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The Tenth Anniversary of the Siege at Waco and April 2003

The tenth anniversary of the Waco tragedy occurs amid a national crisis of civil rights and a war against terrorism that could become the next world war. It cannot escape its context within the current wartime wave of inward-directed aggression.

Megan Shaw Prelinger

Issue #67, April 2004

Ten years ago last spring, 80 civilians died in Waco, Texas, following a prolonged assault on their home by the army's elite Delta Force.

The Delta Force staged its assault with Bradley armored fighting vehicles (AFVs), armored personnel carriers best known for their use by American forces in the last two Gulf wars. The civilian dead included many immigrants, people of color, elderly, and children. They were members of the Branch Davidian church, and when they died they had been trapped in their home by federal forces for 51 days.

The tenth anniversary of that tragedy occurs amid a national crisis of civil rights and a war against terrorism that could become the next world war. It cannot escape its context within the current wartime wave of inward-directed aggression. While war continues to rage in the Middle East, the long reach of the Patriot Act is continuing a long-standing pattern of wartime federal aggression against immigrants. The FBI is holding round-the-clock informal 'conversations' with Arab-Americans. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has absorbed the functions of the former Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). Immigrants from 26 predominantly Muslim countries are required to register with the government.

The specific targeting of Muslims frames the current anti-immigrant initiatives in bold terms of a religious opponent. The army is not yet knocking at the door of suspected Muslim fundamentalists with flash-bang grenades and open gunfire. But ten years ago this is exactly how the chosen Other was treated.

The Siege

The siege of the Branch Davidians began with a botched raid on the group's home by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (BATF). The BATF had come to serve a warrant for illegal weapons. Its warrant ignored the fact that the group's gun holdings were within normal limits for residents of Texas. It ignored the fact that the group was on good terms with its local law enforcement, and had invited weapons inspections at any time. Using militarized police tactics, the raid was staged as a 'dynamic, no-knock entry,' which means entering with flash-bang grenades and open gunfire. The BATF killed six Branch Davidians that day, lost four agents in return fire, then called in the FBI for reinforcement. The FBI called in the army.

Tanks roll on Branch Davidian compound

At the conclusion of the eventful 51-day siege, the army used heavy duty Bradley AFVs to punch holes in the walls of the church complex and insert CS gas. When exposed to flame, CS gas produces hydrogen chloride, the gas used in execution chambers. Three months prior to the siege at Waco, in January 1993, the United States had agreed at the Chemical Weapons Convention in Paris not to use CS gas during wartime. Unfortunately peacetime use against civilians was not ruled out. When the gas met the kerosene lanterns the group was using for light, firestorms and gas clouds erupted.

How It Was First Remembered

In 1993 the United States was awash with panic about gun-wielding cultists. Fear of Islamic militants was just entering the mainstream as a result of the first attack on the World Trade Center, but Islamophobia had not yet eclipsed fear of the enemy within. When Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, whose teachings inspired the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, was featured on the cover of Time, he shared the cover with David Koresh, leader of the Branch Davidian community. The Davidian community was perceived as an equal threat to the wellbeing of the United States, on a par with World Trade Center attackers, even though the group had never attacked anyone.

The mass suicide of 900 cultists at Jonestown, Guyana, 15 years earlier was still within reach of public memory. In the 1980s there was heavy reporting of militant white supremacist separatist churches such as The Covenant, The Sword, and the Arm of the Lord. Fears that loved ones could be kidnapped by crazed cultists, or killed by white supremacists, were real to many people. Mainstream, coastal-dwelling Americans looked with an anxious eye to the heartland for hordes of a dangerous Other.

The BATF was humiliated in the initial raid and the news media defended them. The Branch Davidian community was dismissed as a cult in local, national, and international news, both print and broadcast. The siege and prolonged assault of its members was publicly framed from coast to coast with several broad prejudicial discourses. Runaway gun culture, dangerous millennialists from the heartland, and the specter of another Jonestown confirmed the threat supposedly posed by the Branch Davidians. These discourses were so totalizing that they diverted all attention away from the staggering civil rights violations of the siege.

Early advocacy for the Branch Davidians was limited to civil libertarians whose lobbying centered on gun rights. These lobbyists faced a cultural divide separating them from ruling antigun opinion makers and government officials. Opinion makers and officials were answerable to the suburban conventions of their electorate. They had no need to take up the cause of people who had come to symbolize a significant perceived threat to their constituents. The tragedy at Waco was ghettoized for years.

Yet while the mainstream was sleeping, filmmakers, independent journalists, sociologists, media critics, scholars of religion, and historians began slowly to reframe public memory of the event. Many of their books, films, and other interpretive works have proliferated since the mid-1990s. The 1995 book Why Waco? Cults and the Battle for Religious Freedom in America sympathetically contextualized the group's history and beliefs. The 1997 film Waco: The Rules of Engagement exposed the brutality of the bias inherent to most of the reporting about the siege. Most recently, the film Urban Warrior (2002) mentioned the tragedy at Waco in its most appropriate context for a secular audience: the rise of domestic militarization.

