Rules Are for Schmucks: The Lesson of Waco

A fire spreads rapidly during the final siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, TX in 1993. (photo via FBI)

Twenty-five years ago this week, federal agents commenced a lengthy siege of a religious compound near Waco, Texas, which ended in tragedy. As with so many interactions between government and religion, the facts here have been twisted and distorted by the God lobby beyond recognition.

Vernon Howell, who later changed his name to David Koresh, was a high school dropout who joined the “Branch Davidian” cult that had split off from the Seventh Day Adventist Church. When its leader died, a struggle ensued between her son and Koresh for control of the group and its valuable property. The struggle involved, at one point, a contest of digging up a corpse to see which side could do the better job of praying it back to life. (It was a draw.) Phase two was an armed invasion by Koresh and some of his thugs against the minister who had physical custody of the property. This resulted in a gun battle, which in turn resulted in Koresh being indicted and tried for attempted murder. His trial resulted in a hung jury and he was freed. Subsequently, Koresh’s nemesis was himself convicted of murder in a separate incident, giving Koresh the opportunity to take control.

Koresh announced in 1989 that he was building an “Army of God” to prepare for the imminent end times. Over the next few years, reports flowed to the authorities that his “army” was acquiring machine guns that were (and still are) illegal. Other rumors sparked an investigation by the Waco Tribune-Herald that unearthed credible evidence of Koresh’s physical and sexual abuse of children.

The Waco newspaper let the Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms unit of the US Treasury Department (ATF) know that it was planning to run a series of exposé articles about Koresh and his crimes. ATF asked the paper to hold off, because it was planning to carry out a court-approved search and didn’t want to tip off Koresh that he was under special scrutiny. The paper agreed, delaying publication for nearly a month. Ultimately, though, the publisher’s patience waned, and the first article of “The Sinful Messiah” series appeared on February 27, 1993. An accompanying editorial was titled: “The Law Watches, but Has Done Little.”

ATF attempted to serve a warrant and execute its search the following day. They were met with a barrage of gunfire. There is some dispute about whether the Koresh gang heard an accidental gun discharge from an ATF agent and began firing in response, but there’s no dispute about the fundamental nature of what happened. Duly authorized law enforcement officers had excellent reasons to believe that crimes were being committed and that evidence of those crimes existed inside the compound. They had a lawful search warrant, and they were prevented from carrying it out by a powerful military-style response. Four ATF agents were killed that day and sixteen others were wounded. Six members of the Koresh gang were killed as well.

A siege of nearly two months ensued. The presence of so many children inside the compound was the biggest complicating factor. FBI negotiated the release of nineteen of them, but surveillance videos showed many children left behind. Interviews of those who were released corroborated the newspaper stories of physical and sexual abuse. At one point, negotiators achieved a breakthrough when Koresh agreed to vacate the compound peaceably and allow the search to proceed in exchange for the opportunity to broadcast a message on national radio. Koresh delivered his address then promptly reneged on his end of the deal. It seems God had told him he needed more time.

During the siege, Koresh released a home video in which he announced: “This is my family, and no one is going to come in on top of my family and start pushing my family around. It is not going to happen.” Mafia don John Gotti couldn’t have said it better.

On April 19 the government moved again to end a standoff, which was costing taxpayers a million dollars a week. This initiative had more careful planning than the one in February, relying primarily on tear gas rather than bullets, but the results were far worse. Fires were deliberately set by Koresh followers inside the compound that killed seventy-six people, including twenty-five children.

The tactics and procedures used by the government to achieve its legitimate aims were badly flawed. The government admits that. After exhaustive review by an independent commission headed by former Missouri Senator John Danforth, who is both an ordained minister and a prominent Republican, the Clinton administration replaced quite a few senior law enforcement executives. The bigger issue, though, is that the media and politicians continue to treat religion as being above the law and allow people to get away with all kinds of otherwise illegal activities by simply saying “I believe God wills this.” It was just a few months after the Waco siege, for example, that the Democratic-controlled congress enacted RFRA, the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” that places religion squarely above the law.

The Waco anniversary is being used perversely to promote the idea that lawbreakers like Koresh are simply misunderstood, and we should bend over backwards to accommodate them. Back in 2014 Malcolm Gladwell wrote a lengthy New Yorker piece on the Branch Davidians in which he asserted that “Americans aren’t very good at respecting the freedom of others to be so obnoxiously different.” That’s not true at all—most Americans (except, perhaps, the strongly religious) couldn’t care less about people being “obnoxiously different”—that is, until they start breaking straightforward laws, like the ones against machine guns and child abuse. Gladwell’s article is replete with innuendo suggesting that Koresh was a little eccentric but had done nothing wrong, while completely omitting inconvenient facts like the trial of survivors in which all were found guilty and given forty-year sentences, and the Danforth Report’s unequivocal finding that the fires were deliberately set by people inside the compound.

The real lesson of Waco ought to be that God experts like David Koresh are the scum of the earth. Emboldening them with the suggestion that their religious belief is more important than the law is a horrible mistake.