The Branch Davidian Tragedy, or Why Everyone Should Read Soldier of Fortune
Issue #36, February 1998
In 1997 the film Waco: The Rules of Engagement brought the tragic story of the Branch Davidian church in Waco, Texas back to the forefront of many people's minds. The film examined the lives and deaths of the church members and returned the Davidians' plight to front page headlines, if only in the entertainment sections of newspapers. After seeing the film, many people wondered why they had not heard sooner of the evidence presented in it of governmental culpability in the deaths of the Davidians. There certainly has been reporting and activism on behalf of the Davidians, and to answer that question invites an exploration of where that reporting and activism have been based, and why.
The Branch Davidian tragedy has been adopted as a political cause chiefly by the civil libertarian Right, despite being an event with many attributes that could allow it to be championed by any number of different groups, not the least of which is the general public. And yet the journalistic investigation and political activism in support of the civil rights of the Davidians, both those who were killed and the survivors, has been undertaken by people whose relationship to American civil rights issues is mediated by the second amendment, the right to bear arms.
In 1993 the Branch Davidian center was the focus of an investigation of weapons illegalities sponsored by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (BATF). The BATF's search warrant was executed in a "no-knock, dynamic entry" style attack on the community center, called Mount Carmel, a home shared by 130 men, women, and children. In the gunfight that resulted from the "dynamic entry," six Davidians and four BATF agents were killed. When the BATF ran out of ammunition, they retreated from direct attack, but kept the Davidians surrounded by armed forces. The siege was taken over by the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) the next day, and continued for fifty-one days. On the fifty-first day, claiming frustration over the Davidians' refusal to leave the building, the FBI had tanks insert CS gas into Mount Carmel; a fire broke out, and 76 of the 85 people remaining in the center died.
These facts were widely reported in the spring of 1993. In fact, much of the entire 51-day drama was broadcast live on television. The Branch Davidians were frequently described on television and in newspapers as being a fanatical cult with a doomsday wish who stockpiled weapons and saw the BATF/FBI siege as a grand opportunity to stage a mass self-immolation. They were variously reported to be narcotics traders, child molesters, and a suicide cult, and their leader David Koresh was portrayed as a gun crazed, willfully sinful messiah, who believed himself to be Jesus Christ. After the fire in which most of the community, including Koresh, were killed, there was a series of "true crime" novels and made-for-TV movies that dramatized the most sensationalist aspects of the story.
At the time I thought that there was no way a single group of people could be so nefarious and bizarre. The reports of the Branch Davidian community were so outrageous that they felt, from hundreds of miles away, like stories calculated to purchase public contempt for people killed in an encounter with the government. I cast blanket doubt on the accusations, and looked for alternative and better researched reports of the group, their beliefs, and their fate. In the years that followed the tragedy at Waco, those reports did come, reports of two distinct varieties: academic analyses by scholars of religion and sociologists, and investigative journalistic reporting.
The academic analyses of the group's theology explained many of the aspects of the group's life which were confusing to anyone not intimately acquainted with that theology. James D. Tabor and Eugene V. Gallagher, in Why Waco? Cults and the Battle for Religious Freedom in America present a thorough explanation of David Koresh's biblical interpretation, which was the basis of the group's social organization. They explain that Koresh's interpretation of Revelation identified within the text a second messiah who would appear in the final days before judgment, a messiah who, unlike Christ, would be an ordinary man with original sin. Koresh did claim to be this messiah, a claim which was interpreted in the Waco Tribune-Herald as a claim to be a "Sinful Messiah." According to Koresh's theology, this figure was required to father twenty-four children, who would then become his council in heaven. Measures taken to fulfill this prophecy included statutory rape and polygamy. These practices were widely reported, and did much to contribute to the public image of the Branch Davidians as insane and dangerous. Tabor and Gallagher also explain that to have a conversation with Koresh about the siege would require an in-depth understanding of Revelation, because Koresh understood the siege in terms of events described in Revelation. FBI negotiators were not equipped to have such a conversation. They refused offers by Tabor and by theologian Dr. Philip Arnold to act as interpreters, and broke negotiations with the Davidians, citing a refusal to listen to any more "Bible babble."