The Militarized Public Sphere

As explicated in Christian Parenti's Lockdown America: Police and Prisons in the Age of Crisis, the initial raid on the Branch Davidians is consistent with the style of militarized policing to which immigrants and the poor became regularly subjected in the 1990s. Starting in 1995, technology transfer amendments enabled the Department of Defense to begin offloading disused military equipment to civilian police forces. Between 1995 and 1997 the department distributed more than 3,800 M-16 assault rifles, 73 M-79 grenade launchers and 112 armored personnel carriers.

The presence of these armaments in the hands of civilian officers has disabled any last thought that the fabled Posse Comitatus Act might save the populace from the deadly force designed to vanquish foreign armies. In 1807, Congress declared the army to be the enforcer of national law. But in 1878, following a bloody period of post-Civil War reconstruction in the south, the army was removed from everyday peacekeeping duties by the Posse Comitatus Act, which gained a mythic weight over subsequent decades. The act became endowed with the widespread and utopian misconception that it designated the US's standing army exclusively for wars against foreign armies.

But the act only removed the army from ordinary law enforcement. It did not prohibit the army, or other federal forces, from other inward-directed acts of aggression. The army remained on legal standby for intervention in domestic disturbances, and it developed an involved domestic intelligence gathering and intimidation force.

During World War I, the army formed the MI-4 intelligence service to spy on civilians. Recent European immigrants were under suspicion of harboring traitorous loyalties to their former home countries. Together with labor activists whose projects were perceived as threatening to the lines of mechanical production upon which the war effort relied, they were heavily spied on and reported on. During World War II Japanese-Americans and to a lesser extent German-Americans were targeted. The army's forced incarceration of thousands of Japanese-Americans between 1942 and 1945 is unequaled in the US's history of immigrant oppression.

In 1965, the US Army Intelligence Command was formed to focus inward aggression on civil rights activists. And in 1968 the army created the Civil Disturbance Collection Plan to spy on civilians suspected of being associated with the civil rights and antiwar movements.

The Posse Comitatus Act was amended in 1986 to allow the army to fight the domestic 'war on drugs.' It was through this loophole that the Delta Force ended up surrounding the Branch Davidians at Waco with high power Bradley tanks left over from the first Gulf war. Earlier tenants of the Branch Davidians' property had once used one of its buildings as a meth lab. The presence of Delta Force in American streets is not unique to Waco. In 1999 this high-powered unit was again used against civilians, this time against anarchist protesters at the WTO meeting in Seattle.

April 2003

The tenth anniversary of the siege of the Branch Davidians occurs in the context of a brutal war and a sinister series of compromises on civil liberties. Since the attacks on New York and Washington of September 2001, the government's jihad against Islamic fundamentalists has assumed epic proportions. For example, during the week of this essay's writing, George W. Bush framed his conquest of Baghdad as 'God's will.' The home front of this war has predictably focused in on Americans of Middle East descent; 26 'at-risk' countries have been identified as possible sources of immigrants who might promulgate terror.

The FBI is questioning Iraqi-Americans door-to-door; other 'at-risk' immigrants are merely required to register. The Department of Homeland Security has absorbed the functions of the Immigration and Naturalization Service; collapsing the historic distinction between the granting of civilian travel visas and defense screening. For everyone else, there are the department's new spying powers. This department's chief weapon of terror is the power to strip individuals of their citizenship based solely on suspicion of association with so-called 'terrorist' groups. The department is equipped with an officer of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, but this officer is not empowered to investigate abuses by department officials.

Right now, the religious war at home is being waged with civility. After all, many Muslim immigrants to the United States are well educated and hold white collar jobs in research and engineering. The war on immigrants that is waged by spying and tracking tends to follow a class line that distinguishes it from the war waged on immigrants with Department of Defense hand-me-downs. The tanks and guns are largely reserved for working-class immigrants from Mexico and Central America, and for the American underclass.


In 1970, the American Civil Liberties Union sued the army, arguing that the Civil Disturbance Collection Plan amounted to illegal spying on civilians. Amazingly, in 1971 they won their case. The Civil Disturbance Collection Plan was rescinded, and the data that had been collected was destroyed.

Encouraging as this bit of history may be, it cannot be presumed that history will happen again in this same way. The DHS's spying program has been born even with the full knowledge of this recent history. Although no groups of immigrants or religious Others are currently facing federal forces down the sight line of a Bradley AFV, history does tend to repeat itself. The United States repeatedly constructs new immigrant groups as dangerous and builds public fear about them. It routinely subjects them to harsh hazing rituals. It is the survivors of these hazing rituals that are assimilated into the melting pot.

It is also noteworthy that the tendency of the US government to militarize its relationships with immigrants and marginal groups is intact throughout history irrespective of which party is in control, or whether the ruling party has a reputation for being 'liberal' or 'conservative.' The siege of the Branch Davidians occurred during the Clinton administration, as did the technology transfer of equipment from the Department of Defense to civilian police forces. To see our way out of this repeating bitter loop will require a deeper break from tradition than our customary rotations of power are prepared to manifest.

Megan Shaw Prelinger is a writer and wildlife rehabilitator in San Francisco. She is a partner in the Prelinger Archives, and moonlights as an outsider librarian.

Credit: Photograph of tanks rolling on Branch Davidian compound at Waco from Colorado State University, History Department.

Copyright © 2004 by Megan Shaw Prelinger. All rights reserved.