Join 3,497 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


How not to negotiate with believers... Waco & The Branch Davidians
March 24, 2014 10:22 AM   Subscribe

Malcolm Gladwell writes a compelling take on the history of the Branch Davidians and how their millennial Christian beliefs led to their ultimate confrontation with the FBI. "I came out the little driveway on the side of the building and got onto the main driveway that ran along the front of the building. As I turned the corner . . . one of the agents outside a tank started screaming at me to come over to him. My left ankle was all blistered, the skin was rolling off my hands, and my face was burned down the right side of my neck where the mask had been. I guess I took the mask off after I got out. It was kind of melting onto my face. . . . He was cussing me out, telling me if I made a false move he was going to blow my so-and-so head off. But he said: you’re gonna remember this day for the rest of your life. I thought: at least that is a true statement."

Wikipedia on the FBI siege of the Branch Davidian compound.

PBS' Frontline has a slew of background info, too.
posted by artof.mulata (111 comments total) 39 users marked this as a favorite

 
I just read this and it was a fascinating account. Well worth reading.
posted by Fizz at 10:31 AM on March 24


Saw that this morning as well. Riveting stuff.
posted by jquinby at 10:35 AM on March 24


I'm confused. In one bit, it says "Koresh was not slick or charismatic, in the conventional sense." Then later goes on how he's convinced everyone he (Koresh) is the fulfillment of prophecy, is taking multiple wives etc. If that isn't slick and charismatic, I'm not sure what is. (Unless the first quote is about when David first came to the compound, but still.)
posted by k5.user at 10:37 AM on March 24 [3 favorites]


If that isn't slick and charismatic, I'm not sure what is.

I think the key there is "in the conventional sense." He was effective in convincing people to follow him, in spite of his lacking what people typically think of as conventional charisma.
posted by The World Famous at 10:40 AM on March 24 [1 favorite]


I assume he means the conventional sense to be like lots of TeeVee preachers, all glitzy and Hollywood. Think "charm and magnetism". I'd guess Koresh brought people in more through sincerity and intensity, which isn't the main sense of "charisma", though it does imply "The ability to influence without the use of logic."

But I have to go read the article now.
posted by benito.strauss at 10:45 AM on March 24


Sometimes, being smart and intimidating in just the right way is an effective substitute for charisma. Based on things that I've read about Koresh, it sounds like he leveraged the tools at his disposal.
posted by Strange Interlude at 10:45 AM on March 24 [1 favorite]


For all that the siege was pretty badly botched there's something a little odd in the implications of Gladwell's reading. One is his take on "tolerance": I'm not sure that serial child rape really gets a pass under the rubric of "accepting genuine difference." The other is the assumption that if only the FBI had really believed Koresh then everything would have turned out fine. Well, maybe. It's not as if we can point to the hundreds of other similar cases that worked out fine as evidence to support that claim, though. Nor is it clear that the FBI agents who were calling the shots in this case had been presented with anything like conclusive evidence that just sitting back and waiting for Koresh to finish his analysis was definitely the least risky option. They had a couple of biblical scholars who had an hypothesis and they had some pretty vague assurances from Koresh. It seems to me that there's an awful lot of ways you could play this tape out differently and end up with everyone sitting around saying "tsk tsk tsk, why didn't the FBI just storm the place?"
posted by yoink at 10:49 AM on March 24 [23 favorites]


I was in college when this happened and I remember a conversation I had with a journalist who was doing a fellowship at my university that year. I had remarked that I thought the extremely violent take down of this group was total overkill and was going to frighten and anger a lot of people, which he totally dismissed as "they had it coming". It was the first time I'd ever met someone paid to write about public life (he had an opinion column) who so obviously had no idea what he was talking about.
posted by longdaysjourney at 10:49 AM on March 24 [4 favorites]


oh god, malcom gladwell is putting back into circulation one of the touchstones of 90's wingnuttery. what's next, an in depth study of ruby ridge, janet reno and the black helicopters? Saddam Hussein's connections to Timothy McVeigh? Maybe he's just doing tryouts for his background sources on his coming expose of Hilary Clinton's assassination of Vince Foster?
posted by ennui.bz at 10:51 AM on March 24 [11 favorites]


Outside the Mount Carmel complex, the F.B.I. assembled what has been called probably the largest military force ever gathered against a civilian suspect in American history: ten Bradley tanks, two Abrams tanks, four combat-engineering vehicles, six hundred and sixty-eight agents in addition to six U.S. Customs officers, fifteen U.S. Army personnel, thirteen members of the Texas National Guard, thirty-one Texas Rangers, a hundred and thirty-one officers from the Texas Department of Public Safety, seventeen from the McLennan County sheriff’s office, and eighteen Waco police, for a total of eight hundred and ninety-nine people.

I never understood this. Why? Why was an armed military assault necessary? These were civilians. American citizens. Some of them children. What was Janet Reno thinking? Whatever he was, he and his followers did not deserve this. How could sending a military force even be legal? That the FBI and ATF are not technically military units is a distinction without difference. It was a crime againt humanity that should stain the Clintons more than a semen soaked dress.
posted by three blind mice at 10:51 AM on March 24 [6 favorites]


It was a crime againt humanity that should stain the Clintons more than a semen soaked dress.

The Clintons?
posted by dirtdirt at 10:55 AM on March 24 [17 favorites]


Dude...

.
posted by Poppa Bear at 10:55 AM on March 24


These were civilians. American citizens

Heavily armed American citizens.
posted by yoink at 10:59 AM on March 24 [1 favorite]


It seems to me that there's an awful lot of ways you could play this tape out differently and end up with everyone sitting around saying "tsk tsk tsk, why didn't the FBI just storm the place?"

The article does seem to be rather apologist towards the Davidians, not least since so much of the material is provided by Doyle, a former member, but it's also clear that the FBI botched the situation.

oh god, malcom gladwell is putting back into circulation one of the touchstones of 90's wingnuttery. what's next, an in depth study of ruby ridge, janet reno and the black helicopters? Saddam Hussein's connections to Timothy McVeigh? Maybe he's just doing tryouts for his background sources on his coming expose of Hilary Clinton's assassination of Vince Foster?

Sounds like you have it out for Gladwell, not unlike how people had it out for David Koresh.
posted by Apocryphon at 10:59 AM on March 24


Something like 20 kids died as a result of the fire. It's not surprising that emotions run high, just as they did after Sandy Hook.
posted by mkb at 11:03 AM on March 24 [1 favorite]


the FBI botched the situation

I think they mostly botched it by not waiting for an opportunity to scoop Koresh up when he was away from the compound. But once the siege was under way it's less clear to me that their actions are indefensible. I think we have a real problem in assessing the merits or demerits of a decision when we already know that the outcome was bad. Imagine you're the one who has to make the decision as to whether to just wait Koresh out or to try to storm the compound. You're dealing with a bunch of people who you know A) are allowing Koresh to rape their children and B) have refused to let the children be removed out of harm's way. You have genuine fears that you might have another Jonestown situation on your hands. Koresh and his followers seem quite keen on the idea of going out in a blaze of Apocalyptic glory (even your Biblical scholars--whom Gladwell touts--support this reading; they're trying to make Koresh understand the prophecy differently, but it's not clear that they've succeeded). Is it really so obvious that if you just sit and wait the outcome will be better? Is it really so obvious that chucking in a bunch of tear gas is going to precipitate a disaster?
posted by yoink at 11:09 AM on March 24 [17 favorites]


He was effective in convincing people to follow him, in spite of his lacking what people typically think of as conventional charisma.

Meanwhile, back in Texas... The Younger Years of the Church Elders: "Sean Morris and Ryan Ringnald, both in their late twenties, are leaders of the conservative, 90-person Church of Wells, which many consider to be a cult. This doesn't come as a surprise to a number of peers who knew them during their college years at Baylor." More from Texas Monthly: Sinners in the Hands.
posted by MonkeyToes at 11:11 AM on March 24 [6 favorites]


Surely it's possible to think that 1) the FBI and ATF did a horrible, murderous job of it and used a lot of spurious accusations to try and absolve themselves afterwards; and 2) that the general history of cults along with things like Koresh leading armed followers to investigate his rival George Roden and the fairly well-substantiated claims that Koresh granted himself exclusive control over sexual relations within the camp and that he and others were having sexual relations with 12- and 13-year-olds -- which are separate from the more spurious abuse charges and are not, note, denied in the Gladwell article so much as briefly mentioned and then ignored -- would have ended badly in the sense that we'd be hearing from more than a few sexual abuse survivors.

Missing from Gladwell's article is the general tenor of the times, a period that saw deswtructive milennialist sects all over the place, from Aum Shinrikyo to Heaven's Gate within the next few years. The FBI and ATF pulled some COINTELPRO-level shit and beyond, and the deaths at Waco are squarely on their heads and Reno's. I don't however, see Koresh only as a victim of persecution. Unfortunately, the right thing to do would have been to patiently investigate and make opportunistic arrests if they were warranted rather than to charge in with a small army because a series of lurid, and poorly researched articles in the local newspaper. Instead we got the federal version of the bombing of MOVE.
posted by kewb at 11:13 AM on March 24 [16 favorites]


There were many times that Koresh was away from the compound, before the siege. Hell, I remember listening on my xian radio station information regarding this and getting caught up in it all. Clearly a right-wing Jesus bent was there in its presentation. But the fact is there were a lot of major fuckups with the raid.

I think Koresh probably did some shady things, but most of the people in there were just having their worldview confirmed as the powers of the US Government went in and swooped down with massive force.

The government coverup and ass-protecting was pathetic, and I say this as someone who thinks Koresh had some wacked out views (but not really much wackier than any other Christian who has some heavy Eschatological slants to their world views), and probably abused children (and of course, probably had tons of illegal weapons)).

Personally I do have it out for Gladwell, whether or not the other commenters do.

I think Ruby Ridge was a clusterfuck, I also think Ruby Ridge was an example of a guy who had some extreme views, but was not nearly as dangerous as they wanted people to believe. I think it was Louis Theroux who had an interesting documentary on the survivalists, including an interview with Randy Weaver and his daughter (separately).
posted by symbioid at 11:18 AM on March 24 [7 favorites]


kewb: "...would have ended badly in the sense that we'd be hearing from more than a few sexual abuse survivors. "

Well, good thing it didn't end badly, what with all those corpses and shit.
posted by symbioid at 11:20 AM on March 24 [3 favorites]


oh god, malcom gladwell is putting back into circulation one of the touchstones of 90's wingnuttery. what's next, an in depth study of ruby ridge

I fail to see how any reasonable person could excuse the government's actions at Ruby Ridge.
posted by entropicamericana at 11:26 AM on March 24 [10 favorites]


If y'all would just stop fighting and come out and live in a religious community in a beautiful place out in the country, things would be so much easier.

(REFERENCE)
posted by symbioid at 11:26 AM on March 24 [2 favorites]


Sounds like you have it out for Gladwell, not unlike how people had it out for David Koresh.

I think that's a bit of an overreaction there.
posted by edgeways at 11:27 AM on March 24 [4 favorites]


I think they mostly botched it by not waiting for an opportunity to scoop Koresh up when he was away from the compound.

This is a criticism that also applies to many of the botched SWAT team raids that so often end with the deaths of innocent bystanders. It's really no surprise that military tactics, which are conducive to fast, destructive action to quickly take out a source of immediate danger, are not at all an effective tool for good police work and maintaining the peace.
posted by Atom Eyes at 11:27 AM on March 24 [11 favorites]


Well, good thing it didn't end badly, what with all those corpses and shit.

Your response seems be strawmanning me more than a little, considering that I spent a good portion of my comment referring to the government's actions as "murderous" and comparing them to the bombing to the MOVE apartment in Philadelphia. As with Ruby Ridge, it's quite possible for someone to be odious and even criminal without it being appropriate for law enforcement to decide they deserve extrajudicial killing.

Put another way, I'm arguing that it's quite possible to think Koresh was a sexually abusive cult leader who was doing real damage to some of his followers' children, that Randy Weaver was legitimately frightening given that he was an Aryan Nations affiliate buying up illegal weapons, and that the government's response to both was murderously and terrifyingly authoritarian.
posted by kewb at 11:28 AM on March 24 [7 favorites]


I certainly am more on your side, I suppose I should have flipped off my snark switch, sorry 'bout that!
posted by symbioid at 11:30 AM on March 24 [1 favorite]


What was Janet Reno thinking?

She was probably thinking – and most of the FBI as well – that they were on the verge of another Jonestown and that there was an immediate danger to the children in the compound.

Reading the article the FBI sounds very awful – but if you remember that 15 years earlier, children held at a religious compound in Guyana were poisoned, it puts the whole thing in a lot more context. I'm not saying they didn't fuck up tremendously badly, but it was hardly the sea of cool rationality that the article portrays.
posted by graymouser at 11:33 AM on March 24 [4 favorites]


I don't think there's much of anyone who doesn't think they botched the initial raid, at least unless they have a personal stake in believing otherwise. And I suspect the actual timing of the final raid was based on fear of looking weak ("they just sat there!"). I remember a lot of humor targeted at the FBI during the siege. Trying not to look like a patsy is always a bad ingredient in confrontations. In fact, the choice to go in big in the first place was mostly ego, as well. Koresh absolutely needed to be arrested for his child rapes, but there were a lot of chances to do that.

But I don't think the concern over mass suicide was exactly unreasonable, and also drove the calculations. Has there been clear evidence that the fire was not started by the BDs, in fact? I've seen claims and counterclaims, but I don't know if there is a reliable independent evaluation out there.
posted by tavella at 11:36 AM on March 24 [1 favorite]


I certainly am more on your side, I suppose I should have flipped off my snark switch, sorry 'bout that!

It's also possible to read both the growth of survivalist, supremacist, and apocalyptic movements and the increasingly authoritarian response to the same as different facets of innate structures of authoritarianism within the larger society. Big supremacist authoritarians squash little supremacist authoritarians, but it's still supremacism and tyranny as the guiding principle in both sorts of self-legitimating institutions or social structures.

She was probably thinking – and most of the FBI as well – that they were on the verge of another Jonestown and that there was an immediate danger to the children in the compound.

Also, a lot of media attention had been given to the Branch Davidians in particular by a range of "experts" like Rick Ross, who was a part of the Cult Awareness Network. Again, there's a symmetry between the public relations and internal indoctrination tactics of cults and the public relations and self-legitimation tactics of "deprogrammers."
posted by kewb at 11:37 AM on March 24 [7 favorites]


But I don't think the concern over mass suicide was exactly unreasonable, and also drove the calculations. Has there been clear evidence that the fire was not started by the BDs, in fact? I've seen claims and counterclaims, but I don't know if there is a reliable independent evaluation out there.

Reno ordered that no incendiaries would be used, but incendiary grenades were found in the compound's ruins and were of the type used by the involved agencies. Additionally, there's evidence that the feds introduced tear gas to the compound using an unsafe method.
posted by kewb at 11:39 AM on March 24 [1 favorite]


Big supremacist authoritarians squash little supremacist authoritarians, but it's still supremacism and tyranny as the guiding principle in both sorts of self-legitimating institutions or social structures.

Exactly, this has more to do with dominance and turf than anything about saving kids or potential suicides.
posted by save alive nothing that breatheth at 11:49 AM on March 24 [2 favorites]


Reno ordered that no incendiaries would be used, but incendiary grenades were found in the compound's ruins and were of the type used by the involved agencies. Additionally, there's evidence that the feds introduced tear gas to the compound using an unsafe method.

