Twenty years ago today, on February 28, 1993, U.S. federal agents attempted to serve a search warrant on the Branch Davidians, a religious sect that lived in a community just east of Waco, Texas.
Agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms also wanted to arrest the group’s leader, David Koresh (real name, Vernon Howell) on charges of illegal firearms and explosives charges.
That raid resulted in a confrontation during which four agents and six members of the Branch Davidans were killed.
The FBI siege that followed lasted 50 days, ending on April 19 in an inferno that killed 76 Davidians, including 21 children.
The controversial, ill-advised U.S. government operation turned Waco into a byword — as in “We fear another Waco” (in reference to the polygamous FLDS cult’s compound near Eldorado, Texas).
The city has spent years trying to live down its notoriety.
It comes as no surprise, then, that the Waco Tribune reports
No publicly sponsored ceremonies are planned here to mark the disaster, which has become synonymous around the world with the name “Waco.”
“We’ve gotten a couple of calls about the 20th anniversary, asking if we were planning anything in commemoration,” said Larry Holze, the city of Waco spokesman who was a city councilman during the siege. “My answer is, we have no plans because it did not happen in Waco, and we had no legal responsibility for it.”
Likewise, county government leaders have no plans to commemorate the tragedy. In response to an inquiry for this story, the McLennan County Historical Commission briefly discussed last week whether to pursue a historic marker for the site.
“There was no interest whatsoever in that,” commission chairman Van Messirer said. “There was a feeling that it’s one of those things that’s probably best left alone.”
The paper also notes that the site itself is controlled by a small faction of Davidian followers and is avoided by survivors of the siege.
On April 19 there will be a small reunion of about 50 Branch Davidian survivors. The paper says “they will avoid Mount Carmel, the 77-acre site of the siege and blaze, because of an ongoing dispute about who represents the Branch Davidians.”
Also of note:
Baylor University’s Center for Religious Studies is planning an all-day symposium April 18 on the Mount Carmel saga. Scholars will discuss why the confrontation with the Davidians went so wrong and will try to put the beliefs of the Davidians into context of American religious history, said Gordon Melton, a Baylor religion professor organizing the event.
J. Gordon Melton is cult apologist — one of a small band of religion scholars known for their defense of cults.
The Branch Davidians and its various faction are sects (in the sense of “splinter groups”) of Seventh-Day Adventism.
From a theological perspective these sects are — like Seventh-Day Adventism itself — cults of Christianity (which means that while they claim to be Christian their doctrines and practices fall outside the boundaries of historic, Biblical Christianity).
Sociologically the Branch Davidians community also had cult-like aspects.
The Waco Tribune notes
Federal law enforcement agents at the time portrayed the Davidians as a doomsday cult that abused children and was armed for apocalypse.
DNA testing later would confirm that David Koresh had impregnated under-aged girls in the group. Investigations showed the Davidians had stockpiled some 300 firearms, including assault rifles modified to become fully automatic, as well as hand grenades.
But in the aftermath of the siege, both the ATF and FBI drew widespread criticism for their aggressive tactics, and “Remember Waco” became a rallying cry for militia members and others distrustful of the federal government.
Government investigations in the aftermath of the Waco siege caused reforms of federal law enforcement, including a reorganization of the ATF and new training procedures.
Few people were surprised when a government-appointed investigator in July, 2000, cleared the FBI of blame over the siege.
But to date many theories — including conspiracy theories — of what actually happened during the siege remain.
Here is just one of a number of documentaries and TV programs on the Waco tragedy: