americans, others hailing from other countries, more than twenty of them children and close to half of them people of color, although somehow the Davidians are often smeared, along with the so-called militia movement, as white supremacists. As the fire raged, the FBI turned back the local fire department. Special agent Jeffrey Jamar claimed that he feared for firefighters’ safety—presumably, the Davidians might shoot at the very people trying to stop the fire that was burning them to death. When it was all over, the ATF hoisted its flag atop the conquered ruins.
The trial of the survivors was a sham. Confused jurors intended to convict survivors of weapons offenses but not murder charges. The judge sided with the prosecution and defied the jurors’ intentions. By 1999, polling indicated that a strong majority of Americans blamed the FBI for setting the fire. Special counsel John Danforth, a Republican, released a report the next year whitewashing the Clinton administration of all guilt in this atrocity.
After Sandy Hook, liberals regurgitated every tired gun control argument, but one of the most interesting is that an armed populace fails as a break on tyranny because the government has the military hardware to win any confrontation. And indeed it’s true: most who resist government are swatted down like bugs. Some resist violently, like the Lakota Indians at Wounded Knee in December 1890, and are slaughtered. Others are shot for daring to resist even by throwing rocks at armed troops, like the four students murdered and the nine wounded at Kent State in May 1970. Others are targeted after a few years of relative calm, like the Philadelphia MOVE radicals in May 1985. Liberals are correct that the government has the means and the willingness to crush Americans who dare to resist. This fact never seems to convince liberals that the state is way too powerful and menacing to begin with, and maybe the last thing we should want is to give it more law enforcement powers, such as the monopolization of firearms through a war on guns.
About once a day police kill an American, but it’s often a criminal and no one cares, or at least a marginalized person like the homeless Kelly Thomas, beaten in July 2011 by five officers in Southern California, dying of complications five days later. Or they are veterans like Jose Guerena, at whom Tuscon police fired 71 rounds in the middle of the night in May 2011 – innocent of any crime, just in his own house at the wrong time. The state saves most of its killing for abroad, where killing is its very policy. And now, thanks to the war on terror, Obama calls America his battlefield and the world his jurisdiction. He has made it official doctrine that the president can order anyone’s death unilaterally.
Twenty years ago, Waco showed Americans the truth about law enforcement, the U.S. government, and the state itself. It revealed what reality was like for foreigners overseas. Yet most Americans seem totally indifferent to the mass murder the U.S. government has perpetrated and unleashed in the Middle East. On the day three were murdered in Boston, seventy-five died in Iraq. Violence in Iraq nine years ago was called terrorism, unless it was committed by U.S. troops. Today, violence in Iraq hardly makes the news. The state decides whose lives are worth caring about, and when.
Some critics of state violence dislike the very word “terrorism,” calling it meaningless, but I disagree. The state perverts most words it uses, but these words can still hold value. Terrorism refers to violence intentionally inflicted on the innocent to instill fear and advance political goals. American officials commit terrorism all the time. In the twenty years since Waco, state terrorism has escalated, from the anti-civilian sanctions on Iraq to the double-tap drone attacks on foreign first responders, all the way down to the constant domestic police raids. Even the more pedestrian police measures such as the systematic groping of New York City residents known as “stop and frisk” are there to “instill fear,” as police commissioner Raymond Kelly boasted was the intention, according to former NYPD captain Eric Adams’s testimony. From top to bottom, at home and abroad, the post-Waco American state seems intent on instilling fear in all of us.
Every April since 2003, I’ve written a piece about Waco. I think Americans should never forget what happened. LRC published most of these articles. They each have a little bit of something different and discuss contemporary events. I also wrote my undergraduate thesis on Waco and the relationship between the media and the police state. Here are my archives for those interested:
- 20 Years Ago Today: Operation Showtime (Independent Institute, February 2013)
- We’re All Branch Davidians Now (LRC, April 2012)
- From Waco to Libya: Eighteen Years of Humanitarian Mass Murder (LRC, April 2011).
- Waco and the New Brown Scare (LRC, April 2010).
- The Waco Butchers Are Back (LRC, April 2009).
- Why Waco Still Matters (LRC, April 2008).
- Waco, Oklahoma City, Columbine, Virginia Tech (LRC, April 2007).
- Waco and the Bipartisan Police State (LRC, April 2006).
- Waco, Oklahoma City, and the Post-9/11 Left-Right Dynamic (LRC, April 2005).
- Eleven Years Since Waco and Very Little Has Changed (LRC, April 2004).
- An Anniversary We Must Never Forget (Independent Institute, April 2003).
- “God Help Us, We Want the Press: The 1993 Waco Disaster and Media/Government Relations” (UC Berkeley Undergraduate thesis, 2003).
Waco, twenty years later: what state power is all about
I might take a break from revisiting Waco next April, not because I’ve forgotten the victims – I never will – but simply because I feel like I’ve done enough writing about this particular atrocity for a little while, given that the state has raged on in so many directions, making Branch Davidians out of so many foreigners and Americans caught on the wrong side of the U.S. government’s never-ending siege of the world. Many Davidians died and others suffered injustice at trial, but tragically these victims are not so unusual. There are also the many thousands slaughtered abroad in the last 20 years. There are the thousands shot by law enforcement since then. There is Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, the sixteen-year-old from Denver whom Obama snuffed out with a drone, whose death was justified on the grounds that he had a bad father. Before the rapid rise of the surveillance state and the post-9/11 terror war, Waco was the best opportunity to turn things around. Instead, most Americans turned their backs and now our country is becoming one big playground for the police state.
We might call the situation David Koresh’s revenge.
Anthony Gregory is research fellow at the Independent Institute and the author of The Power of Habeas Corpus in America: From the King’s Prerogative to the War on Terror (Cambridge University Press, 2013). He lives in Alameda, California. See his webpage for more articles and personal information.