Twenty-one years ago today, the FBI assaulted and demolished the Branch Davidians’ home outside of Waco, Texas. That assault and the subsequent coverups helped redefine the relation of the federal government to the American people. Millions of citizens never looked at Washington the same afterwards.
I reposted some of the articles I did in 1995 on Waco for Wall Street Journal and New Republic last year on this blog here.
Following is the start of the chapter on Waco and Ruby Ridge from Public Policy Hooligan.
“Flummoxing the FBI”
As I was busting tail to finish Lost Rights, I straggled down the steps from my bedroom to my living room one April 1993 morning with the usual deadline hangover (unfortunately, completely unrelated to alcohol). I tossed a slab of the previous night’s pizza in the microwave, fetched the newspapers from the sidewalk, and flipped on the television to see if the world had gone to hell overnight.
As my eyes were still focusing for the day, I saw what looked like tanks smashing gaping holes in the side of a dilapidated building. And then CNN bubbleheads chirped that the FBI had notified the Branch Davidians that “this is not an assault.” But the Davidians’ home outside of Waco was not collapsing solely because of high winds on that Texas prairie.
I was tethered to the TV for half an hour, pacing back and forth while puffing a cigar and cussing blue streaks that would have impressed Huck Finn’s father. At that point, my wife and I were living in a rented split level house in the Maryland suburbs. The only TV in the house was in the living room. The book deadline summoned me back to the desktop computer in my basement office but I periodically ran up the stairs to check the latest abominations.
Fifty-one days earlier, federal Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms agents had attacked this sprawling home occupied by scores of women, children, and men – members of an offshoot of the Seventh Day Adventists. Seventy-six ATF agents arrived on cattle trailers, shot the Davidians’ dogs, and then commenced trying to blast and smash their way into the house. The ATF supposedly had an arrest warrant for Davidian leader David Koresh but forgot to bring it along that morning. ATF named its operation Showtime, and made sure that multiple crews from local television stations were nearby to film their triumph.
Things went awry, and the resulting firefight left seven Davidians and four federal agents dead. ATF top brass immediately wailed to the media that their agents had been “ambushed” that morning. That characterization was difficult to reconcile with the facts that the feds launched a surprise assault and were far more heavily armed than the Davidians. Perhaps the feds considered it an “ambush” because the victims shot back.
The ATF targeted Koresh because they suspected he had illegally converted semi-automatic firearms to shoot more than one bullet with each trigger pull. Prior to attacking, the feds had scorned numerous opportunities to easily arrest Koresh. Nine days before the attack, undercover ATF agents (whom Koresh recognized as such) had even gone target shooting with Koresh.
After the ATF raid fiasco, the FBI took over and continually ratcheted up the pressure on the besieged Davidians, bombarding them around the clock with high volume soundtracks of rabbits being slaughtered and Nancy Sinatra singing (choose your poison).
On that April 19th morning, the FBI tank pumped the Davidians’ home full of CS gas, a potentially lethal, flammable compound. Around noon, fires broke out that quickly burnt the compound to the ground; 80 bodies were found in the rubble. FBI spokesmen raced to blame the Davidians for the fire and swore they had proof that the cult members committed mass suicide. (No such evidence was provided.) The spokesmen neglected to mention that the FBI had stopped fire trucks racing to the scene.
FBI operations commander Larry Potts explained the rationale for the final onslaught: “Those people thumbed their nose at law enforcement.” Snap polls just after the Waco fire showed that the American people overwhelmingly supported the FBI’s action. A few days later, the opening of a congressional hearing had to be delayed so senators could pose for pictures with Attorney General Janet Reno, who became a national hero after admitting she authorized the final attack on the Davidians….