From the PBS Frontline piece linked in the FPP:
Although several of the surviving Branch Davidians insist that they did not start the fire, a panel of arson investigators concluded that the Davidians were responsible for igniting it, simultaneously, in at least three different areas of the compound. Unless they were deliberatley set, the probability of the three fires starting almost simultaneously was highly unlikely, according to fire experts. Furthermore, the videotapes show the use of accelerants that strongly increased the spread of the fire. Although one Branch Davidian stated that a FBI tank had tipped over a lantern, videotapes show that the tank had struck the building a minute and a half before the fire began. Also some of the surviving Davidians' clothing showed evidence of lighter fluid and other accelerants. In addition, FBI listening devices seemed to establish that the Davidians were overheard making statements such as, "Spread the fuel," some six hours before the fires began. (Joint Hearing of the Crime Subcommittee July 1995.)
posted by yoink at 11:50 AM on March 24 [9 favorites]


Hmm, I don't think that article was particularly apologist toward the Branch Davidians, it simply highlights the fact that FBI negotiation practices that typically work did not work in this one because the Branch Davidians really believed in what they were studying.

He didn’t grasp that he was dealing with a very different kind of group—the sort whose idea of a good evening’s fun was a six-hour Bible study wrestling with a tricky passage of Revelation. It was a crucial misunderstanding, and would feed directly into the tragedy that was to come.

...

They were “value-rational”—that is to say, their rationality was organized around values, not goals. A value-rational person would accept his fourteen-year-old daughter’s polygamous marriage, if he was convinced that it was in fulfillment of Biblical prophecy. Because the F.B.I. could not take the faith of the Branch Davidians seriously, it had no meaningful way to communicate with them:

As much as these people weren't really thinking in a traditionally rational sense, the fact that the FBI didn't understand this led to an incredibly violent situation. It's not so much that they needed to take the Branch Davidians seriously, it's that they didn't understand what they were dealing with and didn't adapt their negotiation strategy.
posted by gucci mane at 11:51 AM on March 24


Exactly, this has more to do with dominance and turf than anything about saving kids or potential suicides.

Which is why raids like this happened routinely at non-child-molesting religious gatherings all across America in the 1990s. Ayup.
posted by yoink at 11:52 AM on March 24 [4 favorites]


“Most people think ‘cult’ about us and think we are people who were brainwashed and deceived. They think our church members don’t know what they’re doing or where they’re going. Hopefully, my story can open their eyes.”

Hmm... Nope, you were still a part of armed-bigamist-doomsday cult that was run by a lunatic who killed children by provoking a fight with authorities who had even bigger weapons. Your church's only real failure, perhaps, as Gladwell unintentionally hints at, is that your loony boss didn't get a 150-year head start to become respectable.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:52 AM on March 24 [10 favorites]


As much as these people weren't really thinking in a traditionally rational sense, the fact that the FBI didn't understand this led to an incredibly violent situation.

This is an unprovable hypothesis, however. I mean, it's interesting to speculate, but there is simply no evidence, at all, that can help us decide if a different, Biblical approach to the negotiations with the Branch Davidians would have had a different outcome.
posted by yoink at 11:53 AM on March 24


It's not so much that they needed to take the Branch Davidians seriously, it's that they didn't understand what they were dealing with and didn't adapt their negotiation strategy.

Exactly what strategy could they have pursued? The FBI would have been justified in thinking that the Branch Davidians were going to go Jonestown on them and murder the children before killing themselves. The article's Branch Davidian basically argues that the demand for children to be released was irrational to the people in the compound, but it was clearly the main goal of the authorities outside.
posted by graymouser at 11:58 AM on March 24


Put another way, I'm arguing that it's quite possible to think Koresh was a sexually abusive cult leader who was doing real damage to some of his followers' children, that Randy Weaver was legitimately frightening given that he was an Aryan Nations affiliate buying up illegal weapons, and that the government's response to both was murderously and terrifyingly authoritarian.

I think this is well-put. I can remember watching footage of the siege and assault when it happened and being nauseated by the whole thing. There had to have been a smarter approach.
posted by Dip Flash at 11:59 AM on March 24


From wikipedia on the Waco siege:

During the siege, a number of scholars who study apocalypticism in religious groups attempted to persuade the FBI that the siege tactics being used by government agents would only reinforce the impression within the Branch Davidians that they were part of a Biblical "end-of-times" confrontation that had cosmic significance.[62] This would likely increase the chances of a violent and deadly outcome. The religious scholars pointed out that—while, on the outside, the beliefs of the group may have appeared to be extreme—to the Branch Davidians, their religious beliefs were deeply meaningful, and they were willing to die for them.[62]

Other people who studied these sects understood that this wasn't the way to do it and the FBI didn't listen. I don't know what other strategies there are for negotiating with people who are part of a religious group/sect, but other people who have a better understanding of these sorts of groups seemed to know that this wasn't going to work, and why it wasn't going to work.
posted by gucci mane at 12:01 PM on March 24 [3 favorites]


Likewise,

Reno countered that the FBI was tired of waiting; that the standoff was costing a million dollars a week; that the Branch Davidians could hold out longer than the CSAL; and that the chances of child sexual abuse and mass suicide were real because Koresh and his followers were crazy.

The idea that these people were "crazy" is the one that dominated the FBI at the time, as the Gladwell article explains. They aren't crazy in the same way that someone who is a bank robber is crazy, and that you can negotiate with in the typical ways that they are negotiated with. I don't know what another strategy would be but I don't think storming a compound with military hardware is a better alternative. I'd think the federal government would have some funds on hand to find a person that has some experience dealing with apocalyptic religious sects to draw out a different negotiation plan.
posted by gucci mane at 12:08 PM on March 24


I don't know what other strategies there are for negotiating with people who are part of a religious group/sect, but other people who have a better understanding of these sorts of groups seemed to know that this wasn't going to work, and why it wasn't going to work.

One of the scholars who tried to work with the FBI during that time is an acquaintance-of-an-acquaintance (yes, a very tenuous connection). It came up in a conversation once, and while I don't remember the details, the basic point was that he was well acquainted both with apocalyptic literature and with the ways the these kinds of end-of-days cults tend to interpret those scriptures, and he wanted a chance to try to offer a different interpretation, to convince them that it was not yet time for them to sacrifice themselves. We'll never know if it would have worked, but someone who could come in to the conversation as a quasi-insider, who knew their language and could talk about alternative interpretations might have had a shot at getting them to stand down.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 12:11 PM on March 24 [1 favorite]


Exactly, that's really all I am saying, that there was a possibility of an alternative negotiation strategy that could have ended the whole thing differently.
posted by gucci mane at 12:15 PM on March 24


Hmm, I don't think that article was particularly apologist toward the Branch Davidians, it simply highlights the fact that FBI negotiation practices that typically work did not work in this one because the Branch Davidians really believed in what they were studying.

I think it comes off as apologetic insofar as it implies that the FBI negotiations failed due to a lack of religious tolerance on their part, rather than failing due to the beliefs of the Branch Dividians, and dwells overlong on the negotiations rather than on the ATF's initial investigation and raid -- Gladwall does mention, but sort of skips past, that ten people had already died by the time negotiations began; within that context, it isn't all that surprising that "[i]n the government’s eyes, the Branch Davidians were a threat" -- they'd already killed government agents.

Of course, one can kick the can of causation down the line and blame the ATF (and quite deservingly so) rather than the Branch Dividians, but that's not what Gladwell chooses to argue.
posted by cjelli at 12:15 PM on March 24 [3 favorites]


I don't know if it's so much as Gladwell implying that as much as it's the former Branch Davidian that is implying that. Gladwell seems to believe that the FBI's negotiation strategy was a poor choice because it didn't understand the threat they were dealing with wasn't the same as someone who is a bank robber, with which typical negotiation practices work. And yeah, it's definitely threatening when a group of people who are armed with AK-47s, AR-15s, .50 Caliber rifles, amongst many other weapons, are firing at federal agents, but that's sort of the point of the whole apocalyptic cult thing: they're willing to die for their beliefs, and they aren't the normal type of people who can be negotiated with due to that.

