“I do not think the United States government is responsible because a bunch of religious fanatics decided to kill themselves…”
~ Bill Clinton, April 20, 1993
“It all goes back to Waco” has become a frequent rejoinder in Libertarian circles and there is much merit to this profound sentiment. To many, the 1993 FBI-Delta Force assault on Mt. Carmel has come to symbolize the malign potential of the lawless state. Further, the February BATF raid and its deadly aftermath graphically articulated the worst fears of those who oppose the lethal convergence of police and military. Yet in a recent National Review On-Line (NRO) essay penned by Libertarian scholars Paul H. Blackman and David Kopel, the historical significance of this tragic event is inexplicably discarded.
Entitled “Waco Lessons for War,” the November 6th editorial ostensibly urges Pentagon strategists to taken into account the strident Islamic beliefs which characterize Muslim terror groups. However, in the process of dispensing this advice, the two authors inadvertently rely on some of the more spurious government claims about the Branch Davidian religious sect.
While the discriminating researcher would be hard-pressed to equate a largely pacifistic spiritual community with Afghanistan's ruthless Taliban fighters, Blackman and Kopel make little distinction between the two. Indeed, the essay draws a parallel between the battle-hardened Afghan rebels and the Davidians who are described as yet another group “sincerely devoted to do evil.” With this sweeping generalization, a diverse congregation which included musicians, Biblical scholars, Harvard graduates, religious seekers, mothers, children, and senior citizens is transformed into a malevolent band of religious warriors.
In fact, readers are informed that the February 28 BATF raid on Mt. Carmel was repulsed because the Branch Davidians allegedly “fought with the zeal of martyrs” causing the most “humiliating defeat” in the agency's history.
Not only does this grossly mischaracterize the nature of the February raid, but the use of the term “defeat” is highly disingenuous. This wasn't a confrontation between two equal military forces, but an agency of the federal government seeking to search a private residence and arrest one individual: David Koresh. Nevertheless, Blackman and Kopel portray the religious group as a unique military entity with its own faith-based esprit de corps.
The fact that Koresh and his followers were tipped off to the impending the raid and failed to give themselves up is submitted as further evidence that the allegedly “evil” Davidians “fully expected to be massacred at the hands of u2018Babylon' (the American government).” Kopel and Blackman substantiate this by citing the testimony of “apostate Branch Davidians” and ATF agents.
However, the vindictive opinions of disaffected church members and self-serving ATF agents cannot be considered credible sources of information and it's surprising that Blackman and Kopel would even entertain such a notion especially in light of their extensive knowledge of this particular topic.
A cursory examination of the evidence indicates that if anyone was preparing for a violent confrontation it was ATF. In the weeks leading up to the blundered raid, agency officials were openly soliciting the assistance of military officials and the use of the Army Urban Terrain facility at Ft. Hood, TX. It is now known that these tactical preparations directly contradicted the express wishes of then US Attorney William Johnston who, according to the Treasury Department report “informed ATF early in the investigation that he would not authorize a search warrant” for the Davidian property “if it was to be executed through a siege-style operation.”
Without debating the question of whether or nor the arrest of Koresh was warranted, it is certainly not difficult to surmise that his apprehension by federal law enforcement needn't have cost any lives. Texas firearms dealer Henry McMahon has repeatedly testified that the sectarian leader was well aware he was under investigation for violating federal firearms statutes and willingly offered to cooperate with ATF agents. Moreover, federal officials have yet to make a good faith explanation as to why Koresh wasn't taken into custody during his daily jogging sessions or frequent trips into town.
His conciliatory relationship with local law enforcement provides further proof that the dynamic-entry raid was largely unwarranted. Indeed, even as helicopters buzzed the sky in the tension-filled moments before the ATF arrived, Davidian Survivor Clive Doyle has testified that Koresh remained committed to resolving the matter peacefully. “He wanted everybody to remain calm, go back to their rooms, just stay cool” as “he would go down to the front door and talk” Doyle recalls. 911 transcripts of deceased Davdian Wayne Martin's repeated requests for government agents to cease hostilities certainly undermine Kopel and Blackman's assertion that the “Davidians intended to become martyrs and enter heaven”:
Wayne Martin (WM): “Yeah there's 75 men around our building and they're shootin' at us at Mt. Carmel!
911 Operator: Mt. Carmel?
WM: Yeah, tell em' there're women and children here and to call u2018em off!
911 Operator: I hear gunfire who is this?
WM: It's Wayne!
911 Operator: Wayne…tell me what's happening Wayne.
WM: We got women and children in danger.
911 Operator: Wayne?
WM: I'm under fire…tell u2018em to call if off!
911 Operator: What?
Wayne Martin: Tell em' to pull back…I have the right to defend myself. They started firing first!
