In the summer of 1992, a gun dealer named David Koresh sent a message to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF). He asked several questions about the regulations which cover modifying certain guns, and asked the ATF to send an agent to inspect his dealership's inventory for any possible violations. The ATF never replied.
Instead, they investigated Koresh, who was also the minister of a small Christian church called the Branch Davidians. Within a few months, ATF agents obtained a search warrant by swearing to a judge that they suspected drug dealing, child abuse, and weapons violations were taking place.
State child welfare authorities had twice investigated charges of child abuse among the Davidians, and never arrested anyone, never pressed charges, never taken custody of any children. The only evidence of the Davidians involvement with drugs is that a few years earlier, Koresh had found a methamphetamine lab near the church — and called the cops to report it. But of course, charges of drug dealing and child abuse would not be within the ATF's purview anyway — remember, it's the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms.
As for the weapons charges, they were at best technicalities, a tax matter. The only violation Koresh could reasonably have been charged with was re-manufacturing a few dozen guns — the modifications Koresh had asked ATF about in the first place, which would’ve been completely legal if a $200 fee had been paid, paperwork filed.
Other claims have been made — that the Davidians were crazy, that Koresh thought he was Jesus, that they had a massive stockpile of weapons, they had threatened their neighbors, their buildings were a compound or a fortress or anything but a church with housing and a tornado shelter — but there is little or no evidence any of this is true. At any rate, what the Davidians were suspected of is irrelevant. Under the American system of justice, when criminal activity is suspected, police agencies are supposed to investigate and arrest people, using force only when necessary.
How much force should be necessary to serve a search warrant on this man, this church?
Consider: when Child Protective Services had investigated the abuse charges, Koresh and others showed them around the village, answered their questions, and let them talk to and examine the children.
A few years earlier, when an internal squabble within the church had led to gunshots, the sheriff simply called Koresh and told him a cruiser was on the way; Koresh sat on the front steps and waited for the police to come, then rode quietly to the station for questioning. Koresh was known to go jogging daily and shopping in Waco at least weekly, always alone and unarmed. Koresh and the Davidians had always been completely cooperative with law enforcement. By all past indications, one or two agents could have knocked on the front door, shown their badges and warrant, and Koresh would've invited them in.
That's not what happened, of course. Instead, the ATF borrowed the facilities of Fort Hood, a US Army base, and staged extensive rehearsals for a military-style raid of the Davidians’ church. On the morning of February 28, 1993, more than 100 ATF agents in full combat gear arrived at the church in several flatbed trucks, while National Guard helicopters hovered overhead. Shots rang out, and soon, four ATF agents and six Davidians were dead.
The Davidians say Koresh went — unarmed — to see what the ruckus was, and was shot in a hail of bullets as soon as he opened the door. The ATF says the Davidians opened fire on them as they drove up. The ATF had assigned an agent with a video camera to record everything as it happened, so it should be fairly simple to determine the truth.
There’s video footage of agents planning and gathering for the raid, agents en route to the church, agents arriving — but, curiously, there's no video footage of what happened in the first moments of the raid. The video shows ATF trucks pulling up to the church, with agents standing in open-air cattle cars — but if the Davidians had opened fire with automatic weapons, as we're told, while all those agents were completely unprotected, it's hard to imagine the ATF death toll wouldn't have been much, much higher.
And then the video stops.
After the initial gunshots, when the video starts up again, agents are seen walking in the open, directly in front of Davidians' windows — not terrified, crouching behind barricades, as you would expect during or after a gun battle. The bullet-ridden front door of the church, which could help answer the question of who fired first, was taken away by authorities as evidence — and lost.
After two hours, the shoot-out ended — when the ATF ran out of ammunition and backed away. One must wonder, if the Davidians had murderous intent, why they let ATF agents retreat, literally waving a white flag.
When the ATF came back with an army of FBI agents, the Davidians refused to surrender. For 51 days, a standoff ensued. One by one, some of the Davidians came out with their hands up, and were taken off to jail. Inside, the others saw television coverage of this and it reinforced their resolve to hold out no matter what.
Finally, on April 19, 1993, the church burnt to the ground — as the FBI ordered fire trucks to stay away. 74 people were killed, including 22 children.