And not to blame the victims but the ATF knew their cover had been blown and still went ahead with the raid anyway. If they seriously thought they were dealing with someone who they knew had what basically amounted to an armory full of weapons in a compound, and suspected of converting semi-automatic weapons to fully-automatic, why did they continue the raid? That just seems like you're asking for trouble.
posted by gucci mane at 12:23 PM on March 24


I remember when this happened too. There was such a rush to produce a TV movie about it that they couldn't wait to find out what would happen (it starred Tim Daly). And then it was broadcast after the ending, so there was this weird climax of Daly proclaiming how he was the messiah and then a brief note on the screen saying "er, yeah, the FBI stormed the compound and now everyone's dead, sorry."
posted by Melismata at 12:24 PM on March 24 [2 favorites]


why did they continue the raid?

Because the cult was an immediate danger to everyone around them?
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:25 PM on March 24


Which is why raids like this happened routinely at non-child-molesting religious gatherings all across America in the 1990s. Ayup.

Maybe it's quite a bit after the '90s, but need I point you to the huge surplus of "militarization of law enforcement, SWAT team dog-shooter" stories we unfortunately have laying around?
posted by Apocryphon at 12:27 PM on March 24 [3 favorites]


The most obvious massive leap into the deep end with both feet in the religious thinking, at least as Gladwell presents it here, is Koresh's conclusion that he must be the Lamb spoken of in Revelations - because shit, how else can he be so good at making sense of this stuff?

Once you go there, I don't think Biblical scholars are going to convince Koresh and the Davidians that there's some other interpretation of scripture that means they should all chill out and surrender, because that undercuts the whole idea of Koresh as Lamb and suggests they've just been flat wrong the whole time. They'd gone pretty much all in, and I'm dubious that they would have been able to fold after that.
posted by Naberius at 12:33 PM on March 24 [3 favorites]


Also, may I submit that building a fence around the compound and calling it a Federal Prison would have been a considerably better option than what they finally went with?
posted by Naberius at 12:34 PM on March 24 [5 favorites]


I have a theory of recent history. It's all Boykin.
General William G. Boykin advised on the Waco raid.
He was in charge of troops at the Black Hawk Down incident.
He participated in the failed raid in 1980 to rescue the American hostages in Iran.
He helped lead the disastrous raid on Panama in 1989.
He advised on how to make Abu Ghraib more like Guantanamo.

(He's now executive vice-president for the Family Research Council.)
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 12:37 PM on March 24 [18 favorites]


And not to blame the victims but the ATF knew their cover had been blown and still went ahead with the raid anyway.

No worry, I don't see you blaming the children, nor the cult members who died in the raid.
posted by el io at 12:38 PM on March 24 [1 favorite]


If it was about the child abuse, why weren't we driving tanks through Catholic churches?
posted by entropicamericana at 12:40 PM on March 24 [11 favorites]


I don't think the cult was a danger to anyone but its members and its children, and from interviews with the locals at the time, I don't recall any significant worries. Given that Koresh had previously submitted to civil justice, the obviously lowkey strategy was to arrest Koresh for child sexual abuse while he was in town, try to use that to get the kids in the cult out and into foster care, and then, if the guns were still an issue raid when you are minimizing danger to everyone. If your highest goal is kids out and safe from sexual abuse and possible apocalyptic suicide, as opposed to wanting to pose in front of a bunch of seized weapons for publicity shots.

And that's from someone who not a fan of anyone stockpiling weapons.
posted by tavella at 12:40 PM on March 24 [2 favorites]


why did they continue the raid? That just seems like you're asking for trouble.

Because if the crazy apocalyptic cult (and no matter how rational the Branch Davidian in the Gladwell article comes off, they were both crazy and a cult) goes Jonestown and kills all the kids and then flames out in an apocalyptic gun battle, you let that happen. With the raid they at least seize some of the initiative. It's bad at a time of their choosing instead of waiting and gambling that worse won't happen.
posted by graymouser at 12:42 PM on March 24 [1 favorite]


Also, may I submit that building a fence around the compound and calling it a Federal Prison would have been a considerably better option than what they finally went with?

But this, again, rests on the unprovable assumption that the Branch Davidian's response to that would have been "o.k., that's cool, just keep providing us with three squares and we promise to stop raping children and to stick to Bible reading." I mean, sure--if you know in advance that the only alternative to this is burning all those kids alive, you'll take that option. But nobody on the FBI made a decision to burn anyone (and the preponderance of the evidence is that the Branch Davidians did start those fires)--they thought they were rescuing children who were, in fact, being subject to sexual abuse.

If we're supposed to believe Koresh when he's saying "don't mind us, we're just doing Bible study" why are we supposed to be able to realize that in fact he was planning to immolate the whole community at the first sign of the Feds moving in?
posted by yoink at 12:42 PM on March 24 [2 favorites]


"Malcolm Gladwell writes..."

You lost me.
posted by uberchet at 12:46 PM on March 24 [5 favorites]


He was in charge of troops at the Black Hawk Down incident.

Major General William F. Garrison was in charge, not Boykin.

I still like your theory though.
posted by valkane at 12:49 PM on March 24 [2 favorites]


Blazecock Pileon: Because the cult was an immediate danger to everyone around them?

So why not cut off the leader one of the many times he went into town rather than endanger a lot of people with a gun battle?

graymouser: Because if the crazy apocalyptic cult (and no matter how rational the Branch Davidian in the Gladwell article comes off, they were both crazy and a cult) goes Jonestown and kills all the kids and then flames out in an apocalyptic gun battle, you let that happen. With the raid they at least seize some of the initiative. It's bad at a time of their choosing instead of waiting and gambling that worse won't happen.

I guess that is true, but people who left the compound prior to the siege said there was no evidence of any sort of cult suicide event planned. The fires they started themselves were after the FBI decided to finally storm the compound.
posted by gucci mane at 12:50 PM on March 24


How did they manage to publish this in the future? It ain't March 31.
posted by oceanjesse at 12:51 PM on March 24


And I don't think anyone is saying they were rational, but that they were crazy in a different way than bank robbers or other people that you can negotiate with are crazy.

I don't like the framing of the word "crazy" in these contexts and am trying to not use it in such a way that de-legitimizes a belief system. The child abuse and cult behavior behind this group is disgusting and sad but they were definitely people who had a belief system and they spent a lot of time seriously studying and arguing about it with each other. Simply calling them crazy allows us to expand the definition to other belief systems like Mormonism (which happens to be cited in the article as well).
posted by gucci mane at 12:54 PM on March 24


How did they manage to publish this in the future? It ain't March 31.

It's from the March 31 edition of the New Yorker.
posted by zamboni at 12:54 PM on March 24


Or rather, Koresh was the one molesting children, but it was him that convinced everyone that he should be allowed to do so. The other members seemed to just genuinely believe in the religious system they had all become a part of.
posted by gucci mane at 12:55 PM on March 24


I don't like the framing of the word "crazy" in these contexts and am trying to not use it in such a way that de-legitimizes a belief system. The child abuse and cult behavior behind this group is disgusting and sad but they were definitely people who had a belief system and they spent a lot of time seriously studying and arguing about it with each other. Simply calling them crazy allows us to expand the definition to other belief systems like Mormonism (which happens to be cited in the article as well).

I think it also creates stereotypes about how such a group is expected to behave. Certainly the Branch Davidians had a lot of suspect beliefs and practices, but it seems like everyone is just assuming that they were pushing for a mass suicide. If so, the federal actions played right into their hands; a mass suicide by cops.
posted by Apocryphon at 1:02 PM on March 24 [2 favorites]


From reading about this both at the time and now, it seems completely clear to me that the FBI went out of its way to make sure that there wasn't going to be any peaceful settlement.

I mean, take just one detail - the fact that the FBI was deliberately depriving everyone on the compound of sleep:
The bureau trained spotlights on the property and set up giant speakers that blasted noise day and night—the sound of “rabbits being killed, warped-up music, Nancy Sinatra singing ‘These Boots Are Made for Walking,’ Tibetan monks chanting, Christmas carols, telephones ringing, reveille.” Doyle writes, “I got to where I was only getting about an hour or two of sleep every twenty-four hours.”
This is not what you do when you are trying to defuse a tense situation - this is what you do when you want people to go crazy.

