Stringing the Devil's Hatband

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by Judith Vinson

"It was the wire that killed them, you know?" she said. She repeated it over and over for a number of years. The answer was no, they didn't know, but they didn't say so. Because of her eighty-six years and the trauma she'd suffered, no one asked her to elaborate.

Once called a "hostage" when she left Mt. Carmel, she nevertheless had her Bible taken from her. It was replaced with an ill-fitting orange suit and handcuffs. Her ankles were chained together before she was paraded before the cameras on her way to jail.

She was frail, blind in one eye, and almost blind in the other, but along with another elderly woman, charged with murder. A rabid effort to punish someone, anyone at all, who came out. The wire that haunted her later, after the fire, seemed the least of her problems at the time. It was just one more detail among many that would never be known about the place that went up in flames on April 19, 1993.

There's a lot of wire in Texas, so much that it isn't often given much thought, although some collect antique, rusty samples and display them on rustic boards to show the progressive ingenuity of the invention that really won the West. It kept cattle in and rustlers out, but not until recently, was it known how macabre it might be, when it was used for some dance of death on a Texas prairie.

Robert Frost's "good fences make good neighbors" would once have been a puzzling, if idealistic, notion. Without the stone to build the beautiful dry-wall Frost was fond of erecting, or a veritable forest of bois de arc for the tough and unyielding fence-rows that once defined fields of the Kansas prairie, the first who settled here on the Grande Prairie seized on the newest of inventions – barbed wire. A Godsend embraced by the sodbusters that knew they would first have to secure the land if they would claim and civilize Texas. Needed by those with a single milk cow, it was hated by the cowmen, who wanted to keep Texas an open range for vast herds of cattle. It was the cause of more bloodshed than all the battles ever fought on Texas soil.

In the end, the sodbusters prevailed. Having taken a dim view of Rousseau's notion that there was no such thing as private property – just fencing a piece of unowned real estate and convincing others one owned it – they took up the challenge with a vengeance. Fleeing the destruction of Reconstruction, they came to Texas from all over. There were hill people from Kentucky and Tennessee. Quarrelsome, Bible thumping, and ill suited to live in the midst of carpetbaggers and, at length, maybe each other. There was a German Catholic pacifist from the Mid-West with little stomach for punishing the vanquished, and genteel and aristocratic Southerners from the Deep South, with their Negroes and fancy, carved chests, somehow, still in tow. They were a strange lot if ever there was one for making a new beginning together, but they rubbed elbows, quarreled, then made up long enough to burn a goodly number of courthouses containing the land titles of any number of carpetbaggers. Sometimes they killed each other, but in the end the mingled and married and multiplied to civilize a wilderness. And all with the aid of the loved and hated barbed wire the cowmen called "the Devil's hatband."

Their children and grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren would go on to the local cow colleges. Still steeped in a rural work ethic and living in a big land that left little time for contemplating one's navel, or ratiocinating about the "meaning of life," They would make their granddaddies proud by writing "Sartre is a Fartre" on university bathroom walls, graffiti left by administrators for years, which, no doubt, instructed any number of lower classmen in the prevailing wisdom of their betters.

They had little time for philosophical works, embracing, instead, novels such as Richard Adam's, Watership Down, an allegory about freedom, ethics, and human nature that reminded them of long ago places. The lesson of the "warren of the shinning wire" was not lost on them. It was a place to be feared by both rational men and reasoning rabbits, a place of confinement where they could trade freedom for some erstwhile peace and plenty – right up until the powers that be got around to popping them into a pot. Tender Berkshire rabbits for a neo-Brunswick stew. Fiver, the lupine sooth-sayer of Adam's epic knew and squealed on such a place. "Oh, no, can't you see, Hazel!" He said. "The field is full of blood."

They had places to avoid after coming from bloody places of their own. Reason failed them once and they found themselves living behind yet another kind of wire in Phu Bai, Fire Base Birmingham, and thousands of other such in-country compounds. They were places one might live or die behind a kind of wire named, strangely enough, after a beautiful Italian musical instrument. It was outfitted with razors, not reeds, designed, not to turn cattle or punish thieves, but to lacerate to the bone, sever arteries, and remove flesh. It held Gooks at bay, protected tin and tarpaper hootches, and for a time, made life safe from snipers, Punjab sticks, and the trip-wires of mines. That it might ever be used on Texas soil, much less against Texans, was inconceivable. It was the wire of war.

When the siege of Mt. Carmel began, the news reported that concertina wire had been put up around the property. At the time, the FBI was having trouble-keeping people out, not in. (One, Michael Shroeder, had already been shot and killed trying to get back in to his wife and children). A young man named Jesse Amen and later another managed to get in, they said, "to attend Bible study." After three days they came out and were promptly arrested. They were deemed "crazy" by the media with no one noting: Crazy as in "fox," since they were showing the FBI to be liars about "all those poor people being held hostage by a dangerous cult."