A lot of questions remain unanswered, virtually un-asked in the major media, about all this. Here are five easy pieces of the puzzle to ponder:
1.) It is common knowledge that a written report must be filed any time an American police officer fires his weapon in the line of duty. Why were no written reports filed by any of the ATF agents involved in the initial raid? According to an internal ATF memo, agents were ordered by Bill Johnston, an Assistant United States Attorney, not to investigate, not to file reports — explicitly because of fears the evidence might show the Davidians were innocent.
2.) On the morning of the fire, FBI tanks pierced the church's walls, and pumped huge amounts of CS gas, a chemical warfare compound — in more than twice the dose known to be fatal into the church, for more than six hours. In addition to its toxicity, CS gas is extremely flammable; the FBI had cut off the Davidians’ electricity weeks earlier, and knew that kerosene lanterns were burning in the building. When CS burns, it produces hydrogen cyanide, the same gas used in prison executions. Yet to this day, with a straight face, the FBI maintains the Davidians committed suicide.
3.) “The FBI never fired one shot during the entire standoff,” stern-faced agents tell us, under oath. Perhaps what they mean is, military officers did the firing, not the FBI, and they used machine guns, not “single shots,” to kill Branch Davidians trying to escape from the flames. The evidence of many, many gunshots — fired into the burning building, from outside — is plainly visible on the FBI’s own infra-red heat-sensitive film. After the fire, though, the FBI took possession of much of the evidence — and lost it — and then bulldozed the ruins of the church before the ashes had cooled. Needless to say, this is not the typical way a crime scene is managed.
4.) The eleven Davidians who actually survived were charged with the murder of four ATF agents in the initial raid — and all were acquitted, under Texas law which explicitly allows citizens to defend themselves if police officers use unreasonable force. Yet all eleven Davidians were imprisoned by US District Court Judge Walter Smith Jr., who used technicalities to simply disregard the jury's verdicts and impose his own. Can Judge Smith get away with that? Apparently he has; there's been no mention of it in the media since the sentencing, more than five years ago — and these people are still in jail.
5.) In August, Attorney General Janet Reno ordered an investigation of the FBI, by the FBI, to find out what the FBI did wrong. After a lot of public scoffing at the notion of the FBI investigating itself, Reno announced an outside investigation into the cover-up, and then spent almost two weeks considering and interviewing several candidates, before announcing that a retired US senator, John Danforth, would run the investigation. If you are ever suspected of anything illegal, do you suppose you'll have two weeks to enjoy leisurely lunch with all of your prospective investigators, before deciding which one you’d like to look into the matter?
Recently, there have been revelations that the FBI lied and withheld evidence. It turns out there were tapes of certain conversations, although FBI agents have testified there weren’t. It turns out flammable objects were fired into the church before the fire, although FBI agents testified that never happened. It turns out there were FBI videotapes filming the church (from several different angles!) as the flames broke out, although the FBI had always maintained that no such video exists. A few people who were there say that someone with automatic weapons was shooting at the Davidians during the fire, despite years of FBI claims to the contrary.
Still, its been a long time since 1993. There's been a lot of testimony, a lot of editorials, and a lot of people are tired of it. They just don't care any more. I don't know which is worse: knowing that the American government can commit mass murder of its own citizens and cover it up, or knowing that even as the evidence mounts, the media and the public's reaction will be somewhere between a yawn and “Three cheers for the killers!”
“Both sides were wacky in Waco,” some people say, “so I’m not taking sides.” Of course, there’s a basic difference between citizens breaking the law (if the Davidians did) and the law breaking the law. If you want to even pretend that a Bill of Rights protects your freedom, then shouldn’t you be concerned when your government disregards the Constitution and the law, and kills people with impunity, without a trial, without evidence? Even if Koresh was “wacky,” even if he wasn’t particularly like you, does that make it OK to kill him, along with his family and friends?
We should care not simply because we've been lied to by the government — that's routine. We should care not simply because it's a matter of right and wrong — it is, but American government is so obviously, demonstrably immoral, that's hardly newsworthy. This was not even a particularly brutal abuse of government power; estimates of the dead in Iraq, from the war and ongoing sanctions, run upwards of half a million, and counting.
We should care about Waco because, more than any other high-profile case in years, the evidence blatantly, incontrovertibly exposes the lies. There's a chance for justice, if public pressure and outrage leads to a trial. There's probably enough evidence to put several federal agents, their bosses, and more than a few high-level government figures in prison, for abuse of power, homicide, perjury, and cover-up. We should care, unless you think wearing a badge ought to mean cops get away with murder.