For more than fifty days, FBI agents were stationed outside Mount Carmel Center, the headquarters of the religious cult called the Branch Davidians.
They were waiting for the group’s charismatic leader David Koresh to stand down and order his followers to lay down their arms and surrender to the overwhelming force that has surrounded their compound. But as time breached the deadline set by the FBI, David Koresh and his followers were intent to wait out to be certain that what they are going to do next is in line with prophetic utterances made a few years earlier.
They were willing to wait for divine instructions but the federal government and the FBI who did not understand the worldview of the Branch Davidians and therefore they could not wait any longer and they believed that they were justified to use force. If only they knew the aftermath of the assault they would have made a different decision.
A historical background is needed to at least make sense of the numerous and sometimes conflicting accounts of what really happened in the aftermath of the final attack on Mount Carmel center in April 19, 1993. It has to be pointed out that this group did not come out of nowhere; in fact, the origin of the Branch Davidians can help explain why Koresh was able to hold sway over a group of people and ultimately led many of them to their death.
This group came from a splinter sect that broke away from a Christian denomination known all over the world as the Seventh-Day Adventist Church (SDA). The SDA is known for “…their belief in the imminent return of Jesus Christ to earth, for their special vegetarian dietary restrictions and for their retention of Saturday as their Sabbath.” Those who are aware of the practices of the SDA can ascertain that the Branch Davidians came from the SDA.
This does not mean that the SDA is responsible for what happened at Waco but at least it provides a backdrop that will help understand how and why the splinter group used some of the ideas and doctrines they had at SDA and shaped it into their own.
Nevertheless, it can also be said that these two groups were linked by: “…historical roots, the origins of their members, their name, their identity, and their apocalyptic preoccupations, idiom, and paranoias.” Once again it must be reiterated that the SDA is not responsible for creating the Waco debacle and yet it is also clear that David Koresh learned much from them, especially when it comes to their strong interests with regards to apocalyptic events.
The breakaway sect was founded by a man named Victor Houteff who was an SDA member since 1919. But after more or less ten years of membership Houteff began to express his disappointment with the errors he found in the doctrines of SDA and so he wrote a book entitled The Shepherd’s Rod in 1930. But more than that Houteff believed that he was a messenger sent by God and in 1935 he founded the Mount Carmel center, the same facility that would figure prominently in news headlines fifty years later.
Houteff called his group the Davidian Sevent-Day Adventist and after World War II he began to recruit members outside the United States. But in 1955 he died and soon after his wife took over the vacant leadership position and she made a prophecy that the world will end on April 22, 1959. When the supposedly dreadful day came and nothing happened many members began to desert the group.
The organization almost disintegrated due to the failure of the prophecy but a man named Benjamin Roden assumed control of the group and he renamed it the General Association of Davidian Seventh-Day Adventists. After his death his wife Lois and son George took over.
The year 1981 was a significant year for the group because during this time a man named Vernon Howell joined the group; he was 21 years old and he became the group’s handyman. Three years later Vernon Howell married the daughter of a prominent member of the community, her name was Rachel Jones and a power struggle ensued between George Roden and Howell. But Vernon Howell came out on top and in 1985 he spearheaded a drive to recruit members abroad.
The strategy that he used to recruit was interesting because he targeted former SDA members who were disgruntled with the SDA. Nevertheless, Howell achieved success in this regard especially when he went to the United Kingdom. He was able to convince a number of British citizens to come and join him. In the aftermath of the final raid it was discovered that thirty-three out of the eighty two followers who died at Waco, Texas were British.
The recruitment plan was not only limited to England but was also aimed at Canada and Australia, after a successful round of recruitment the membership of the Branch Davidians can be said to be multi-racial ad multi-ethnic of whom 45 were black.
It was also during this time that Vernon Howell decided to change his name so that he will be known henceforth as David Koresh. He had his name legally changed and submitted a court document that explains that the purpose for dong so was “for publicity and business purposes.”
The group was know known as the Students of the Seven Seals and correctly interpreted as students of the scroll protected by the seven seals. The name Branch Davidians was not an official name that the group adopted but it was what the Waco Tribune-Herald used extensively to refer to them.
Aside from going to different countries to look for new members Koresh also traveled to the land of Israel in 1985 and this experience added another dimension to the group. According to some experts there is a phenomenon called the Jerusalem Syndrome that sometimes develops after a pilgrimage in the holy city. A year after his visit, Koresh began to refer to himself as the “Sinful Messiah.”
It is easy to generalize the whole group based on the thought pattern, activities, achievements and the declarations made by their leader. From an outsider’s point of view Koresh has no value as far as the normal standard of what constitutes a productive citizen is concern. He has no real job, he was no entrepreneur and he was not a professional. Thus, it is easy to conclude that his members came from the same mould. As one reporter had insinuated during the crisis and wrote the following:
Cults such as the Branch Davidians attracted the lonely, the lost, the unloved and the naive. Their members came from all over but had at least one thing in common: they were alienated from modern society and were searching for a replacement. Many were society’s losers with nowhere else to go. Others sought spiritual salvation and believed they would discover it by joining a cult. A few, like George Roden, were simply mad.
This sweeping statement cannot be used to describe every member of the Branch Davidians. There are those whom one can consider to be of good standing in the community and men of great achievement, for example Wayne Martin, one of the followers of Koresh was a Harvard-trained lawyer while Steve Schneider the group’s spokesperson had a master’s degree from the University of Hawaii and Livingstone Fagan had a degree from the Manchester Metropolitan University and at the same time a trained Seventh-day Adventist pastor.
No one outside the Branch Davidian cult can clearly explain what David Koresh was trying to say – his prophecies as well as his declarations. He clearly had his own system of interpretation. Nevertheless, it is important to try to understand what he said in order to determine if FBI and the ATF were justified in storming the gates so to speak that resulted not only in the death of Koresh but dozens of members including women and children.
The type of Biblical study that Koresh seem to be passionate about is referred to as apocalyptic. In the last few years of his life Koresh was obsessed with the Book of Revelation the last book of the Christian bible and it was believed to be written by the Apostle John.
In this book there is an important section that deals with a scroll or book with seven seals and the person who can break the seal is the one who will be able to read and understand these books and the fact that they are sealed means it is of utmost importance. However, the bible says that no one was able to break the seal.
As one reads this particular passage in the Book of Revelation one can feel a sense of urgency and suspense not knowing what will happen next. But this feeling quickly passes because in just a few verses the One who is able to break the seal was revealed and he is none other than the Lamb.
In the case of the members of the Davidian cult there is no need to ask who is the Lamb and there is no need to experience an acute sense of anticipation for his coming because they knew who the Lamb is and who can open the seal. He is not a spiritual being but made of flesh. He is human and he is none other than their beloved leader – David Koresh. But Christians all over the world will sneer at this remark because they will also argue that the Lamb is none other than Christ.
The Old Testament of the Christian Bible repeatedly discussed the need to offer a sacrificial lamb for the sins of the people. This was ingrained into mainstream culture after the release of movies like the Ten Commandments wherein one can see the blood of the lamb painted on doorposts and the consumption of a roasted lamb as a means to preserve the Hebrew slaves from impending doom. This act and this symbolism were easily understood as a sacrifice that is acceptable to God.
In the New Testament of the Christian Bible the prophet John the Baptist pointed to Jesus and said that he is the lamb of God that will take away the sin of the world. In other numerous instances in the New Testament one can also the reference to Jesus Christ as the lamb of God.
It is therefore puzzling why Koresh would claim to be the Lamb of God. But the moment he was convinced that he is indeed the One who can break the seals as mentioned in the Book of Revelations and the moment that he had followers who believed in what he said then the sky was the limit in terms of what he thinks can be done through his actions. The following is an excerpt that Koresh gave in an interview with a reporter from Time magazine and he made the following assertions:
I offer to you my wisdom, I offer to you my sealed secrets. How dare you turn away? My invitations of mercy … Who are you fighting against? The law is mine, the truth is mine … I am your God and you will bow under my feet … I am your life and your death. I am the Spirit of the prophets and the author of their testimonies. Look and see, you folls, you will not proceed much further. Do you think you have power to stop my will? … My seven thunders are to be revealed … Do you want me to laugh at your pending torments?