We hear that "To the F.B.I. agent, Mount Carmel was a hostage situation," - if that's so, how exactly did they justify pumping flammable tear gas into the place if it was full of "hostages" - including children? What results did they expect, other than what happened - a conflagration that killed 76 people?

It's deplorable, and what's more deplorable is that no one lost their job over it.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 1:03 PM on March 24 [8 favorites]


gucci mane: The idea that these people were "crazy" is the one that dominated the FBI at the time, as the Gladwell article explains. They aren't crazy in the same way that someone who is a bank robber is crazy

Well, bank robbers aren't crazy and these people certainly were. Maybe they didn't handle these crazy people correctly, but some comments seem to be based on the idea that a mass murder/suicide was not a reasonable concern with a religious doomsday cult.
posted by spaltavian at 1:06 PM on March 24 [1 favorite]


It always seemed to me that at some point, the FBI just went off track. Yes, I understand they had some very real fears about Jonestown. But the FBI's goal should always have been "OK, how do we end this with no dead children, and as few dead adults as possible?" And, somewhere along the way, they took their eye off that ball, and the goal became "OK, how do we win?"
posted by tyllwin at 1:07 PM on March 24 [6 favorites]


> The fires they started themselves were after the FBI decided to finally storm the compound.

And the fact that the FBI was repeatedly trying to lob pyrotechnic military tear gas rounds into the compound had nothing to do with it, we are told.? Of course, this factoid comes from the same investigation that exonerated law enforcement more or less completely - a skeptical person would take this conclusion with a huge grain of salt.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 1:08 PM on March 24 [3 favorites]


I don't know - robbing a bank has got to be one of the least rational criminal ways to get money. The bank is designed architecturally to protect it's money, there are alarms everywhere, there are armed guards, there are people trained to be calm while the police come. Bank robbery is pretty fucking crazy if you ask me.

But maybe painting the Koresh followers as crazy will help absolve the government some responsibility for the death of children. You know, those MOVE people seemed pretty crazy as well.
posted by el io at 1:09 PM on March 24


Remind me again. How do I distinguish Malcolm Gladwell from Yahoo Serious?
posted by octobersurprise at 1:12 PM on March 24


but some comments seem to be based on the idea that a mass murder/suicide was not a reasonable concern with a religious doomsday cult

The idea is that with irrational belief systems it's tricky to determine how someone would react, and it's not good to start assuming that all systems lead to the same normative behavior, lest you unintentionally push them towards mass murder or suicide.
posted by Apocryphon at 1:13 PM on March 24


el io: The bank is designed architecturally to protect it's money

It's also designed to hold money. It's a high risk/high reward strategy. People do get away with bank robberies.

But maybe painting the Koresh followers as crazy will help absolve the government some responsibility for the death of children. You know, those MOVE people seemed pretty crazy as well.

I'm not sure what your point is with specious point like that. Two totally different groups with two totally different agenies at work, in different decades. Recognizing that a doomsday cult in Texas may make crazy, unpredictable decisions is not somehow an excuse for the Philadelphia Police Department's actions eight years previously.
posted by spaltavian at 1:15 PM on March 24 [1 favorite]


Remind me again. How do I distinguish Malcolm Gladwell from Yahoo Serious?

Gladwell: Tie
Serious: Shoulder pads

You're welcome.
posted by The World Famous at 1:17 PM on March 24 [2 favorites]


I know I'm repeating myself at this point, but it seems clear to me why the FBI and the ATF could not pursue a policy of "do not escalate:" because "do not escalate" produces symmetry in a relationship that at least one side needs to remain asymmetrical. Violence is the method by which that structural asymmetry is created and enforced. (This desire for enforced asymmetry informs acts and fantasies of apocalyptic or reactionary violence as well; thus the Davidians, like the Weavers mentioned above, were stockpiling weapons.)
posted by kewb at 1:18 PM on March 24 [2 favorites]


And the fact that the FBI was repeatedly trying to lob pyrotechnic military tear gas rounds into the compound had nothing to do with it, we are told.?

Your own source there says only that three such "pyrotechnic" tear gas shells were used, and that they bounced harmlessly off the structure. More to the point "pyrotechnic" in this usage does not mean that they were designed to start fires (they were not incendiary devices, that is), it simply means that they were tear-gas canisters that are fired using an explosive charge rather than ones that use compressed air or what have you. They are recommended for outdoor use because of the risk that they can--if you're very unlucky--start a fire; but they are frequently used by SWAT teams and other police agents in interior settings without incident. They certainly shouldn't have been used at WACO, but it's a desperate reach to say that because they were used--in such a minimal way--that this somehow "proves" that the fire was caused by the Feds. This has been subject to multiple investigations and none of them have ever found a shred of evidence to support the claim that that the fires were started by the tear gas canisters.
posted by yoink at 1:20 PM on March 24 [5 favorites]


I think it comes off as apologetic insofar as it implies that the FBI negotiations failed due to a lack of religious tolerance on their part, rather than failing due to the beliefs of the Branch Dividians

Not tolerance. Understanding. They didn't know how the religious ideology of those they were besieging worked. It's the same basic problem we have today in trying to predict or deal with Islamic terrorism - just screaming "those people are crazy!" isn't just stupid and simplistic, it also leaves you without any way of getting inside your opponent's head. I didn't see anything in the article from Gladwell or his former Branch Davidian source saying that the authorities should have just left the compound alone, but rather that by not bothering to inform themselves about or take seriously what the BDs actually believed

but you're acting as if murder/suicide was not a reasonable concern with a religious doomsday cult

It would be interesting to get a list of apocalyptic religious groups, and then look at what percentage indulge in murder/mass suicides. I'm guessing it's actually a minority. The Heaven's Gate thing was on people's minds at the time, all right. But there were then, and are still, plenty of folks in the USA (and worldwide) who think the end is nigh (as a former Seventh-Day Adventist myself, I know quite a few of them) who aren't going to set themselves and their children on fire.

Besides which, if the BDs were really believed to be going to kill themselves, precisely how would storming the place stop that? You really think that tanks rumbling through the compound would move fast enough to stop people from shooting their kids or themselves? Or just tooling up and going out shooting at the servants of Anti-Christ or whatever?

All in all, it was a fuck-up. A pretty classic example of fear and ignorance being pushed over the edge into conflict by the need to keep up appearances and pressure from above.
posted by AdamCSnider at 1:22 PM on March 24 [3 favorites]


Well, bank robbers aren't crazy and these people certainly were. Maybe they didn't handle these crazy people correctly, but some comments seem to be based on the idea that a mass murder/suicide was not a reasonable concern with a religious doomsday cult.

We'd better learn how to talk to them. The US is full of people who believe in an imminent end of the world. Michele Bachmann believes it. Maybe Sarah Palin does too.
posted by tyllwin at 1:24 PM on March 24 [2 favorites]


The US is full of people who believe in an imminent end of the world. Michele Bachmann believes it. Maybe Sarah Palin does too.

That doesn't mean we can't learn not to vote them into office or make an effort to enforce stricter separation of church and state.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 1:31 PM on March 24 [3 favorites]


entropicamericana: "If it was about the child abuse, why weren't we driving tanks through Catholic churches?"

Anybody feel that? It was just a Richter 4.0 quake from me clicking the favorite so hard.
posted by symbioid at 1:39 PM on March 24 [4 favorites]


I think the immediate concern is more about how they shape our foreign policy, as such interest groups are already pretty firmly entrenched.

But again, even drolly dismissing them as "people who believe in an imminent end of the world" is over-simplistic. If you can figure out why people believe in certain things, then you can approach them on their level. Fighting fire with fire, and all that. Arnold and Tabor using theology to try to convince Koresh to surrender was admirable, and at least worthy of some consideration.
posted by Apocryphon at 1:43 PM on March 24 [1 favorite]


> Your own source there says only that three such "pyrotechnic" tear gas shells were used, and that they bounced harmlessly off the structure.

