The Real Tragedy of Waco


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 wrong.

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.

April 25, 2007