Do you want me to pull the heavens back and show you my anger? … Fear me, for I have you in my snare … I forewarn you, the Lake Waco area of Old Mount Carmel will be terribly shaken. The waters of the lake will be emptied through the broken dam.
Even the most objective assessment of Koresh’ words will lead to the conclusion that this man needed help because he believed that he is equal to God. At the same time he needed to check himself into a mental facility because he does not only deluded into thinking that he is God but he also believes that he has the power to destroy the Lake Waco Area referring to the water that comes from a nearby dam and therefore hinting at the destruction of this facility.
It is not only the message of doom that forced the federal government and the people surrounding the siege to act quickly, without a doubt their actions were influenced by how the Waco Tribune-Herald portrayed Koresh as the archetypal cult leader, “a man whose hold over his followers was complete, to the point of his being able, if he so wised, to order them to commit suicide” and therefore the need to stop this madmen from leading people to their untimely deaths.
For those who stand in the foundation laid by the U.S. Constitution, specifically the First Amendment there is nothing wrong with what Koresh was babbling about. Even if Koresh believed himself to be the devil the federal government cannot and should not curtain his freedom to express himself and the kind of religion that he will adhere to.
It is therefore important to stress that the federal government agents who stormed Mount Carmel Center did not breached the facility because they were not in agreement with the Branch Davidians’ rhetoric but they did so on the other grounds. It is therefore crucial to take note of the fact that the agents wanted to arrest Koresh because of the legality of some of his actions.
On February 28, 1993 a seventy-six strong and heavily armed ATF agents were in an eighty vehicle convoy going to Mount Carmel center just outside Waco, Texas. For the past several months ATF acted on a tip that the Branch Davidians were purchasing illegal firearms materials and this was allegedly for the purpose of converting AR-15 semiautomatic rifles into machine guns.
This was not allowed according to the law because the Branch Davidians were supposed to report this to the government and they had to pay the required fees and since they did not, ATF was obliged to get them and force them to pay for their offenses. If only they knew what was in store for them the ATF may have reconsidered their decision to play hardball with the Branch Davidians.
The ATF agents carried with them a search and arrest warrant. They also brought with them two cattle trailers pulled by pickup trucks and these two were filled with ATF assault forces and these were driven quickly in front of the headquarters of the Branch Davidians to unload its cargo of lethal force while at the same time two black hawk helicopters came out of nowhere possibly as a means to intimidate the inhabitants to surrender to the authorities. All of these can be ascertained but what soon followed was disputed by both sides.
According to David Koresh he shouted at the incoming ATF agents that there were women and children inside the building and so he told them to get back for he was ready to negotiate but he added that the ATF agents replied with burst of gunfire.
His assertion was strengthened by a 911 call asking the authorities to stop the violence. The ATF agents on the other hand said that they identified themselves and shouted to Koresh that they had a warrant but all of a sudden they were cut off by a hail of bullets and the reason why they had to fire back. It was a bloody initial attack.
When the sound of crackling gunfire was over in the said initial attack four federal law enforcement agents were killed by the Branch Davidians. Six Branch Davidians members were killed by the agents. In just a matter of hours the whole thing was transferred to the hands of the FBI. There were negotiations made and Koresh released ten children.
The Waco Tribune-Herald played an important role in the debacle because before the first raid by the Bureau of Alcohol and Tobacco and Firearms the Waco Tribune-Herald already had an idea that such an assault will be made and who was the target of the raid. As a result on February 27 a day before the ATF tried to serve the warrant to search and seized evidence of illegal activities, the Waco Tribune-Herald released a report entitled The Sinful Messiah.
In the said report the Branch Davidian was reduced to nothing but a scary cult where the leader is an expert in brainwashing and has managed to control the members to follow him blindly. In other words the Waco Tribune-Herald had a hand in demonizing the obscure sect and propelled them to world prominence.
Aside from that the Waco Tribune-Herald released details that painted an image of David Koresh as a sex pervert who seemed to have his own harem – a collection of wives who were still married to his followers and if this was not enough according to the report Koresh had the propensity to have sexual intercourse with girls as young as 12 years old.