That's the first usage of the word "pyrotechnic" on that page - if you search a little further...

From that source:
Between 1993 and 1999, FBI spokesmen denied (even under oath) the use of any sort of pyrotechnic devices during the assault; however, pyrotechnic Flite-Rite CS gas grenades had been found in the rubble immediately following the fire. In 1999, FBI spokesmen were forced to admit that they had used the grenades; however, they claimed that these devices—which dispense CS gas through an internal burning process—had been used during an early morning attempt to penetrate a covered, water-filled construction pit 40 yards away,[74] and were not fired into the building itself. According to FBI claims, the fires started approximately three hours after the grenades had been fired.[74] When the FBI's documents were turned over to Congress for an investigation in 1994, the page listing the use of the pyrotechnic devices was missing.
So you're basically relying on the FBIs word that they didn't do this - but they were actually lying about at least part of the story, for years, under oath. Falsus in Uno, Falsus in Omnibus.

(If you or I lied under oath we'd go to jail - surely we should be harder on law enforcement officials than on the general public?)
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 1:43 PM on March 24 [8 favorites]


Just found a transcript of Arnold and Tabor's appearance on Ron Engelman's local radio talk show. The two scholars take the Branch Davidians' pretensions to being a real religious community seriously, try to play down some of the public accusations against, them, and basically encourage David Koresh to give himself up voluntarily by using Scriptural examples of Christian evangelists who were tested by imprisonment. Imagine if the feds had specialists like that on hand from the onset of the crisis.
posted by Apocryphon at 1:53 PM on March 24 [1 favorite]


If you or I lied under oath we'd go to jail

People lie under oath all the time and, unfortunately, are almost never prosecuted.
posted by The World Famous at 2:04 PM on March 24


Wasn't the arrest/search warrant issued for the illegal modification of firearms and not for anything child abuse related? Or am I misremembering
posted by I-baLL at 2:06 PM on March 24 [2 favorites]


"They did not worship Koresh, the way you would a deity. He was just the latest of many teachers, in a religious tradition that dated back half a century."

Whom they believed was the Lamb of God who would start Armageddon, once he was done sexing up their children. Totally rational!
posted by nicwolff at 2:26 PM on March 24 [2 favorites]


So you're basically relying on the FBIs word that they didn't do this

I'm relying on multiple investigations (including those carried out after the use of the CS gas canisters was revealed). There is no evidence that the CS gas canisters started any fires and the fact that fires started in three separate locations simultaneously (and that Branch Davidian members were heard talking about starting fires) tends to make the claim that the CS canisters were responsible implausible.

Now, your belief that the CS canisters did start the fire is based on what, exactly? It's the kind of thing you'd like to believe true, because it confirms your general feelings about the US govt. Anything other than that? Any, you know, "evidence" of any kind whatsoever?
posted by yoink at 2:33 PM on March 24 [2 favorites]


> Now, your belief that the CS canisters did start the fire is based on what, exactly? It's the kind of thing you'd like to believe true, because it confirms your general feelings about the US govt. Anything other than that? Any, you know, "evidence" of any kind whatsoever?

Could you rephrase your question in a polite manner, please?
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 2:43 PM on March 24 [3 favorites]


"Malcolm Gladwell writes..."

You lost me.


This isn't particularly funny or insightful, imo?
posted by Sebmojo at 2:47 PM on March 24 [2 favorites]


I remember watching this documentary about the siege years ago and finding it pretty damning of the FBI at the time - the fact that multiple pieces of evidence demonstrated that the FBI was lying about several things - and that key evidence went "missing" (like the frigging huge double doors from the front of the compound which could have demonstrated where the shots were coming from) really doesn't inspire a lot of confidence in FBI/ATF testimony.
posted by smoke at 2:54 PM on March 24 [1 favorite]


(I guess I thought Boykin was in charge of the Mogadishu operation)

William M. Arkin, The Los Angeles Times, October 16, 2003

The photographs were taken shortly after the disastrous "Blackhawk Down" mission had resulted in the death of 18 Americans. When Boykin came home and had them developed, he said, he noticed a strange dark mark over the city. He had an imagery interpreter trained by the military look at the mark. "This is not a blemish on your photograph," the interpreter told him, "This is real."

"Ladies and gentleman, this is your enemy," Boykin said to the congregation as he flashed his pictures on a screen. "It is the principalities of darkness It is a demonic presence in that city that God revealed to me as the enemy."

In charge of finding Bin Laden during Bush's term:

Richard T. Cooper, Los Angeles Times, October 16, 2003

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon has assigned the task of tracking down and eliminating Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein and other high-profile targets to an Army general who sees the war on terrorism as a clash between Judeo-Christian values and Satan.

Lt. Gen. William G. "Jerry" Boykin, the new deputy undersecretary of Defense for intelligence, is a much-decorated and twice-wounded veteran of covert military operations. From the bloody 1993 clash with Muslim warlords in Somalia chronicled in "Black Hawk Down" and the hunt for Colombian drug czar Pablo Escobar to the ill-fated attempt to rescue American hostages in Iran in 1980, Boykin was in the thick of things.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 3:18 PM on March 24 [1 favorite]


"Ladies and gentleman, this is your enemy," Boykin said to the congregation as he flashed his pictures on a screen. "It is the principalities of darkness It is a demonic presence in that city that God revealed to me as the enemy."

Sheesh. And people had the gall to criticize George C. Scott's portrayal of General Buck Turgidson in Dr. Strangelove as "over the top".
posted by Atom Eyes at 3:38 PM on March 24 [2 favorites]


Jerry Boykin. Even his name is perfectly Strangelove-ian.
posted by Atom Eyes at 3:42 PM on March 24


I have almost zero sympathy for cults, but I do agree Waco was an explicit, intentional message: the United States will not tolerate anything resembling actual separatism.

If Koresh's group had been making campaign contributions like Scientology or the Moonies nothing would have happened to them. But they were truly disconnecting themselves from the body politic. There is no other explanation for the militarized raid and tactical escalation over the course of months.
posted by clarknova at 4:03 PM on March 24 [5 favorites]


(I guess I thought Boykin was in charge of the Mogadishu operation)

On 8 August 1993, Aidid's militia detonated a remote controlled bomb against a U.S. military vehicle, killing four soldiers. Two weeks later, another bomb injured seven more. In response, President Clinton approved the proposal to deploy a special task force, composed of 400 U.S. Army Rangers and Delta Force commandos. This unit, named Task Force Ranger, consisted of 160 elite U.S. troops. They flew to Mogadishu and began a manhunt for Aidid.

On August 22, the force was deployed to Somalia under the command of Major General William F. Garrison, JSOC's commander at the time.

Operation Gothic Serpent
posted by valkane at 4:29 PM on March 24


Another beautiful place out in the country....
posted by kaibutsu at 4:50 PM on March 24 [1 favorite]


If Koresh's group had been making campaign contributions like Scientology or the Moonies nothing would have happened to them. But they were truly disconnecting themselves from the body politic. There is no other explanation for the militarized raid and tactical escalation over the course of months.

That goes for any individual or group -- there is only one true prejudice in the world -- you either have money and pay your way to benign acceptance, or you are broke and you'll face every imaginable consequence of discrimination possible. A twisted rich freak will be accepted far more than a lovely poor one. Break the money barrier and pay your way to societal/governmental tolerance...
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 5:48 PM on March 24 [2 favorites]


Metafilter: Thanks for dialing down your bitch, it means a lot.
posted by clarknova at 5:49 PM on March 24 [2 favorites]


Immolation of a bunch of kids in the name of intervening in child abuse is The American Way. We must destroy the village to save it, whether it's Atlanta or Pine Ridge or My Lai or Baghdad. It's just how we roll, cowboy style, Tom Cruise at the yoke, motherfuckers.