Not until seven years later when volunteers came to build a new church for the surviving Branch Davidians, did anyone ask about the wire. "Why are all these piles of razor wire on the site when the property lines are thousands of yards away?" they asked.

"It was the wire that killed them, you know," repeated the oldest of the survivors. "After a while, when they thought no one else was coming out, the tanks put it all around the building. They knew they weren't meant to get out, alive."

In the upcoming civil trial on June 19, 2000, no one will hear about such atrocities. A FOIA request on such matters seems filed away along with over 5,000 other related documents stamped "classified" by the Clinton administration. A similar request on the clean up of the site arrived heavily redacted, an outline of a meeting between the FBI, the EPA, and the Texas Water Commission, now called the TNRCC. It was a meeting where even middle-echelon bureaucrats with little to fear wished their names expunged from such documents. When it reached the part about whose responsibility it was for the clean up and the removal of the razor wire, "page 2" went missing altogether.

What will be heard is a lawsuit gutted early on by Walter S. Smith, a judge lacking the ethics to recuse himself after having sentenced the defendants in the criminal trial to as much as forty years in prison on weapons charges, defendants found "not guilty" by a jury. The trial this time would dispense altogether with the pretense of a jury. Were it not for public pressure that decision might have stood. And now, just three weeks shy of the trial, it is understood that Judge Smith will now allow yet another jury. One to be dismissed perhaps in other ways.

It's a wrongful death suit that loses daily in a pleading war between Smith and the lead attorney for the plaintiffs, Michael A. Caddell. An attorney, who seems to have appeared out of nowhere, and who inherited the cases of the Branch Davidians from a number of attorneys lacking the funds to handle all of them after Smith ruled the cases must be combined.

Caddell is a wealthy Houston attorney who brags to the media about being "smart." It's an accurate boast. A friend of "Slick Willie" since Arkansas and still on a caffeine high from at least one White house coffee and a dozen other White House visits, he says he sees no conflict of interest in representing a majority of the Branch Davidians. It might be believable were it not for his wallet being at least $465,500 lighter after such Clintonian encounters, according to the Federal Election Commission. Read: Scalawag or ringer. Maybe both.

What was delivered from the Clinton regime or what was expected from, what Mother Jones magazine calls, "the coin operated congress," God only knows. It might be assumed there was concern with Republican plans to limit liability from litigation, but it appears that was a rather hollow promise meant for the naïve, not the "smart."

His resume says he builds "federal prisons" – the second fastest growing segment of the economy. And maybe quite a few worldwide according to a number of constructions company web pages that bear his name. It may go a long way in explaining the present Justice Department budget request for an increase of $2.6 billion alone for prison building.

Mr. Caddell explains this all away by saying that people were only willing to "take another look at this" (the deaths of 82 Branch Davidians) because he was a member of the "establishment" and not part of some "fringe" group making outrageous claims.

In Texas, there is a saying, "You have to dance with the one who brung you." It's believed that will be the case, although Mr. Caddell believes he can dance with everyone. If he's getting a shot at a $100 million wrongful death lawsuit, it's because thousands of Christian patriots and civil libertarians devoted seven years to beating the drums to see that all the Branch Davidians' claims were heard in a court of law. Not just those of the women and children he chose to represent after hanging other innocents out to dry by dropping any claims by the men or their survivors, then publicly stating numerous times that David Koresh and the men were responsible for what happened. It appears to have escaped him that no dying was going on there until the feds arrived.

In the meantime, it might be helpful to forego dismissing Christian patriots and civil libertarians. Like the sodbusters many of them descend from, they can be counted on to string a "Devil's hatband." Fence-off one's watering hole, burn a corrupted title, and if sufficiently provoked, bust a head or two. They bend their knee to God, not men, and unlike those who once came to make war then wash their hands of killing their own kind, they have not forgotten what it was all about.

It was about civilization, not the burned-out and decayed world of Mad Max where all claims become outrageous. It was about building, not burning, and faith, not fear. Things needed for the requisite time and space, and peace that enables men to save their souls.

The state cannot deliver such a world. With no plan of their own to welcome miscreants back into the fold, no plan for the redemption that tempers the wind for the shorn lamb, they will always be driven to live behind the inky blackness of felt tipped pens, deny their transgressions, and blame their victims for their own demise.

For that reason, no one expects justice for the Branch Davidians at the hands of the government. It lacks even the smallest shred of compassion required of civilized men.

After seven years, they have been unwilling to return anything at all. Not so much as a single copy of an old book. An old, worn Bible that meant nothing to them, although, it was an old woman's only comfort and possession. For them, it was simply a souvenir of war.

Judith Vinson is a Texas rancher.

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