The Real Tragedy of Waco

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April 19 marked
the 14-year anniversary of the BATF-FBI massacre of the Branch Davidians
at Waco, Texas. Some might say that the use of the word “massacre”
is harsh, instead opting to call it a “tragedy.” After
close examination of the events of April 19, 1993, however, any
reasonable person must conclude that massacre is the appropriate
term. The tragedy is that all too many Americans failed to reach
this conclusion when the news about Waco broke and that the lessons
of Waco still go unrecognized by so many.

The events
at Waco have become part of American mythology. Ask someone what
happened and the likely response will be that the ATF was just doing
its job, protecting the American people from a bunch of religious
fanatics with machine guns. Sure, things got out of hand, they’ll
say, but the fault lies with David Koresh and the Davidians, just
as Janet Reno and Bill Clinton said.

Well, what
Janet Reno and Bill Clinton didn’t say was this: the Davidians
were initially subjected to a paramilitary raid by a heavily armed
force nearly the size of an army company. The federal government
then employed bizarre psychological warfare, including blaring out
sounds of rabbits being slaughtered and Nancy Sinatra’s hit
song “These Boots Were Made for Walking,” as well as using
unreasonable and unnecessary force, including military tanks, helicopters,
and chemical weapons.

In the subsequent
investigations, the government whitewashed the incident, suggesting
to the American people that it was more important to “put the
incident behind us” than to uncover the truth. In spite of
all this, however, instead of being held accountable for criminally
negligent (or perhaps worse) acts, those involved in the Waco massacre
were actually praised.

Under the legal
concept of isonomy, all citizens should be subject to the same laws.
This was the message sent to King John when he was forced to sign
the Magna Carta in 1215, essentially agreeing that the will of the
King was bound by law. In America today, we are sending a much different
message to the people in government. When politicians are praised
for actions that result in mass murder, there is something shockingly

The message
that Americans are sending the government today is “You know
best. We trust you. Do whatever you deem necessary.” Remember
the argument in the lead-up to the Iraq War? “We must trust
the administration; it knows more facts than we do.” As it
turns out, all these assumptions were wrong. Too many Americans
treat the government as if it were populated with Homo superiorus,
people endowed with superior wisdom and benevolence. Military Commissions
Act? No problem. NSA domestic spying? They’re only listening
to the bad guys. Destroy habeas corpus? That only applies to terrorists.
Eliminate posse comitatus? They’d never use the military against
us. Yet if everybody in government is so wonderful and trustworthy,
how do we explain Waco?

The lesson
that we should have learned from Waco is that we have a right, indeed
a duty, to be suspicious and distrustful of our government. For
generations, this suspicion was a uniquely American quality. However,
during World War II and then the Cold War, Americans began to trust
their government. As with totalitarian regimes, American politicians
recognized the benefits of having foreign enemies, even imaginary
ones. People band behind their government, seeking protection from
the enemy. We now live with that legacy.

At Waco, 80
of our fellow Americans (including both Davidians and ATF agents)
were killed because of the federal government’s negligence
and aggression. Most of us swallowed the government’s story.
Seemingly every day, more of our civil liberties are threatened
and restricted. We accept this as normal in a post-9/11 world. Time
and again, mini-Wacos occur when police, who often suffer no consequences
for their actions, terrorize and sometimes kill innocent people
and nonviolent offenders in no-knock drug raids. We are told these
incursions are simply a result of the government protecting us from
the evils of illicit drugs. There is no law saying that this is
the natural way of things, but until Americans once again look upon
their government with distrust, hold the people in government accountable
for what they do, and reevaluate the legitimate role of government
in a free society, we will continue down this path.

If we fail
to treat Waco as a wake-up call to change our attitudes toward government,
then that will be the true tragedy.

25, 2007

Jacobs [send him mail]
is a writer residing in Tennessee.

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