Waco and the Corruption of Liberalism

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The mainstream press is trying to ignore it, but the government’s role in the fire at Waco seven years ago is finally on trial, thanks to the wrongful-death lawsuit brought by the victims’ families. At last, the possibility for establishing wrongdoing now presents itself.

There is no chance, however, for true justice. The men, women, and children gassed and burned at government hands cannot be brought back to life. There will be no jail terms for those responsible. At best, the families may get some monetary compensation. And perhaps we will see an end to the blaming of the victims and the jailing of those who managed to survive.

How telling that this trial takes place while Bill Clinton is busy trying to buff up his image for the history books. Doesn’t he know that after the smoke of the last eight years clears, the Waco massacre will emerge as the most significant domestic event of his presidency? He should have been forced out in the days following the incident. Congress should have impeached him then instead of pretending that his worst crime was fibbing about his White House sexual romps.

Waco will be remembered forever because it sums up key features of the political culture of the 1990s: the untrammeled power of the presidency, the complicity of the media in covering up federal crimes, the bias against religion among the power elite, and the disregard of individual rights that is habitual in our time. How ironic, how telling, that all these developments have taken place under the cloak of "liberalism," a word that once referred to the attempt to circumscribe the power of the state.

Who can forget the live pictures of the Davidian community in flames? Clearly, the government was murdering those people. For weeks, they had been fighting for life against a government that was terrorizing them. This was no doomsday cult bent on suicide. For some strange reason, and it’s never been entirely clear why, the government hated those people.

After the massacre, one hoped that even liberals would have sensed the injustice. Surely the old lefties in the White House would recall their past as crusaders against federal militarization, their shock at Kent State, their sympathies with marginalized groups, and rise up to denounce this federal oppression. Surely there would be shock and outrage, even within the executive department. Resignations would follow. Clinton would be discredited, and those responsible for this outrage would be brought to justice.

It was not to be so. Over the next few weeks, the media cooperated with the Clinton administration in an amazing coverup of what was plainly evident. Far from investigating the fire and the lies of the White House, the media cabal demonized the Branch Davidians and smeared anyone — the "lunatic fringe" — sympathetic with their plight.

We were told that they had probably committed suicide, or, if they hadn’t, they merited no sympathy because of their crazy religion and/or child abuse and/or gun stockpiling and/or drug use. Take your pick of crimes; the Branch Davidians, most of them dead with the survivors hauled off to prison, were not in a position to defend themselves. Reno went on television to "take responsibility." How courageous she is, the news weeklies told us.

The meaning of the event had a further significance. It was the largest display in the post-war period of what has become of American liberalism: not a movement dedicated to protecting the liberties of minorities or the rights of citizens, but to defending every manner of coercion at the hands of the Leviathan state. It is for political reasons that they turn a blind eye to the crimes of states they support.

This same fanatical ideology denied that the Soviets had committed crimes against humanity in the Ukraine and the Gulag. After all, these crimes were committed in the name of progress, which to the leftist mind means collectivization and the eradication of bourgeois prejudices. This same cast of mind seeks to deny that the Clinton administration did anything wrong in Waco. Even the government’s case boils down to the claim that if the Davidians had only obeyed the government, there would have been no deaths; hence, it is the fault of the Davidians.

In 1993, these American liberals, who had just finished cheering on the destruction of Iraq and would later whoop it up as bombs fell on Serbia, were willing to defend the use of military weapons against American citizens who were minding their own business. For liberals, it was enough that Janet Reno had decided to move against those people. That alone was proof they deserved it. Liberalism, which embraced statism in the Progressive Era, the planned economy in the 30s, and outright redistributionism in the 1960s, has become nothing more than state worship.

How pathetic, too, to witness Congress’s attempts to investigate what had happened at Waco. A committee summoned various lackeys from the administration to testify. Lie after lie went unchallenged. Witnesses with phony stories prattled on and Congressmen and their staffs listened as if to the gospel. The committee disbanded with the White House vindicated. But the issue wouldn’t go away, thanks to public pressure and the hard work of a handful of political dissidents.

That event also symbolized something about the present state of the Constitution: instead of the balance of power, we live under a de facto executive dictatorship. The White House never felt the need to ask permission of the Congress before it undertook the raid, and the Congress never raised a serious challenge to the White House’s assertion of complete sovereignty. Our elected representatives provided the illusion of participatory government, while Reno and various anonymous and unelected underlings held the reins of government in reality.

In the old days, the American system was supposed to exemplify the ideals of democracy and self government. Not for us the system of autocratic rule, where one man can dictate policy at the expense of natural liberty. No indeed: we had a government of laws to which even the rulers were subjected. But beginning decades ago and culminating in the Clinton administration, we have tolerated regimes in love with their own power. In the Clinton years, this has been exemplified in the Executive Order, which Paul Begala, the glib Friend of Bill, famously described this way: “Stroke of the pen. Law of the land. Kinda cool."

Kinda despotic, actually. And that kind of crack exhibits a totalitarian mentality. But it perfectly captures the willingness of the present regime to use any means to hold on to power. Thus is the state of liberalism today. There are no ideals left. There is precious little public support for their goals. There is only raw power, wielded by courts that ignore the Constitution and unelected bureaucrats who believe themselves to be a people set apart.

In the former Soviet Union and its former East Bloc, in Latin America, and in much of Europe, the term liberal refers to those who want a society and economy free from the shackles of state control. Pascal Salin of the University of Paris has just come out with a massive volume with the title Liberalism, the purpose of which is to recapture the full sense of the term as used by Ludwig von Mises in his 1927 book of the same name.

In this tradition, liberalism means individual rights, capitalism, decentralism. The horrible reality is that in America, the term liberalism refers to the exact opposite: the unquestioned power of the executive to carry off state violence as in Waco, and to do so with neither permission nor reprisal from any other branch of government or the media.

Political philosopher Paul Gottfried, author of After Liberalism: Mass Democracy in the Managerial State, has recently noted the new vogue for the term "post-liberalism." It refers to the theory that freedom is essentially dangerous because it permits inequalities, discrimination, and secession from civic culture. The modern state cannot tolerate this.

In place of freedom, post-liberalism seeks a total state to reconstruct people’s thinking, to coerce their every association, to manage every business, and to prohibit the exercise of private ownership and decision-making. Post-liberalism is also ruthless: it dreams of eradicating its enemies by any means necessary.

This is the basis of nearly every act of tyranny committed in present-day America. This is the basis of the Supreme Court’s decision on prayer at sports events. It is the basis of the Eeoc’s relentless attack on business. It is what’s behind the federally imposed curriculum in the public schools. It is what sustains the welfare-warfare state. It is the genesis of the whole of the modern statist enterprise.

If the court should rule that the Waco victims’ families deserve compensation, or that those responsible for the invasion of property and the taking of life should face some sort of reprisal, it would nicely symbolize the coming turn of events: the end of the Clinton era and the possible new dawn of a day when the state is no longer permitted absolute power.

What we need is not another post-liberal regime but a new appreciation of classical liberalism in order to replace the frightening corruption of the last eight years and before. When our communities are safe from federal tanks, our property is our own, our associations are private affairs, and our businesses are permitted to serve customers and not the state, we will know that true liberalism has returned.

Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr., is president of the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama. He also edits a daily news site, LewRockwell.com.

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