Every year around this time, I find it worthwhile to reflect on the siege at Mt. Carmel, just outside of Waco, Texas, which began on February 28, 1993, when an ATF publicity stunt went awry, and ended 51 days later on April 19 with about 80 civilians killed.
Waco is still important, because it illustrates the violent nature of the state, the fact that political power flows from the barrel of a gun, and the scary truth that the U.S. government is ultimately no different from all others in this respect. Many people, including many libertarians, would just as soon forget the debacle. But we must remember.
Thirteen years ago the federal government of the United States ended its altercation with a group of peaceful religious separatists — a conflict the government had initiated — by driving a tank through the Branch Davidians’ home and church, pumping the interior with poisonous gas, and keeping the fire engines at a distance while the building and the people inside burned.
For many Americans, Waco represented the nightmare their government had become. In those days, it was the right that spoke out against unchecked government power, erosions of the Bill of Rights, and the imperial executive. Such criticism was tempered in its radicalism over the next decade, for a variety of reasons. The most dramatic was probably the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah building in Oklahoma City, which occurred on Waco’s two-year anniversary, saving the Clinton presidency from a populace becoming wary of government power as its partisans successfully blamed the terrorist attack on anti-government attitudes. We were to believe that even the mild criticism of government heard on mainstream conservative radio was aiding the terrorists. In more recent times, as I discussed a year ago in my article u201CWaco, Oklahoma City, and the Post-9/11 Left-Right Dynamic,u201D we have seen a similar trend going in the opposite direction, with the right siding with the omnipotent state and accusing the left of siding with those who want to destroy America.
Yet Waco is neither a leftwing nor rightwing issue. It is instead an issue that transcends such political categories and cuts to the most profound of questions as to what kind of country this is, what kind it should be, and the very meanings of liberty and tyranny.
At Waco, the U.S. government treated the Branch Davidians as any total state might treat its most alienated subjects. It broke into their home aggressively, shot at them recklessly and mockingly defiled their graves. It blocked off their water and their communications with family, counsel and the press. It waged psychological warfare on them. It showed no mercy on the little children that it gassed. It imprisoned the survivors, including one man who wasn’t even in the building during the siege. The Davidians were effectively dehumanized by the central state’s lapdog press, and so all too few voices, even on the hyper-sensitive left, came to their defense when Clinton and Reno’s federal police stampeded them under their weight.
There are always groups that receive less sympathy when they go head to head with the state, and the ruling class knows it and thrives off it. During the 1990s, there was more hatred of the militia types and more fear of the rightwing separatists. Nowadays, the scapegoat is Arabs and Muslims. For years, in different ways and to varying extents, it’s also been illegal drug users, non-citizens, foreigners, gun owners, home-schoolers, prostitutes, tobacco smokers, divorced fathers, and independent entrepreneurs among others. It can be one group that endures the jackboot today and a seemingly opposing group that suffers tomorrow.
But the primary concern for a free society is not which kinds of people should have their freedom smashed. The real concern is liberty for all. The capacity of the state to divide peaceful people into groups and set them against one another is its capacity to oppress. When anyone is victimized by the state, all who believe in and love the universal values of freedom, as well as the finer principles on which America was founded, have a moral obligation to oppose it.
A government than can get away with what it did at Waco is essentially unleashed, constrained only by its own whim. Waco is a reflection of a greater problem. Look at the many laws and policies in America leading up to Waco, and Waco shouldn’t be any surprise. Look at Waco, and Bush’s fascist policies all fall into place.
The continuity between the Clinton and Bush presidencies on issues of civil liberties demonstrates something that many people don’t want to wrap their minds around. America’s police state is utterly bipartisan. It is designed to persist and indeed extend its reach with each administration, no matter the party in charge. In fact, the political party illusion serves to distract people from the real issues, the state’s trampling of our liberties, and instead devote their hopeful attention and energy to getting one dictatorial gang elected rather than the other.
Both Clinton and Bush have gotten away with massive prosecutorial abuses, federal police brutality and dramatic attacks on due process for the accused, all while the people have argued over which side is the worse liar and central manager and not how best to restore liberty in America. So Bush’s Patriot Act is condemned by the left while Clinton’s assaults on privacy were ignored or encouraged. The right called Clinton’s seizure of Elian Gonzalez tyrannical, but think Bush has the u201Cinherent authorityu201D to detain and abuse people without trial or due process. The left laments how loyally the mainstream media toed Bush’s line on WMD in Iraq, but wasn’t nearly as critical when the media parroted Clinton’s Kosovo war propaganda. Clinton’s gun grabbing was decried as totalitarian by the right, whereas the Bush federal government got away with door-to-door gun confiscations in New Orleans after Katrina. (The federal response to Katrina alone should have lost Bush all of his support among those who found Waco unacceptable. Or is the militarization of domestic policy and law enforcement only a nuisance if its instigator is a known liar about his past with sex and drugs?)
The worst of this problem of the bipartisan police state is seen in the u201Cthey did it, so why can’t we?u201D form of argument. How many times in the last four or five years have we heard Bush’s defenders cite something horrifying that Clinton did or said as evidence that Bush’s actions aren’t as beyond the pale as his critics claim, after all? This is a disingenuous line of argument coming from those who lambasted Clinton last decade. But it is effective so long as Americans care more about their team winning the electoral championship every four years than about the fact that the whole game is fixed.
If Clinton’s officials conducted a large civilian massacre on American soil, should Bush be allowed to as well? One interesting thought experiment is to ponder what would have happened if it had been Bush who torched the Branch Davidian home. My guess is that he’d get away with it just as Clinton did. In contrast, however, the American right would not be nearly as outraged as it was, or pretended to be, in the early 1990s. The left, on the other hand, would be quite enraged, far more than it actually was 13 years ago. It might even point out that half of Bush’s victims at the Waco siege were persons of color. As it actually happened, the left didn’t even notice the demographics of the slaughtered. You see, the establishment left typically saves the race card to play in partisan games.
America’s had this bipartisan police state for a long time. It was Republican Abraham Lincoln who waged war on half the country and suspended the Bill of Rights in the other half. It was Democrat Woodrow Wilson who really honed the art of imprisoning dissenters. It was the Republicans in the 1920s who adamantly enforced alcohol prohibition. Democrat Franklin Roosevelt tossed the Japanese Americans in concentration camps. When Republicans turned the heat on leftists during the Cold War, they were only emulating their Democrat predecessors’ surveillance and harassment of Old-Right and far-left dissenters in the 30s and 40s. The war on drugs has been advanced, expanded and internationalized by members of both parties. Both Republicans and Democrats are fervently pro-gun control. Neither party has ever done anything significant to rein in the IRS. And just as Clinton’s men helped to whitewash the massacre at Ruby Ridge, which occurred on the first Bush’s watch, Republican fixers were eager to cover up the Clinton administration’s wrongdoing at Waco.
The trend continues today. We can make a strong case that Bush and his cadre have set some precedents, but the Democratic opposition offers little hope. Bush spies on Americans with no regard for the Bill of Rights or even the meager statutory restraints imposed on him, and all the Democrats do is whine that they weren’t in on the snooping, and that next time they want to be informed. Of course, they have an interest in keeping the police state healthy and strong. The idea that Hillary Clinton would be more sensitive to civil liberties if she were at the empire’s helm is too absurd for words.
Waco should remind us that Democrats are no more restrained than the Republicans when it comes to being u201Ctough on crime,u201D if all that entails is using the bludgeon of state power against all social elements the ruling class has deemed less than human. It should also remind us that that bludgeon is no more surgically precise or benevolent no matter who wields it, and how corrupting it is for those who do. This should really be obvious by now, as the Bush government has turned Iraq into one big Branch Davidian compound and now appears poised to give the Waco treatment to Tehran.
If ever Americans are to have their rightful liberty, a political realignment must emerge that shatters the dishonest and distracting constructs of left and right, Democrat and Republican, and focuses instead on liberty versus the state. Asking a liberal what he thinks of Waco might give you an idea of whether he tends toward liberty or statism. Asking a conservative about Iraq may provide similar illumination. The atrocity apologists on left and right should be seen as on the same side on the general issue of absolute power. And those of us who oppose mass murder should work together against the bipartisan police state.
Anthony Gregory [send him mail] is a writer and musician who lives in Berkeley, California. He is a research analyst at the Independent Institute. See his webpage for more articles and personal information.