I was in Texas, 50 miles away, and at the time very tuned in to what the far right/millennial fringe was up to. For the entire siege leading up to the raid and fire, anyone I knew who knew anything about the style of thought at work (on both sides) could see the way it was headed and what a catastrophe it would be in radicalizing an already dangerous and batshit fringe. I haven't seen it mentioned in thread, but McVeigh thought of the Oklahoma City bombing as revenge for Waco, among other twisted motivations. Shit was fucking real there, and domestic politics got hopeless in part because of the opening right wing and evangelical rage gave Karl Rove.

Damn stupid for a supposed slick hegemon, but it's the sort of mistake all dying empires make. Sandy Hook is directly connected to Waco. The killer's mom was a gun nut prepper, which is how he was armed and capable of mass murder. I will bet Waco helped shape her consciousness.

Koresh was a narcissistic sociopath. But as entropicamericana brilliantly pointed out above, so were hundreds of Monsignors at respectable Catholic Churches, and none of those was put to siege by tanks.

Violence begets violence.
posted by spitbull at 8:44 PM on March 24 [6 favorites]


Cops swing into high gear when cops get shot. A few years ago a 24-hour Walgreens in my neighborhood was robbed and during the robbery a cop was shot. The whole neighborhood was cordoned off, a McDonalds was commandeered as an interrogation center and hundreds of cops gathered. I was about a half mile away, doing dishes late on a Friday night and knew nothing of the shooting until the next day. What I did notice was that a helicopter hovering over my house which shone a really bright light into my kitchen, straight into my face actually as I stood by the window wondering WTF?

Waco was like that, but super-amplified, over the top military-hardass win-at-all-costs craziness.
posted by telstar at 9:18 PM on March 24 [2 favorites]


Good read, interesting details, thanks.

Every time Gladwell moves beyond presenting the facts he researched he seems to get inconsistent, and twists or ignores things that might detract from the simplistic point he wants to make. I had a vision of a distorted reflection of Waco, of a bunch of middle-brow professionals hanging around the New Yorker, and Malcolm Gladwell says "What is it that you want? More Bible study TED Talk platitudes?", and everybody runs and gets their Kindles, and just listens to a talk, or an article, or a book-length inflation of a single-idea article. It would depend, it was never a bore."
posted by benito.strauss at 9:44 PM on March 24 [1 favorite]


"If it was about the child abuse, why weren't we driving tanks through Catholic churches?"

If you know of a branch of the Catholic Church where the priests are holding the choirboys they're fucking hostage and are armed with automatic weapons, I suggest you contact the FBI asap.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 9:47 PM on March 24 [3 favorites]


Bill Hicks, "David Koresh real name was Vernon Howells, what Prophet was ever called Vernon?"
I saw a very good documentary film on the whole incident ( can't remember the name), it showed a video detail of the tear gas igniting the compound.
Also read a book by a follower who had spent years trying to get the FBI involved in the child abuse. They didn't want to do anything until he produced files of people who had been abused.
The writer of the article has an odd idea about what religous tolerance is, Joseph Smith of the LDS is not a good example of a matyr.
posted by Narrative_Historian at 11:40 PM on March 24 [1 favorite]


the fact that fires started in three separate locations simultaneously (and that Branch Davidian members were heard talking about starting fires) tends to make the claim that the CS canisters were responsible implausible.

You know, it is possible for both the Branch Davidians to have started fires *and* the FBI to have lied about using gas canisters. lupus_yonderboy's argument about FBI lies and missing pages is interesting and deserves non-obnoxious consideration.
posted by mediareport at 8:48 AM on March 25 [1 favorite]


You know, it is possible for both the Branch Davidians to have started fires *and* the FBI to have lied about using gas canisters.

Of course. Nobody denies that they lied about using the gas canisters initially, however. That is simply an established fact. I'm objecting to the absurd inference that goes "they lied about using the gas canisters therefore they started the fire." There is a ton of evidence pointing to the Branch Davidians starting the fires deliberately and basically no evidence at all that the FBI did. And yet the claim that the FBI "burned the children in order to save them hur, hur, hur"--roughly the evidentiary equivalent of claims that 9/11 was the work of the International Jewish Conspiracy--are repeatedly endlessly throughout this thread.

If you actually have any interest in understanding the events of that day I would recommend reading the Danforth Report. After the information that a few "pyrotechnic" CS canisters had, in fact, been used at Waco emerged, Janet Reno appointed an independent counsel to go over all the evidence again. That was a Republican senator: John Danforth. If anyone had an incentive to find "the gubmint" guilty of bad actions at Waco it was a Republican senator in an era when Waco had been firmly embraced by the US right as evidence of the evils of "the gubmint" in general and the Clintons in particular. Here's just a snippet from his findings:
Make no mistake: the bad acts alleged in this case are among the most serious charges that can be leveled against a government– that its agents deliberately set fire to a building full of people, that they pinned children in the burning building with gunfire, that they illegally employed the armed forces in these actions and that they then lied about their conduct. I took such charges very seriously and began this investigation with my own mind totally open as to the issues before me. I required all members of my investigative staff to affirm in writing their commitment to objectivity. This Interim Report summarizes the exhaustive efforts undertaken to date to investigate every lead and to test every theory. There is no doubt in my mind about the conclusions of this report. Government agents did not start or spread the tragic fire of April 19, 1993, did not direct gunfire at the Branch Davidians, and did not unlawfully employ the armed forces of the United States.

In fact, what is remarkable is the overwhelming evidence exonerating the government from the charges made against it, and the lack of any real evidence to support the charges of bad acts. This lack of evidence is particularly remarkable in light of the widespread and persistent public belief that the government engaged in bad acts at Waco. On August 26, 1999, for example, a Time magazine poll indicated that 61 percent of the public believed that federal law enforcement officials started the fire at the Branch Davidian complex.

This is a matter of grave concern. Our country was founded on the belief that government derives its “just powers from the consent of the governed.” When 61 percent of the people believe that the government not only fails to ensure “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” but also intentionally murders people by fire, the existence of public consent, the very basis of government, is imperilled.

The readiness of so many of us to accept as true the dark theories about government actions at Waco deserves serious attention by all of us. To that end, I offer the following thoughts.

We all carry the horror of the Waco tragedy with us. We have reviewed the events of February 28 and April 19, 1993 so many times, and they will not leave us alone: the sight of ATF agents carrying their dead and wounded from the Branch Davidian complex, the image of that same complex burning against the sky and the sound of the wind whipping the flames. In the face of such calamity, we have a need to affix blame. Things like this can’t just happen; they must be the government’s fault. We are somehow able to ignore the contrary evidence– never mind the fact that the FBI waited for 51 days without firing a shot, never mind the evidence that Davidians started the fire, never mind that FBI agents risked their own lives in their efforts to rescue the Davidians– and we buy into the notion that the government would deliberately kill 80 people in a burning building
posted by yoink at 9:43 AM on March 25


That was a Republican senator: John Danforth. If anyone had an incentive to find "the gubmint" guilty of bad actions at Waco it was a Republican senator in an era when Waco had been firmly embraced by the US right as evidence of the evils of "the gubmint" in general and the Clintons in particular.

John Danforth is not the kind of Republican you paint him to be.
posted by jammy at 10:01 AM on March 25


In other FBI news: Why Did FBI Monitor Occupy Houston, and Then Hide Sniper Plot Against Protest Leaders?
posted by homunculus at 10:03 AM on March 25 [2 favorites]


If you actually have any interest in understanding the events of that day

Just completely unnecessary obnoxiousness. Please stop.
posted by mediareport at 10:40 AM on March 25 [2 favorites]


I remember the Buddhist chanting they played through their loud speakers. To this day, I am astounded at the utter idiocy of the command that failed to realize that, to the 'persecuted religious folk' (their own self image) this was the wailing of the demons of hell, and the utter proof of the End of Days and their center roll in that event.

