Shaping society: Branch Davidian siege impact huge on civil liberty issues

Waco Tribune-Herald, Apr. 13, 2003
By TOMMY WITHERSPOON, Tribune-Herald staff writer
» Part 8 of a 9-part series. See FlashPoint in History: 10 years after Mount Carmel

In the decade since the world came to know David Koresh and his Branch Davidian followers, the nation’s social and political landscapes have been planted, harvested and plowed under with the changing seasons.

The deaths of four government agents on one of the darkest days in law enforcement history, followed weeks later by the mysterious inferno in which Koresh and 75 cult members perished ÷ and after a confounding 51-day siege ÷ left indelible scars on the nation’s psyche.

Many insist it’s still too early to tell if the tragedy that became known merely as “Waco” will hold lasting, historical significance. To others, it’s something that should never be forgotten.

Ramsey Clark, who served as U.S. attorney general under Lyndon Johnson, says Americans have an obligation to themselves to acknowledge Mount Carmel and the stark lessons it yielded.

“I think it ought to be remembered always, painful as it is, because to me it represents the greatest tragedy in the history of U.S. domestic law enforcement, the greatest loss of life and the greatest failure of law enforcement to sensitively address a very difficult situation with the highest priority of securing life,” Clark says.

Clark, who has represented a handful of Branch Davidian families in a wrongful-death lawsuit against the government, suggests the tragedy might be more fully recognized but for a measure of religious bias overshadowing Waco.

“If this had been the First Baptist Church downtown instead of a church that was somewhat isolated and of which people were somewhat wary before the (federal) assault, it would have been treated differently,” Clark says.

In the years since the nation’s rapt attention was riveted on a 77-acre tract 10 miles east of Waco, the country has endured a roller coaster-like set of events that eclipsed the Branch Davidian episode in many respects.

As federal agents blared loud music, exotic chants and the sounds of animals being slaughtered, and illuminated Koresh’s compound with blinding spotlights, all aimed at forcing the 33-year-old prophet to surrender, a former soldier named Timothy McVeigh stood on a hillside overlooking Mount Carmel, his hatred for the government seething.

McVeigh was part of a growing anti-government force that used the fiery deaths of the Branch Davidians ÷ including those of 21 children ÷ as a catalyst to increase its ranks. Waco became a rallying cry for militias, government-hate groups, survivalist movements and others on society’s fringe.

The ranks of such groups swelled to all-time highs until the second anniversary of the fire at Mount Carmel, when McVeigh parked a rented truck containing a massive fertilizer bomb in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.

The explosion destroyed the building and killed 168 people, including children from a day care inside.

McVeigh’s actions in the name of the Branch Davidians shocked the nation and signaled an end to the militia movement. Although militia members were never shy about advocating violence against the government, even hardcore groups realized there was no defending McVeigh’s horrific actions.

The nation demanded federal lawmen find those responsible for Oklahoma City and cheered when the stone-faced McVeigh was arrested. Many death-penalty protesters stayed home when McVeigh was executed two years ago.

Oklahoma City made people start talking again about the Branch Davidians. Mount Carmel survivors were saddened that McVeigh chose to unleash his hatred while invoking memories of Koresh and their friends and family members.

The shocking blast in Oklahoma City seemed to spark a new beginning of patriotism and the realization that we, as a nation, are not immune from terrorism, in any form.

That feeling lasted until 1999, when it was revealed that the FBI had lied for six years about not using pyrotechnic tear-gas devices on the final day of the siege at Mount Carmel. Government mistrust in many circles began to fester again, despite the FBI’s contention they did not start the fire in which Koresh and most of the Branch Davidians died.

A special investigation by former Sen. John Danforth put blame for the fire squarely on Koresh but did little to dispel suspicion concerning government actions at Mount Carmel.

Still, the nation’s shock and anger over the events of Sept. 11, 2001, again rallied the country and instilled a sense of national pride.

Civil libertarians and others remarked at how willingly people gave up many of their civil rights, how quick they were to expand the role of government law enforcement intervention if it meant they felt safe on board an airplane again.

Now, with the 10th anniversary of the fire at Mount Carmel less than a week away, the nation is focused on a war abroad.


A lot has happened since apocalyptic, charismatic guitar player David Koresh held the world at bay outside his sprawling compound near Elk for 51 days. Many questions remain about the episode, despite extensive administrative and criminal investigations, congressional hearings, civil and criminal trials, Danforth’s inquiry and extensive public scrutiny.

Important issues concern who shot first during the military-style Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms raid on Feb. 28, 1993, which claimed the lives of four ATF agents and six Branch Davidians; who started the fire that ended the siege while claiming the lives of 76 Davidians; what lessons were learned from the colossal tragedy; and what place the saga will have in history.

Stuart A. Wright, professor of sociology at Lamar University and author/editor of Armageddon in Waco: Critical Perspectives on the Branch Davidian Conflict, a 1996 book about the siege, says the importance of the Branch Davidian odyssey will not be lost.

“It was unprecedented in scope and consequence,” Wright says. “I mean, 86 people died in the whole thing. It’s just unprecedented for law enforcement to be involved and for that many people to have been killed.”

Wright says many lessons can be learned from the incident. For one thing, law enforcement today needs to be aware of massive mistakes committed in the handling of the tense situation at Mount Carmel.

“I’ve noted an amazing shift in public reaction since 1993,” Wright says. “By 1999, when we learned of the pyrotechnic devices, polls showed 50 percent of Americans believed the FBI had screwed up or had a major hand in the tragic outcome. Compare that with polls right after (the incident) where 93 percent blamed the Davidians.

“Not many folks back then thought law enforcement had any culpability.” Former FBI director William Sessions, who practiced law in Waco from 1958 to 1969, says federal officials learned a number of valuable lessons from the Branch Davidian siege, but none more important than patience.

“We learned patience in law enforcement with hostage situations and with similar circumstances like that,” says Sessions, FBI director from 1987 to 1993. “We learned to cooperate with federal, state and local law enforcement in a way that we probably benefited from in actions almost immediately thereafter where there was patience exercised. Not that we hadn’t exercised patience before. We came through hostage situations in Oakdale, Louisiana; Atlanta; with the Cuban boat people; at Ohio State Penitentiary – lots of places where we exercised a lot of patience.”

But the Branch Davidian outcome showed the horrors that can arise when patience runs out. After the holocaust at Mount Carmel, Sessions says, “we learned to wait them out.”

Sessions, who now offices in Washington, D.C., says he’s convinced patience was exercised in Waco. However, he adds, nobody anticipated the standoff would end in the blazing fashion it did.

“The second thing I think of is that Waco showed the quality of its character by their patience and their understanding and by taking all the flak that they took for so long for something over which they had no control.”

Branch Davidian survivor Clive Doyle, 62, who still lives at Mount Carmel and leads Bible studies there, says the Branch Davidians’ historical significance is a matter of perspective.

“It is definitely part of Waco history, but the overall effect depends on who is writing it,” Doyle says, recalling followers who came to Mount Carmel from New Zealand, Great Britain and the Philippines. “I think it needs to be portrayed for what it is. It was the biggest attack on United States citizens and foreign visitors by our law enforcement agents in the history of this country.”

The fact the Branch Davidians defended themselves by shooting back, he says, created a situation unlike that ever seen by the American public.

Given his chance to write a history chapter on the Branch Davidians, Doyle says it would go something like this:

“Everyone has a right to worship their God according to their beliefs in any manner that they see fit. We may not agree with these people. They may be Muslims, they may be Jewish, they may be so-called Christians, and for a government military force to come in and do what they did, I think, is unacceptable.”


Many Branch Davidian accounts omit or gloss over Koresh’s scriptural interpretations giving him exclusive authority to have sex with other mens’ wives and even their female children. Federal authorities originally raided the compound because Koresh was stockpiling illegal weapons, but the reason they gave Attorney General Janet Reno for initiating the tank and tear-gas assault on April 19, 1993, was that Koresh was abusing the children.

While Doyle and other followers say the Branch Davidians were peaceful people who merely wanted to study the Bible and mind their own business, DNA evidence revealed that at least a dozen of the 21 children who died in the fire were fathered by Koresh. Some of their mothers were underage girls.

Austin attorney Joe Turner represented Branch Davidian Ruth Riddle during the 1994 criminal trial of 11 cult members in San Antonio. He keeps a charred Bible that he found after the fire at Mount Carmel framed in his office.

It reminds him of the bewildering complexities behind the Branch Davidian siege.

“The Bible was just laying here in all that rubble after the government had gone in and took what it was going to take for the criminal investigation,” Turner recalls. “To me, that Bible just says it all.”

Turner says the nation should have embraced many lessons from the Branch Davidian episode.

“We should learn the lesson that we shouldn’t turn our country into a military zone. We shouldn’t give up all our rights in the name of security. There truly should be a limit on law enforcement, however well-intentioned it might be.”

Turner says today’s U.S. attorney general seems just as oblivious to that lesson.

He also worries about the ease with which Americans give up their rights. The public doesn’t realize that once you give up these rights, it’s hard to get them back.

Any lessons that may have been learned from the 1993 siege near Waco have been forgotten now, Turner fears, because of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C.

“I think they have forgotten it and we have a different attitude in this country now in law enforcement. It’s that post-9/11 syndrome. We have lost the war if they are going to do that. After all, we are fighting this war against terrorism to protect our freedom and in the process we have given it all up. So haven’t they already won?”

Turner doesn’t suggest the government is necessarily malevolent in restricting liberty, only shortsighted in how such moves contradict Americans’ original views of liberty, including religious freedom and free speech.

“I think these are very dangerous times we are living in, and not just from terrorists, but from the well-intentioned,” he says. “Do you think the ATF thought they were doing the wrong thing? No. They thought they were doing the right thing. But our rights have gone backwards.”

While the Davidians might have been “misguided,” they were sincere in their beliefs and only thought they were defending themselves from a government attack, he says.

“The government people came in here and burned up their religion,” he says. “Even though they may have been a little exotic, it seems to me that they were victims of what this country and a lot of countries are devoid of: good leadership. Israel, Palestine, Iraq, the United States ÷ it’s a world problem. That is what happened to the Davidians. They had a nut leading them.”

Contrary to views expressed by some surviving Koresh followers, Turner does not buy into the notion that vanquished Branch Davidians have become modern-day martyrs.

“I don’t know of any religious martyrs ÷ at least ones that I would consider martyrs ÷ that would stockpile weapons,” Turner says. “My Jesus is not one who is going to pick up a firearm.”

Waco attorney Stanley Rentz, a former McLennan County judge who represented Branch Davidian Graeme Craddock during the 1994 criminal trial in San Antonio, says he thinks the Branch Davidians will find a spot in history.

“I think that the Davidians were sort of a landmark,” Rentz says. “We will always know them here, of course. But they were sort of a landmark nationally, too, until Oklahoma City. After that, that became the focus. Since Oklahoma City, we have seen a lot less of the militia people. They found out there is a lot of difference between blowing up a stump in the woods and blowing up a building full of people.”


A major development that arose from Mount Carmel was a restructuring of how FBI agents deal with such matters as Mount Carmel, says Houston attorney Mike Caddell, who represented the families of Branch Davidians killed in the fire in a federal civil lawsuit.

Before then, philosophical differences on how to approach a standoff separated FBI negotiators from the agency’s own tactical unit. The conflicting approaches proved a leading factor contributing to the tragedy, Caddell says.

“I think when another history of the FBI is written, if it is an honest history, Waco will represent a turning point in the history of the FBI in that it did undergo a significant change in its procedures and in its approach to hostage crises and other crises that are similar to … Mount Carmel,” Caddell says.

Wright agrees. In the wake of the Branch Davidian siege, the FBI’s hostage rescue team was restructured so that agency negotiators have more power to keep FBI tactical units from undoing the progress negotiators make during a siege or hostage situation.

“The complaint before was that the tactical team just ran over the negotiators,” says Wright, who testified before Congress on the subject in 1995.

If history is clear about anything, Caddell says, it is that the FBI deviated from the plan approved by then-Attorney General Janet Reno, which was for a gradual insertion of tear gas on April 19 to give Branch Davidians ample opportunity to come out.

Instead, FBI agents using military combat vehicles rammed the compound, tearing down walls and possibly blocking exits to the building, Caddell says.

The way the assault was handled continues to overshadow the Branch Davidian case, even though many local, state and federal law enforcement officials remain convinced that apocalyptic cult members set the fire themselves as part of a grand suicide pact.

Doyle, a Branch Davidian who survived the fire but lost a daughter in it, says more people could have been spared the flames had the FBI taken another tack.

“We were a peaceable people,” Doyle says. “We were not causing trouble. In Waco, we had a fairly good relationship with law enforcement and the community. After the initial shootout, we were the ones who asked for the ceasefire. Then the FBI came in and took over the situation. No law enforcement agents were wounded or even scratched after that ceasefire.”

Doyle, who continues to lead the few followers who still meet at Mount Carmel, dismisses the notion that the Branch Davidians had a suicide pact, just as strongly as lawmen believe such a pact existed.

“If we were just some kind of a death-wish-type cult that wanted to go out in a blaze of glory, we could have just kept shooting,” Doyle says. “But that is not the way we are.”

Rentz says another lesson that can be learned from Mount Carmel is that just because people are different, it doesn’t necessarily make them bad or wrong.

“I believe it was one of the people on the jury in San Antonio who said that they just wanted to keep telling the agents to have some respect for diversity,” Rentz recalls. “It seemed like the government really had no respect for the people involved on the other side.”

For Caddell, the “broader historical perspective” will be that the Branch Davidians were just a group of misguided, harmless people misled by David Koresh. Also, that perspective will include hard truth that the government can make mistakes, he says.

Clark says it is up to the public to remember what happened at Mount Carmel so that other Wacos don’t blacken the pages of American history.

“I think the worst thing we could do,” he says, “would be to sweep it under the rug, which is what you tend to do about your mistakes.”

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