The moral promise of a free society involves the boundaries of private property. The promise is this: property boundaries cannot be legally invaded or trampled upon. When property is protected, people can keep the fruits of their labor and investment, and not have them plundered by others. People can own land, for example, and this land can be used as the owners see fit. Private property allows wide latitude for experimentation. Property holders can form communities with internal cultures. Just as business can conduct its own affairs, people can separate themselves out entirely from the rest of society if they so desire. They need only respect the rights of others to do the same.
It’s the nature of private property and a free society that it allows room for diversity of work, modes of production, and ways of life. That’s how Mr. Jefferson wanted it, and that’s what the authors of the Constitution promised. In the sixties, for example, hippie communes sprang up all over the country. The participants were eccentric and the utopias didn’t work, but the attempts were tolerated by society and state.
Today the promise of private property is routinely violated by both private criminals and government. The attack on property began subtly at first, but today it has become explicit, sometimes brutal, and sometimes even deadly.
The community of faith that once lived at Mount Carmel in Waco, Texas, believed the promise of free society. They chose to separate themselves from society, as so many others have done in our nation’s history. This was not allowed in Soviet Russia, Nazi Germany, or Maoist China. That’s one reason we regard these regimes as tyrannical.
Yet in its dealings with the Waco religious dissenters, the central government revealed that it has become intractably opposed to any individual or group that represents a challenge to its singular authority. To counter this challenge, the central government resorted to tactics that resulted in the death of 86 men, women, and children. As for the survivors, the government has put them on trial.
This sort of brutality is inevitable in a system of absolute and centralized power. A government that invades private business by demanding confiscatory taxes, imposes unbearable regulations, and rules over business culture through pervasive labor controls, builds an appetite for even more power. As the power builds, so does the extent of corruption at the top and the disinformation that covers up the truth about its tyranny.
So it was in Waco, where the tragic events combined all the elements of a government out of control. Most of what the public thinks it knows about David Koresh, the group’s spiritual leader, is false. But as with war, military invasions, and other acts of state as J.S. Griffey of the University of Houston argued in an outstanding article in the Southern Partisan the first impression is the one that lasts.
For example, most people probably believe that the government attacked the Waco Christians because they were “stockpiling” weapons. Were they? Texans own 60 million firearms, about 3.5 per person. At Mt. Carmel there were two firearms per person, most of them locked away. The rest of their protection consisted of hay bales and plywood.
The stockpiling accusation was an act of projection, for the real stockpiler was the government. In the attack on Waco, agents used MI 13 personnel carriers, M2AO Bradley fighting vehicles, Sikorsky Blackhawks, Apache and UH-1 Bell helicopters, Abrams MI tanks, 7.62mm machine guns, FBI SWAT snipers, two varieties of hand grenades, and the FBI’s psychological warfare experts. The government even fired canisters of CS gas, banned in warfare by international treaty, through windows and walls.
The BATF got their helicopters from the Texas National Guard. Under the law, the military cannot be involved in domestic law enforcement. But a special provision of the U.S. Code allows the government to use military equipment in drug cases. So the BATF told Texas governor Ann Richards that they suspected Mount Carmel had a drug lab. This canard was not in the BATF’s search warrants and it hasn’t been mentioned since.
Did Koresh want a confrontation with law enforcement agents? All evidence indicates he desired good relations with the law. In 1992, Koresh had actually invited the BATF into the compound so agents could see for themselves. But the government reneged. “Why do you all have to be so big all the time?” Koresh asked the FBI during the month-long standoff. “Why didn’t you just talk to me?”
Did the community have a death wish? Twenty minutes before the fire began, the community hung out a sign reading: “We want our phones fixed.” (The government had cut them off, along with the electricity.) That’s not a message sent by people hungering for the Apocalypse. None of the survivors report discussion of suicide plans.
There is still no evidence that the religious people set the fire that destroyed their building. The place was a firetrap, entirely made of wood and sealed shut. Since the government had cut off their electricity, lanterns were their only light. The government shot out the windows, so sheets were their only protection from the weather. The tanks that battered the building probably set the fire, either accidentally or deliberately.
The initial raid was on February 28, 1993. Several people say the government shot through the roof from a helicopter, but we cannot know for sure. The physical evidence is reduced to ashes, and the government plowed the land over a week after the home went up in flames.
As the standoff continued, the women and children were upstairs because they were afraid of the government. The tanks destroyed the stairways that would have allowed them to escape the fire. The underground shelter was destroyed as well.
After the fire, the FBI made three claims it later retracted. First, the Bureau said that two agents saw community members lighting a fire. Second, the Bureau said one agent saw someone dressed in black “cupping his hands,” as if to light a fire. Third, the Bureau said some members trying to flee the fire were shot by others. All assertions were false and were subsequently dropped.
The Justice Department contributed its share of lies. Spokesmen said an “independent arson investigator” concluded that members of the community started the fire. But the “independent investigator” turned out to be Paul Gray, an agent for the BATF from 1962 to 1990 whose wife stills works for the agency as secretary to the man who planned the raid. They apparently could not be sure a genuinely independent investigator would come to the preordained conclusion.
The stated purpose of the raid was to save children from abuse. Yet Janet Reno lied about that too. The information she used was already discredited, and she later admitted it. The real child abuse was committed by the government: to harass community members, the FBI turned on massive floodlights at night and played recordings of Buddhist chants, dental drills, and screaming, slaughtered rabbits. Reno herself ordered the house to be saturated with CS gas, knowing that the community’s gas masks couldn’t fit the children.
In ways that have become typical, the media and government worked together in this disaster. One day before the raid, the Waco Tribune-Herald started a series on “The Sinful Messiah.” On the morning of February 28, 1993, before BATF arrived at Mt. Carmel, at least 11 reporters were on the scene already. After the religious community was torched, the entire media participated in the beatification of Janet Reno for her actions in Waco.
The consequences for the victims were public humiliation and death. There were zero consequences for the perpetrators, unless we consider the three agents who were suspended with pay and perks, which is no punishment at all.
The methods and strategies of the government’s assault against Waco had been used for years by the military, but against foreign governments and their leaders, not against the domestic citizenry. The most familiar case of foreign intrigue was the government’s attack on Manuel Noriega, in which it used similar tactics (blaring music, planting evidence, spreading disinformation), and therein lies the connection between foreign policy and domestic. Anything a government allows itself to do to foreign countries will eventually be done at home. That’s one reason George Washington warned us against foreign entanglements.
We may never know the full truth about Waco or the extent of government perfidy, but we can draw lessons from the experience. This particular event was a fiasco, but it also tells something about what our government has become: “the organizer-in-chief of society,” as Bertrand de Jouvenel said, which is “making its monopoly of this role ever more complete.” It is a parasite and a monster that acts to protect itself. Mises was right: government’s nature is coercive. It is “beating, killing, hanging.” Coercion is necessary in society to protect the rights of property holders against those who do not respect property. But when government itself become the source of arbitrary violence, we have tyranny. That’s why unchecked power should never be invested in a centralized government, even one with a democratic mandate. This power will invariably be exercised at the expense of peaceful social relations.
In its dealings with the community of believers at Mount Carmel, the central government abandoned the moral promise of a free society, and, as all tyrannies eventually do, ignored its own standards of law and ethics. But it paid the price of losing some measure of public confidence, which is already at historic lows. A government that governs by fear alone eventually finds itself unable to govern at all.
Dr. Ron Paul is a Republican member of Congress from Texas.