Please, can someone explain to me how this is not obvious? Any adult male in that compound that had any doubts about their situation lost those doubts when those chants began. DUH!
posted by Goofyy at 10:51 AM on March 25 [1 favorite]


when Waco had been firmly embraced by the US right as evidence of the evils of "the gubmint" in general

Yeah, never understood where those people are now with the NSA spying and Gitmo and such. Although that seems to work both ways. Gubmint now, bad. But back then, perfectly ok. "Babies being beaten" at Waco vs. babies killed in incubators in the Nayirah testimony. Big difference?
Naaaht so much.
It's all of one piece. Political polarity seems to blind a lot of people to the relationships that run deeper through these sorts of events.
Amateurs study tactics, enthusiasts study strategy, but professionals study logistics.


First, tactics.
Is there some question the Posse Comitatus Act was subverted?
Pretty much gone now (if you're considered a terrorist).

But there's no question it became a military operation. And regardless of any circumstances past the point it did, was completely inappropriate from there.

and we buy into the notion that the government would deliberately kill 80 people in a burning building

Well, the logic is completely skewed from the governments perspective. This is not to argue on behalf of the Branch Davidians, but they're not the ones collecting taxes, so -


Consider - the ATF swears out a warrant for Koresh. They raid the place instead of nabbing him in town... or while jogging with him...or while uh... *cough* they went shooting with him *cough*
Apparently they didn't see any firearms violations at the time. Frankly, I don't know either way.
(Tangent - how can people who believe weapons inspectors in Iraq were unduly pulled in order to start a war that kills tens of thousands of U.S. troops, thousands more foreign nationals, but can't relate that the ATF would endanger less than a hundred. What, because there's a different president?)
And either way, they went ahead with the raid.

Ok. And no matter who shot first in the raid, clearly it was a big tactical mistake there from the get go to not just grab him before then.

So it's a stand-off. And apparently it's urgent to stop him because he's abusing children so, what, they let him continue to rape children for 51 days?
As far as using tear gas goes, that was apparently the reason from the political side. Child abuse.
As far as I know without solid evidence (that would hold up in court anyway) but that's not very relevant because whether he was or wasn't - 51 days of waiting either way.

So is that the authority by which they entered the compound under military direction? No, because the PCA did not have any provision for exceptions for child abuse.

Right now of course, it's pretty much swiss cheese. But back then the big magilla was drugs (terrorism too, but not as much).
So if Koresh was a drug dealer, they could go after him. Which is what they did. At least according to the Treasury Report ("Finally, Breault noted that when Koresh took over the Compound, he told Breault that he had found methamphetamine manufacturing facilities and recipes on the premises." "A Texas National Guard airman
then provided ATF with an unofficial interpretation of the reconnaissance videotapes that
suggested a hot spot inside the Compound was consistent with characteristics of a
methamphetamine lab."etc. etc)

Again, this is not the reality, or what I am saying is the reality, this is what was said. The justification for using the military.

So with the benefit of hindsight and watching "Breaking Bad" from our spot here in 2014, what do we know about meth labs? Flammable or inflammable?

Yeah, both.

Was there a meth lab? Here's the thing, if there was, the tactics were inappropriate for a raid on a compound containing a meth lab. 'Inappropriate' as in grossly incompetent and willfully negligent for anyone with even a basic grasp of interdicting methamphetamine producing labs.

In fact, the Congressional subcommittee asked that question. Say, did you guys (the ATF) do, y'know, something about the meth lab aspect in terms of health and safety what with the burning and such?

The ATF director at the time said, no. Even though, yeah, they were aware that meth labs go boom and has/had ATF cadre trained for just such a thing as dealing with hazmat and raiding clandestine labs and so forth and, no. Didn't do a thing. No ATF agent present on Feb. 1993 "had received specific, specialized training in investigating methamphetamine laboratories."
The agents going in, or potentially going in, apparently, didn't know it was or could have been an active meth lab.
Plenty of flash bangs though. Know what those do near a meth lab? Yeah, 'splode.
Know what burning CS does in a high concentration of vaporous chemicals used in a meth lab? Yeah, 'splode.

If there was a meth lab, the ATF ignored dangers to its agents and civilians - willfully - by not providing any information, equipment or support to deal with explosive and toxic chemicals.

If there wasn't a meth lab, well, there's no justification for using the military, at least under the law that existed at the time, so... yeah.

Additionally, from a military perspective, the best way to enter a building depends on the nature of the resistance. The best method is to strafe the roof, drive everyone to the ground level, and enter from the top. All things being equal it's far better to fight moving downhill than up.

In terms of hostage rescue, not so much. The reason CS needs a heat source is mostly to disperse.
If you were looking to avoid harming hostages, children in particular who would likely have prolonged symptoms from the gas, you'd probably start on the 2nd floor, mask up, and head down.
Again, by all reports, this didn't happen.
So tactically, I have no idea exactly what they were driving at. I have a grasp of tactics so that tends to make me think they had their heads way up their ass more than they used some secret-fu.
Not sure what use Abrams tanks might have been there either, unless the Davidians planned to field some of their own.

Legally, the government found it didn't violate the PCA. It's logic is contradictory, but IANAL, so what do I know? A bit later guardsmen, et.al were taking guns away from people after Katrina with no (official) violation of the act and later on we decided it was ok for the President to designate people who should be held without trial.

And that's really the thing. It's not so much the gun thing or religious crazies or drugs (though that's, woo, that's been big) or the political bad guys on the other side. These tend to be red herrings in more complex issues.

I think we can agree that police force militarization in the U.S. has its inception around the time of Waco and in many ways is a product of it (as mentioned in other comments above).

Many reports scathe the ATF, et.al. for lying to get equipment, material, etc. But for the most part the format - seeking federal aid to procure military weapons and hardware for your agency, police department, etc. - remains pretty much the same.

Congress was angry at the lying, apparently, not so much the militarization of policing. Armored personnel carriers on American streets are just fine, but fill out the forms properly.

Well, whats the point of, say, giving Tampa an amphibious APC through federal grant money? You'd think it's a bit superfluous, no? (Unless you live in this post-9/11 world where terrorists could...uh...flood...uh...)
Why give Richland County, South Carolina cops an APCs with a belt fed .50 caliber machine gun?
I don't really see where that kind of ordinance it's going to come up handy. A .50 cal is a stupifying amount of firepower for a local law enforcement body (6,700 meters at 3,000 ftper second)

There isn't much you can do with it but get into serious trouble (which I see as analogous to the Waco situation).


Tupelo, Mississippi got a neat helicopter they used on 10 missions which cost them $54,000 per year. That's $5,400 per mission on top of fuel, paying your personnel (probably overtime), etc. $270,000 in maintenance over 5 years.

Why would the DoD give away $500-odd million of leftover military equipment to law enforcement?

Anyone watch the original "Robocop" lately? ("I had a guaranteed military sale with ED209. Renovation program. Spare parts for 25 years. Who cares if it worked or not?")
Logistics. Yeah.

Being aware of most of the lean here, I'll let other sources answer that question for me.
Plenty more on huffpo regarding the DoD 1033 program, the Byrne grant program, "Troops to Cops" (et.al)

And just recently the ACLU is looking into police militarization in the U.S.

(Money quote from the last piece: "And I suspect that once they force the police agencies to cooperate, they'll find that this problem is even more dramatic and pronounced than most people know. But then the question is, now what? Even if you can show that people are being victimized and terrorized by these tactics -- and to no good end -- if no one cares, then what does it matter?")
posted by Smedleyman at 8:23 PM on March 25 [2 favorites]


This is a good discussion about Waco itself, but I'm interested in Gladwell's social commentary in the article, where he compares the Branch Davidians odd behavior to the original Mormons (my bolding):

It is useful to compare the Branch Davidians with the Mormons of the mid-nineteenth century. The Mormons were vilified in those years in large part because Joseph Smith believed in polygamy. But the Cornell historian R. Laurence Moore, in his classic book “Religious Outsiders and the Making of Americans,” points out that the moral hysteria over the Mormons was misplaced. The Mormons were quintessential Americans. “Like the Puritans before them, the Mormons linked disciplined labor with religious duty,” