David Koresh and the Branch Davidians

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David Koresh and the Branch Davidians

The 1993 stand-off between federal agents and people inside the Branch Davidian compound at Waco, Texas, resulted in the deaths of approximately 80 Branch Davidians, including leader David Koresh. The tragedy upset Americans in varying degrees. Widespread dismay over the deaths of at least 20 children contrasted with those who used the tragedy at Waco to stoke their anti-government fervor. Blame abounded, as federal decision-making came under question, and Koresh was condemned for putting children in harm's way.

The compound, named Mount Carmel, was referred to by news accounts as "Ranch Apocalypse." Prior to the stand-off, an investigation of the Davidians produced evidence of a large illegal weapons stockpile. Reports surfaced that Koresh was molesting children on the compound, to which a 14-year-old girl later testified at a Congressional hearing. Of greater concern was the possibility that Koresh, a self-proclaimed apocalyptic visionary, planned to lead his followers into mass suicide.

Koresh's apocalyptic visions, reported U.S. News and World Report, were broadcast on the radio in exchange for the release of 37 members: "My father, my god who sits on the throne in heaven, has given me a book of seven seals … If America could learn these seals they would respect me. I'm the anointed one … It's the fulfillment of prophecy." Following the broadcast, Koresh turned recalcitrant, unwilling to exchange his "messianic" status in the compound for prison life. Koresh expressed fears of being raped by other inmates, conscious of the fate that child molesters faced in prison.

On February 28, 1993, an initial raid produced a gun battle that killed five Branch Davidians and four ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms) agents. It was the worst loss of life for federal law-enforcement agents in the twentieth century. The stand-off that ensued lasted 51 days. FBI plans for a tear-gas assault circulated in March and were presented to the new United States Attorney General Janet Reno. The plan was to "ease" the residents out of the compound by injecting tear gas, or CS gas, into the compound. Reno withheld approval until assurances were made that the gas would not harm the children, knowing that the gas masks on the compound would not fit their faces. According to Dick Reavis, a civilian expert from the Army research center in Maryland told Reno that "although there had been no laboratory tests performed on children relative to the effects of the gas, anecdotal evidence was convincing that there would be no permanent injury." Reno approved the plan on April 17.

As if the situation in the barren prairie was not surreal enough, the FBI employed a bizarre tactic, using loudspeakers to blast Tibetan monk chants and the rantings of Koresh into the compound. An estimated 720 lawmen converged on Waco, including 250 FBI agents and 150 ATF agents. Many suffered the strain of the lengthy standoff. Waco had a 90 percent occupancy rate, making living quarters scarce; agents were scheduled to shifts that lasted weeks at a time. Koresh's tendency to switch gears during negotiations further exacerbated the strain on agents.

The FBI tank and tear gas assault took place on the morning of April 19. News reports placed the death toll between 75 and 95 people, including over 20 children; all were Branch Davidians. Most died from smoke inhalation, but two dozen were killed by gunshot, either by suicide or by another member in the compound.

At 6:02 a.m., CEVs—combat engineering vehicles—punched holes in the compound walls to pump CS gas into the building. The wall openings allowed much of the gas to escape, and made the FBI's assumption—that the gas would prompt an evacuation—invalid. Around 11:40 a.m., the building began to burn, fanned by 30 mile-per-hour prairie winds. Survivors from the compound said the tanks crushed a pressurized tank filled with liquid propane, starting the fire. The FBI maintained they saw flames erupt in several places, indicating the fire was set deliberately by members of the compound.

Survivor Marjorie Thomas, who suffered third-degree burns over 50 percent of her body, described the assault from the inside in Reavis' The Ashes of Waco : "The whole entire building felt warm all at once, and then after the warmth, then a thick, black smoke, and the place became dark. I could hear—I couldn't see anything. I could hear people moving and screaming, and I still was sitting down while this was happening."

The incident at Waco became a self-fulfilling prophecy for the Branch Dividians. The more Koresh sized up the stand-off for its apocalyptic message, the more the FBI viewed Koresh as engaging in stalling tactics. When the FBI responded with pressure to get Koresh to comply, it only confirmed for Koresh that the end was near, and the cycle repeated itself. Congress, which questioned the wisdom of the plan, would conclude that the FBI had not acted illegally.

Anti-government factions regarded the ATF as "jack-booted thugs." A loose network of paramilitary groups sprouted throughout the country, and called themselves "citizen militias." Largely composed of white men, the militias conducted training exercises in isolated areas, acting out their own apocalyptic visions of an impending civil war. One militia member told Time in 1994: "The Waco thing really woke me up. They went in there and killed women and children." The militia's anti-government paranoia encouraged wild beliefs, such as foreign soldiers hiding under Detroit in salt mines, and highway signs containing secret markings to guide foreign troops. Not everything spawned by the incident could be shrugged off: the government's assault in Texas contributed to the federal hatred of Timothy McVeigh, who bombed the Alfred Murrah building in Oklahoma City in 1995.

—Daryl Umberger

Further Reading:

Allen, John L., Jr. "Warning from Waco: The Cultural Bias Can BeHazardous to Health." National Catholic Reporter. October 24, 1997, 19.

Church, Emily. "Waco Probe Focuses on Wisdom, Not Legality of FBI Action." Congressional Quarterly Weekly. July 29, 1995, 30-1.

Farley, Christopher John. "Patriot Games." Time. December 19,1994, 48-9.

Gibbs, Nancy. "'Oh, My God, They're Killing Themselves!"' Time. May 3, 1993, 26-41.

Rainie, Harrison. "The Final Days of David Koresh: Armageddon in Waco." U.S. News & World Report. May 3, 1993, 24-31.

Reavis, Dick J. The Ashes of Waco. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1995.

Thurman, James N. "Criticism Leads ATF to Soften 'Thug' Image."Christian Science Monitor. April 17, 1998, 5.

Wagner, Betsy. "Waco: Once Again, the Unexpected." U.S. News & World Report. July 31, 1995, 8.