~ Excerpted from Waco: The Rules of Engagement, 1997, COPS Productions
As the 911 tape suggests, bringing an end to the shooting and protecting lives was a primary concern among members of the controversial religious community. This is reinforced by the testimony of Ken Fawcett a video technician who obtained an unedited feed of the one-sided gun battle which reportedly captured images of an “unidentified Davidian” who was seen “repeatedly calling for peace” from a lower story doorway only to be met by a “hail of gunfire.” Fawcett also viewed footage showing wounded agents “being assisted by Branch Davidians in the stabilization and evacuation of wounded officers” behavior he finds “inconsistent with persons having murderous intent.” (“Why Waco?,” Secret and Suppressed, Feral House, 1993).
Although Davidians fired back at ATF agents in self-defense, they were hardly prepared to ambush anyone much less engage in a sustained gun-battle with trained federal agents. “People were running around everywhere asking if anybody had any guns. Nobody had any handy. Most of what we had was new, still in the box” recounted a Davidian survivor to James L. Pate. (“What the Feds Don't Want you to Know About Waco,” Soldier of Fortune, October 1993). In the 1994 murder trial of 11 surviving Davidians, even the most compliant prosecution witnesses who agreed to testify against their co-religionists would not contradict defense arguments that the inhabitants of Mt. Carmel “were terrified of the raid and acted in self-defense.”(Carol Moore, The Davidian Massacre, Legacy, 1995).
As the standoff ensued and the remaining Davidians were subjected to various methods of psychological warfare in order to force them out of their media-dubbed “compound,” Kopel and Blackman glibly assert that the close-knit group “grew all the more convinced of the truth of Koresh's prophecies.” While religion certainly played a role in the lives of the desperate worshippers, this analysis fails to take into account the duplicitous role of corrupt FBI officials.
“Davidian's were suspicious of the government's intentions” writes Moore who points out that FBI promises to obtain medical assistance, allow the Davidians to retrieve the bodies of their dead, and send their children to relatives instead of Foster homes were all subsequently broken. Others feared that evidence of ATF malfeasance would be destroyed. The disappearance of the front door which would solve the controversy over who fired the first shot shows there was a great deal of validity to these concerns.
Addressing the final raid of April 19th, 1993, Kopel and Blackman allege that Davidians “faced a choice: a few final hours of suffering on earth, followed by an eternity in Heaven or an eternity in Hell, for deserting their prophet in the moment of greatest crisis.” The implication of this statement is clear: the Davidians had the means to escape but opted to remain inside in order to fulfill the wishes of their crazed spiritual leader. While the two authors correctly note that the injection of a lethal cocktail of CS gas and methylene chloride inadvertently killed several Davidians, they fail to mention other life-threatening hazards which may have blocked others from fleeing the smoke-filled building.
“The FBI's use of tanks on April 19, 1993 evinced an extreme indifference to human life” remarks CATO Institute Legal Analyst Timothy Lynch. (No Confidence: An Unofficial Account of the Waco Incident, Cato Institute, April 9, 2001). It is now believed that six children and three women perished due to these ill-advised demolition efforts. The trial testimony of Tarrant County Medical Examiner Dr. Nizaam Peerwani reveals that the nine corpses had no smoke in their lungs leading him to speculate that at least five of the children suffocated prior to the fire when a concrete ceiling caved in on them. Obviously many more were likely injured or possibly killed by these mountains of falling debris. Moreover, the tank destruction eliminated stairways, hallways, and ceilings in other rooms sowing mass confusion, stranding many, and blocking a number of once-viable exits with impenetrable chunks of fallen rubble.
The few who possessed the ability to escape from the deadly fire were further deterred by lethal FBI “ferret” rounds which were fired at Davidians by the hundreds. In fact, “newly released documents from the FBI show that agents asked for permission to shoot any unarmed Branch Davidians who left Mt. Carmel and approached their armored vehicles” notes Lynch. Although the request was denied no one can be sure these actions did not occur as the documents “outlined seven instances in which FBI agents threw or launched u2018flash bang' grenades at Davidians who were exiting Mt. Carmel earlier in the standoff.”
FBI Forward Looking Infra-Red (FLIR) footage also provides documentary evidence that government forces were spraying the building with automatic weapon fire as the structure became engulfed in flames. Although the Bureau have repeatedly denied that its agents fired so much as a single shot during the stand off and its culmination, several examinations of the contested tape by no less than a half-dozen highly-credible experts dispute this contention.
In light of this contradictory information, it seems all the more unfathomable that two esteemed Libertarian thinkers like Kopel and Blackman would seek to resurrect the government's indefensible “mass suicide” theory much less ATF claims that they were ambushed by trigger-happy religious fanatics. Nevertheless, these views cannot be reconciled with the facts as we know them. To the contrary, they stand in denial of all that we've learned.