The scholarship and research in this book and others painted a very different picture of the Branch Davidians from that promoted in the media at the time of the siege. Between these texts and the film Waco: The Rules of Engagement, the Branch Davidians emerge humanized, as a unique group of people whose theology and lifestyle, while unusual, were nevertheless consistent and coherent.
The investigative reporting of the Branch Davidian tragedy worked to uncover the government's motivations and provide the alternative explanations of how the deaths of the Davidians came about. This journalism can be found in investigative books by Dick Reavis (The Ashes of Waco) and Carol Moore (The Davidian Massacre: Disturbing Questions about Waco Which Must Be Answered), and in over a dozen feature articles in the magazine Soldier of Fortune. From this reporting, it is apparent that a mass suicide was the least likely explanation of the Davidians' deaths. Together, these sources provide evidence that the Davidians did not have a suicide wish, and that their deaths were likely caused by some combination of factors including fire from flammable residue from the CS gas introduced into the building, kerosene lanterns overturned by tanks puncturing the building, heat from the tanks themselves, and automatic gunfire from the tanks.
The fact that a primary source for information about the Davidian tragedy is Soldier of Fortune magazine presents an interesting set of insights and contradictions. It prompts the question of where the progressive press has been in this investigation of state-sponsored fatal violations of human rights within the United States. Second, it presents the question of why Soldier of Fortune, a pro-military, pro-war, pro-government journal with an editorial focus on the interests of the independent soldier, has demonstrated more interest in the fate of the Branch Davidians than any other national magazine. That second question can be answered by looking at the way the Branch Davidian tragedy has been interpreted by the American Right. The first question is more difficult to answer.
The Branch Davidians' story is open to interpretation and appropriation by a number of different interest groups. For example, it would be possible to focus on interpreting them as a nontraditional, multiethnic community, harassed by repeated inquiries of child abuse that turned up no substance. It has been charged that the allegations of child abuse were circulated repeatedly because they were a multiethnic group, and the surrounding white community was threatened by the idea of white children being raised in such an environment. If seen in this way, they present a narrative that fits within the progressive embrace of rainbow communities suffering harassment based on prejudice.
There is evidence that the BATF staged the original raid as a publicity stunt designed specifically to improve their public image after the Ruby Ridge fiasco, a stunt carefully timed one week prior to BATF senate appropriations hearings. The raid also occurred within Bill Clinton's career-critical first hundred days in office. In light of these points, it is possible to view the Branch Davidian tragedy as a deadly symptom of a deteriorating government facing a crisis of legitimation, and their story could have been catalytic for a broad-spectrum critique of government, a critique not limited to the Right.
There is also evidence that because an earlier leader of the Branch Davidians had once rented property to some people who built a small methamphetamine lab, the group was suspected by the BATF of being involved in narcotics trade. The BATF used this suspicion to obtain the Drug War exception to the posse comitatus law to appropriate military equipment for their raid. In this context, it seems possible that those on the Left who are vocal about the decriminalization of drugs and the demilitarization of the Drug War would have championed the wrongful harassment of the Branch Davidians.
However, the political support for the Davidians has come largely from Soldier of Fortune, the Gun Owners Foundation, and the CAUSE Foundation. These and other groups form a continuum of support for the Branch Davidians on behalf of the civil libertarian Right. I am characterizing these groups as such on the basis of their common political adherence to American patriotism that is based on a Jeffersonian ideal of small government, the right of citizens to arm themselves, and an absolute privilege of the rights of individuals over the rights of government. This conservative stance is theoretically pro-government and pro-military, but given the extent to which contemporary American administrations deviate from the ideal, there is much criticism of the government from the civil libertarian Right. Because the weapons charges were the factor that brought the BATF into armed confrontation with the Davidians, the Davidian tragedy fits within the scope of such government misbehavior as the sieges of white separatist Christian Identity groups such as the Covenant, the Sword, and the Arm of the Lord, and the Weaver family of Ruby Ridge, Idaho.