This means that if proven true Koresh is not only stockpiling illegal firearms but also guilty of statutory rape. However, the evidence is still sketchy with regards to this part of the Branch Davidians’ story.
It can also be said that the Waco Tribune-Herald helped create a scenario that made it extremely difficult for the FBI and ATF agents to sit idly while Koresh continued with his propaganda regarding his belief that he is the messiah and that the end of the world is near.
This is because after the initial attack CNN broadcasted all over the world images of dead ATF agents being retrieved while the agents of the federal government seemed in retreat. For example there were footages and images were played over and over again on TV screens around the globe.
It could have been a simple hostage negotiations but it is no longer possible to simply talk to David Koresh and his men because now they have to answer to the deaths of the agents in the first raid.
On the other hand the Branch Davidians were an obscure sect before this incident and after their headquarters was seen on TV the group achieved a level of notoriety that made their name synonymous to religious fanaticism while at the same time earned sympathies from those who see the government as an intrusive entity that will try to bend the law with regards to the First Amendment.
The Federal Government was drawn into the destructive saga because of the belief that the government is supposed to enforce rules but it turned out that the government was not helping the situation. It was the height of irony that the Federal Government will act as fire accelerant to the flame because their presence convinced Branch Davidians that biblical prophecies was about to come to pass.
The more that the FBI tried to end the siege by force the more that they gave ammunition to David Koresh without knowing it. The government had a narrow perspective with regards to the Branch Davidian problem. For the FBI negotiators Koresh and his men could not talk about anything of substance and so their frustration increases every passing day. The Branch Davidians on other hand went deeper into their paranoia that what they feared was about to come to pass.
On the other side of the fence the FBI agents were also convinced that this paramilitary group is just doing everything in their power to elude capture and therefore the government has to act quickly. They approach the situation from a legal point of view and by being legalistic about it they could not figure out anything except to use their hostage and rescue team and other specialists to end the crisis using tools of warfare and other tactics.
The FBI negotiators did their part by connecting a private line between them and the Mount Carmel Center and through this line they were able to talk to Koresh or his spokesperson a man named Schneider. In one report submitted to the Department of Justice authorities said that Koresh would often go into a two or three hour monologue. This means that it was increasingly difficult for the FBI negotiators to influence Koresh to think about surrender.
After the immense blunder of the initial attack the Federal Bureau of Investigation were called to take over and they did. The firs thing that they had to do was to assess the situation and then formulate the right strategy to end the crisis.
One of the first things that they had to do was to label the problem correctly and it has to be pointed out that in this case the FBI could not find the exact terminology to indicate what they are trying to deal with and therefore they came up with an awkward name for it and they said that it is a kind of a hostage situation. However, the people inside the building could not be said to have been taken against their will.
The FBI had to reassess their initial description of the situation and so someone said that it is a hybrid between a barricade and a hostage situation. If it is a barricade then the agents had no choice but to wait it out until the group surrenders out of exhaustion there would be no justification for storming in. But if it is a hostage situation and the agents feel that the hostage taker is going to harm the lives of the people then they have all the reasons needed to enter in using force.
It was time for the second raid and this time around agents from the federal government made sure that all bases were covered. Armored vehicles punched holes into the walls and gas canisters were thrown inside the building and in the aftermath this is what can be seen: “…the compound was burnt to the ground and at least 75 sect members, including Koresh and 25 children under 15 years of age were killed.”
The bloody end was once again broadcasted to the whole world and while there was a strong condemnation against a religious cult leader who allegedly abused his members, the result of the attack and the death of the children earned them sympathy. It did not take long before the word wanted to know why if the federal government did everything in its power to resolve the crisis without having to destroy the lives of the innocents.
The images of the burning building and the death of the children created a wave of protest from those who suddenly saw the contrast between the story that they heard on the news and the actual event. Surely the group can be considered as communal religious sect that may have subscribed to bizarre practices and yet there is no reason why their lives must end this way.
The red flames covered the building and no one knows what to do with the children trapped inside. This is perhaps the reason why the U.S. Constitution and the founders of this nation inserted the First Amendment; they must have known that someday people will be killed for their beliefs.
The debacle at Waco presented to the world a unique case where religious freedom and the right to bear arms converged in the life of one group the Branch Davidians. It was a curious case because most of the time the world has to deal with religious freedom, the right to worship and the right to choose ones religion without interference from the government.
However, there is an added element because this group did not only struggle for religious expression like the Old Order Amish or the Mennonites but this group also tried to make a point about their right to bear arms.
From another perspective one can see that the Branch Davidians wanted to be left alone to pursue what they believe is the only way to lead their lives. If other religions are allowed to do so then why is it that the federal government had a different outlook when it came to David Koresh and his followers?
It can be said that the Old Order Amish of Iowa and other similar groups exerclised the same right and no one bothered them. The existence of the Amish people is a celebration of the First Amendment and it is a testament to the power of the Constitution to create a diverse society without its citizens destroying themselves to create a much simpler society.
This has been at the forefront of the Branch Davidian fiasco, was the federal government intent on wiping out a religion that would not conform to a more acceptable type of belief system? According to the Religious Studies Professor Rowland A. Sherrill: “Let’s not beat around the bush: Our first response to people who are religious in ways other than we are is to be irritated.”
He added that common views regarding religious people are that they are intolerant; that heaven is for a select few; and that they have a blind adherent to their religion that can be a source of annoyance or dread.
The Waco Tribune-Herald, the government, and the people living within that particular community labeled them as a cult and there is no need to expound on the fact that this term carries with it a load of meaning that can surely illicit a negative response. This added to controversial image of the group.
Others however contend that the use of the term cult can be easily abused or misused. Political scientists like Michael Barkun contends, however, that the term cult, “has become virtually meaningless, little more than a label slapped on religious groups regarded as too exotic, marginal or dangerous”, in the same way that English settlers used the label barbarian and applied it to the Native Americans of this country.
This is the question when it comes to the Branch Davidians, do they have the right to worship freely and even further, do they have the right to bear arms?
It is clear in the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that an American citizen has the right to own a weapon. The only question is what kind and how many?
This is an issue that is not easy to resolve and it is evidenced by the number of books, articles, TV ads and speeches made because of the need to create a common ground – gun rights advocate are asking for more while those who had an aversion for gun toting citizens are asking for greater limits. One of their most popular supporters is actor Charlton Heston who spoke out in their behalf and said:
Just about everything I hope is good about me – who I am, what I’ve tried to do – can be traced back to those smoking muskets and the radical declaration of independence by those ragtag rebels. Wearing threadbare coats and marching on bleeding feet, they defeated the finest army in the century, and they gave the world hope. Within them flowed an undertow of personal freedom, a relentless sense of what is right, so irresistibly strong they simply could not resist.
The fears of those who cry for gun control is repeatedly justified every year after news of indiscriminate shootings and the deaths of many due to firearms. The Waco, Texas incident was no exception.
On the other hand gun rights advocates made clear their own set of fears. It is not only their fear of being mugged and assaulted without the ability to defend themselves but also their fear of the government. There are those who said however, that this right and this talk of freedom from the First Amendment to the Second Amendment have been blown out of proportion.
There are those who even contend that these ideals were taken from the militia myth created after the success of the American Revolution. In other words there is no need to form a private army in this day and age but many cling stubbornly to the idea that they must be prepared at all times to defend themselves not only against intruders but a powerful government.
Groups like the Branch Davidians may also offer a counter-argument that their purchase of weapons is justified by the fact that the government has its standing army known as the National Guard. They may even argue that it is their right as an American citizen to be armed in order that no entity foreign or domestic can overwhelm them and take their freedom away from them.
The need to bear arms was strengthened by the belief that a time will come that the federal government will try to limit the freedom of the people. The right to bear arms is also justified by the belief that only an armed populace can defend the U.S. Constitution against those who would try to tamper with it to serve their personal purposes.
A general understanding of why private arms keeping should be allowed was expounded in the following argument: “…to deter tyranny and, if necessary, to overthrow it and restore the Constitution.” Those who support this view will also add that a federal government “could become tyrannical” and it is the duty of the armed people to deal with the problem by being able to stage a revolt.
