Why Waco Still Matters


Every year for the last five years [1, 2, 3, 4, 5], I have written an article commemorating the Waco siege: the 51-day standoff from February 28 to April 19, 1993, between government agents — ATF, FBI and US military — and the Branch Davidians: a conflict ending in a conflagration that consumed the lives of 76 civilians, including 21 children.

That I’ve written about this so consistently raises some questions: Am I obsessed? Why do I, and a number of other commentators, feel the need to keep bringing up this sad episode in modern American history?

Waco still matters. Not just because it has become the paradigmatic symbol for federal police power gone out of control. Not just because it starkly demonstrates the American government’s militarism unleashed against its own people. Not just because it showcases the propensity of politicians and law enforcers to deceitfully cover and obscure their wrongful actions. No, Waco’s still important mostly because it shows exactly what happens when people resist the unjust incursions of their own government, including under democracy.

Consider, in contrast, what has happened quite recently in Texas. This time, state and local officials seized 416 children from the Fundamentalist Latter-day Saints (FLDS) Church. The supposed justification was the abuse of minors, but there is in any event no reason to assume these children would be less abused in the custody of the Texas government, whose foster system has been rife with child rape, poisonings and murder.

This mass seizure of children featured officials "wearing body armor and carrying automatic weapons, backed by an armored personnel carrier." The militarization of domestic police has infected every level of American government, down to the local. The Texas police were ready to conduct a warlike raid of the Fundamentalist Mormon home, and the particular justification for it has shifted from a specific report of abuse (still unconfirmed, and possibly a prank) to a more general one, just as the rationale behind Waco shifted (from a methamphetamine lab, to illegal guns, to child abuse).

Thank goodness the family under siege this time around did not forcibly resist, because it could have ended violently, with many of those kids not just kidnapped, but killed. Is this not a lesson to learn from Waco — that outright resisting the police state will likely get you killed, and most Americans will still side against you? Indeed, it has been downright troubling how many Americans have unquestioningly swallowed the government’s line on this FLDS affair, just as they swallowed the government line on Waco.

The police state in this country is very real, and for any who do not understand the truly violent nature of law enforcement, it is worth considering the costs of non-compliance. The truly unique thing about Waco was not just that so many innocent people lost their lives. The unique thing was that people resisted.* And that’s why they lost their lives.

In America it has become increasingly easy to get oneself killed by the government. Simply "resisting arrest" — including arrest for a fabricated offense — can get one tased and beaten. Sometimes, even the most unsuspecting members of society, like Derek J. Hale, are murdered by the state. If your home is under full-blown siege by government jackboots, delaying compliance can mean death. It did in Philadelphia, at Ruby Ridge, and at Waco, Texas.

We should remember Waco as the quintessence of modern government police power — not gone out of control, but simply the way it acts when it meets enough resistance. Government power flows from the barrel of a gun, a gun with which taxpayers and subjects are threatened constantly. When the gun is literally aimed at a particularly unlucky denizen, his choices are quite limited.

This relates to the radical principle of resisting tyranny on which America was founded. The Second Amendment was not meant to protect the right to go hunting, despite what liberals might say. Nor was it principally meant as a defense against common criminals, as the right usually stresses. The idea is that people have a right to use force to defend themselves against and even overthrow tyrannical government — an idea that some NRA members sometimes utter out one side of the mouth, while the other side is busy defending the drug war, the empire, the Republicans, the Bush administration, the local police and the federal goons empowered by the war on terror.

Yet violently resisting government agents, even when one is in the right — or, as Cory Maye was, simply mistaken as to who was breaking into his house — does not tend to protect one’s liberty, in most cases. It is worse than futile. It leads to increases in state power, in fact. So long as public opinion sides with the police brutalizers, kidnappers and murderers, violent resistance is generally at best counterproductive. Once public opinion turns against the state, however, violent revolution isn’t even always necessary, as was seen in the glorious end of Communism in Russia.

So long as public opinion regarding such incidents as Waco remains as pro-state as it is, we have a long ways to go toward recapturing the spirit of the American Revolution in this country. The very way that Waco has been remembered indicates the uphill battle. For the last fifteen years, Americans have been in denial of the type of government they live under.

Since 1993, liberals have wanted to believe the Waco atrocity was the fault of the Branch Davidians, and not the fault of the government. Perhaps some official made a minor error, but none of the main blame should fall on government, not on the Clinton administration and not on the very idea of state power. No, the liberals of 1993 thought of government as an institution inseparable from the good society, an institution charged with doing all these great things — collecting taxes to pay for necessary "services," combating inequality, preserving the planet, ensuring economic fairness and defending human rights the world over. The left did not want to see the dark side of the regime they loved. And so, once the Branch Davidians — a true minority (incidentally, about half of them were people of color, as the left never noticed) — were viciously invaded and attacked, dozens of their members slaughtered by the government, most liberals refused to think the worst of their beloved warm-and-fuzzy Clintonian state.

The government of the 1990s was supposed to be the "good government" that liberals never cease to remind us we can have, once again, as soon as the White House is ridden of the Bush family. But George W. Bush didn’t conduct the massacre at Waco. And even if Bill Clinton’s wife blessedly loses the election, Barack Obama gives no guarantee that he will respect the fundamental rights of Americans any better than his predecessors. Certainly, McCain will not temper the police state any more than Bush has after Clinton. More Wacos are always possible in the current political climate.

And so in a sense, the liberals were right that blame didn’t belong squarely with Clinton, just as today’s conservatives are narrowly correct when they defend Bush against selective condemnation. But the modern right too seems not to understand the implications of Waco, or else it would be impossible for it to have taken the positions it has over the police state, including local police, these last fifteen (and actually fifty or more) years. Like yesterday’s liberals, today’s conservatives are just as naïve toward, or at least accepting of, the ugly underbelly of the government they’re proud to live under.

The right tried to drive Clinton out of office — some for such crimes as Waco, but most for the crime of lying to the government. Today’s better liberals, many of them, have long wanted to do the same to Bush. Nearly all Americans hope November will usher in a state both a little more effective and a little more palatable in the ways they’d prefer.

But this focus on the culprit in power misses the main point. While they do have moral responsibility for their actions, it is not just the men in charge of leviathan who must be driven out of office if we wish to prevent future Wacos, and reverse the precedent that parents must sometimes choose between seeing their children taken by the state or seeing their family killed.

It is rather the statist mindset — the ideology of state worship, on both left and right — that has brought us a standing army of militarized police forces in every corner on this country. Those forces were tyrannical before Waco, and they have been so ever since. Waco is not necessary to indict the police state. But it really should be sufficient to do so. That it has not been for so many people reveals the problem.

* I am indebted to Scott Horton for this crucial point.