The series of feature articles in Soldier of Fortune are extremely well researched. They reported in 1993 and 1994 facts about the siege that did not find a broader audience until the distribution of the film in 1997. For example, Soldier of Fortune reported that fire trucks were held back from putting out the fire, and that the search warrant which was the basis for the original dynamic entry was filled with irregularities and inconsistencies. In their early style of describing the Davidians as a group, the articles share some of the failings of the mainstream media with use of derogatory terminology, for example, referring to Mount Carmel Center as "Ranch Apocalypse," and the Branch Davidians as a "cult." The presence of this derogatory language points out the extent to which the support of the Davidians on the part of Soldier of Fortune is singly motivated by a political commitment to defend the Davidians' rights, not necessarily the Davidians' ideology. As the series of articles progressed, and came to include contributions from Ashes of Waco author Dick Reavis and interviews with surviving Davidians, the tone of the writing mellowed. Reavis' coverage of the 1994 trials of surviving Davidians reports the events leading to the conviction and incarceration of eight surviving Davidians on charges of conspiracy, murder, and the use of firearms in relation to the commission of an offense, all in regards to the deaths of the four BATF agents in the February 28 raid. In that trial, while the jury acquitted all the defendants, the judge overturned the jury's acquittal and gave the defendants their maximum possible sentences.
The reporting in Soldier of Fortune on governmental misconduct towards the Branch Davidians is complemented by the book The Davidian Massacre: Disturbing Questions about Waco Which Must Be Answered by self-proclaimed libertarian pacifist feminist Carol Moore (published jointly by the Gun Owners Foundation and by Legacy Communications). This book is an exhaustive catalogue of the wrongs done to the Branch Davidians, and in its civil libertarian perspective is consistent with the editorial perspective of Soldier of Fortune. The recommendation on the book jacket reads: "essential reading for any and all Americans concerned about the preservation of liberty in our time." This rhetoric of "liberty" is often employed by the far Right as apologia for White privilege, and has lost its association in the minds of progressive thinkers with any sense of freedom that is meaningful to anyone other than privileged Whites. The text of this book, however, is another instance of the interests of gun owners and other civil libertarians overriding any conflict that is implied in their rhetoric with the interests of alternative, multiethnic communities.
The source of the legal activism on behalf of the surviving Branch Davidians is the conservative CAUSE Foundation, which is best known publicly for its role in negotiating the standoff between the FBI and the Montana Freemen earlier this year. Originally named the Patriotic Defense Foundation, CAUSE is a civil rights legal foundation self-avowedly conservative, pro-White and pro-Western civilization. Their name is an acronym for the "countries that constitute the West, viz. Canada, Australia/New Zealand, United States, South Africa, and Europe" (CAUSE promotional literature). In 1994 CAUSE filed lawsuits totaling $330 million against the FBI, the BATF, and personally against Janet Reno and other government senior agents.
In the article Just Cause: Lawyers Band Together to Fight for Conservative and Constitutional Issues, CAUSE Foundation director Kirk Lyons was interviewed about his civil rights cases on behalf of the surviving Branch Davidians: When he called [Morris] Dees in an attempt to get the Southern Poverty Law Center to take the cases of some of the Branch Davidians, '"they were rather surprised to hear from me' Lyons recalled. '[SPLC staff] said they talked to Mr. Dees, and Waco is just not the kind of case that they handle... they asked me if (the Davidian church members) were white supremacists. I told them it was more like the Rainbow Coalition in there." (James L. Pate, Soldier of Fortune, 2/94)
This exchange between the conservative civil libertarian law center CAUSE Foundation and the progressive civil rights Southern Poverty Law Center illustrates a critical point in the public image of the Davidian tragedy. The image had not yet been left to the devices and resources of the Right. The Right (as embodied, for the purposes of this argument, by the director of the CAUSE Foundation) was asking to have the responsibility of defending the rights of the surviving Davidians shared across the spectrum of politically identified civil rights organizations. The retreat of the SPLC from the cause of the suits is emblematic of the retreat from that cause by nearly all organizations except Right-wing ones.
The Texas Rangers
The relationship between the Texas Rangers and the Branch Davidians is another instance of the rightward politicization of the Davidian tragedy. The Rangers are a law enforcement branch of the Texas Department of Public Safety that was originally formed to protect the white settlers of the Republic of Texas against the Indians. As a law enforcement agency, it would be consistent for the Rangers to be aligned with the BAFT and FBI regarding the Branch Davidians. However, the Rangers' investigation of the Davidian tragedy has been largely suppressed. This suppression indicates a split between the allegiances of these law enforcement agencies.
The Rangers had within their jurisdiction the crimes committed in Waco, and were prepared to conduct an autonomous investigation into the deaths of the Davidians and of the BATF agents killed in the February raid. However, the U.S. attorney's office deputized the Rangers as U.S. Marshals for the purpose of that investigation. This deputization theoretically increased the Rangers' power, since it gave them a national entitlement and corresponding access to the resources of the national powers such as the FBI laboratories. In practice, however, it neutralized the effectiveness of the Rangers' "autonomous" investigation by making the evidence collected in that investigation and the results from it FBI property. Evidence was collected by the Rangers was sent to FBI crime labs and never returned. Interviews of over sixty FBI and BATF agents were conducted by Rangers in the course of their investigation, but more than fifty of those interviews remain "classified" and unavailable to the public. It is difficult to review these facts without wondering what purpose the FBI was serving by deputizing the Rangers, if not to ensure the censure of the Rangers' investigation.
Between the involvement of Soldier of Fortune, the Texas Rangers, the Gun Owners Foundation, and the CAUSE Foundation, the Branch Davidians have succeeded in having their wrongful treatment investigated and publicized. The participation of these organizations in the telling of the Branch Davidians' story has ensconced that story within second amendment focus of the activism of the civil libertarian Right. This political life of the Davidian tragedy is quite different from the life the tragedy has led in the minds of the general public. To most Americans, the Davidian tragedy is classified with the Jonestown tragedy in a broad category of suicide cults. This classification is fairly superficial, as those who hold that association generally cease to hold it once they take a cursory look at the events. The merging of the Davidians' story with the discourse of the civil libertarian Right is much more substantial.
The Branch Davidian tragedy has been described as a story which is a public event that contains many different characteristics. To understand the relationship between the tragedy and the interests of the Right, it is possible to see these different characteristics as competing for dominance in the sphere of public sympathy. One set of these characteristics is the extent to which their plight is congruous with the values of the civil libertarian Right. Because alleged weapons illegalities was the catalytic issue in the siege, that is the set of characteristics which has taken on the dominant public meaning. The Davidians' multiethnicity, their status as a new religious movement, and their status as people wronged by the Drug War are issues that have been downplayed and have not won the Davidians free legal support, or extensive investigative reporting.
I am curious about the response of the Left to the Branch Davidian tragedy. The film Waco: The Rules of Engagement, had as its greatest strength the humanization of the Davidians. That film was the first mass publication of the videotapes the Davidians made during the siege introducing themselves and explaining their lifestyle and their commitment to David Koresh. This strength is a classically leftist strength, and in my experience has opened up the story of the Davidian tragedy to many progressive thinkers who had not before had access to earlier research that contradicted the accusations and dismissals promulgated by the mainstream press. In that case, what does it mean that the CAUSE Foundation offered to sell me a copy of the videotape of that film? Hopefully it means that the Davidian tragedy is an event so profoundly disruptive of any and all thinking and caring peoples' value systems, that slowly but surely, caring about what happened to them, and wanting to do something about it, has presented a neutral space between widely differentiated thinkers.
I had called CAUSE to check on the progress of the lawsuits they have filed against Janet Reno and the FBI on behalf of the estates of the Davidians killed on April 19, 1993. The first case has been dismissed by the judge, but the others are ongoing.
Suggested further reading: Armageddon at Waco, edited by Stuart H. Wright; From the Ashes: Making Sense of Waco edited by James Lewis.
Megan Shaw is presenting a paper on the Branch Davidian tragedy at the national conference of graduate students in geography in San Diego in February. She is an independent scholar who works full time in education research, and sees as many good movies as she can. Her website is www.home.earthlink.net/~alysons.
This essay owes a debt to Deborah Rodgers, who co-originated some of its ideas.