There is logic to the arguments made by gun rights advocate but in the case of the Branch Davidians and the Waco, Texas incident there is more to the issue other than the right to bear arms. It is a confluence of the First Amendment and the Second Amendment rights. The difficulty in separating the two proved futile.
And after the event it is easy for many people to judge what happened to the Branch Davidians from either of two perspectives: one will say that it is a violation of their right to free speech and religious worship while others will say that the government came in because of the weapons that they stockpiled within the Mount Carmel Center.
The negotiators worked diligently to establish rapport with Koresh but it was not an easy task, in fact it was an impossible task. The FBI asked the help of experts, even those who are familiar with biblical prophecy. There were also third parties who tried to get through Koresh.
One of them is the station manager of a radio station based in Dallas who urged Koresh to surrender and ask for medical help. The station manager also tried to convince the cult leader to release more children but instead of a favorable response Koresh started what authorities would later call as a mad rambling from a psycho and he would talk and talk about his religious views and he was oblivious to the fact that the station manager and his audience find his rhetoric unintelligible.
Nevertheless, it was easy to understand that patience is needed and at first the government was willing to wait, willing to diffuse the situation and willing to resolve the crisis without using violence. But after weeks of doing nothing except to observe and listen to a boring monologue they were ready to consider anything new.
It was discovered later that weeks before the final attack leaders in both Washington, D.C. and the FBI were increasingly frustrated over the delaying tactics of Koresh and his men. This was exacerbated by the fact that Koresh promised to stand down after March 2 but when the window of time given for his possible surrender began to close, the FBI was considering more drastic actions.
On March 15, 1993 FBI agents began to draw up a new strategy to finally defeat Koresh. It was called a “modified negotiations strategy” and this was a new directive to the negotiators to be firm and to make Koresh surrender. This also meant that they would no longer listen to what Koresh had to say, from that time forward the Branch Davidians had to show that they are willing to comply or the FBI will make their lives miserable. By doing so negotiations began to break down.
At around the same time the FBI began to use “stress escalation” and harassment techniques. Electricity was temporarily cut-off and then afterwards the FBI ordered that the power must be cut permanently. The FBI were demanding and no longer listening to what Koresh had to say. The FBI would demand that Koresh should release more people and when he refused to comply they would retaliate with punitive measures.
Such as the use of searchlights during the night in the obvious attempt to keep the people inside the building from getting any sleep. Loud music were played during the night as loudspeakers continued to blare out irritating sounds. However, these actions prompted a negative response. Instead of forcing Koresh and the people to leave the building they were pushing them deeper into their shell because now they believed that the government is evil and it only seeks their destruction.
It can be argued that there could have been a better way to end the siege or hostage situation. The federal government and the FBI should have made a correct assessment of the situation by first determining correctly that there are two sides of the issues. First, the government has the right to regulate the use of weapons. It does not matter what others will say with regards to the ownership of guns and other high-powered weapons because it is clear that many had suffered from the misuse of weapons and therefore it is just proper for the government to enforce the law.
Secondly, the federal government should have considered that this is a multi-part problem and that the Branch Davidians were not only stockpiling weapons but they were convinced that they are part of a communal religious group that believed in the imminent fulfillment of biblical prophecies.
This should not be taken against them for this is what they believed. But more importantly the FBI should have realized that their presence and the failed entry of the ATF agents weeks beforehand was the signal for the Branch Davidians that the end of the world is near and that they were not seen as law enforcement agents but as enemies in the spiritual context. If this was insight of the federal government then they would have reconsidered their plan to use deadly force.
David Koresh and the Branch Davidians were arguably the victim of the media hype specifically the report written by the Waco Tribune-Herald.
This report forced people to see them in a very negative light and put pressure on the government as well as the law enforcement agencies to bring David Koresh and his men to justice. In the process no one placed an emphasis on their right to worship in the way and form that they want to worship. Due to negative information that were broadcasted to outsiders and people who had no clear idea of what the Branch Davidians was all about the group was demonized.
As a result there was an urgency to end the crisis by force. This is the reason why so many people were killed including women and children. If the negative reports did not influence the law enforcement agents who were responsible for resolving the crisis using non-lethal force then the story could have ended differently and the lives of the people would have been spared.
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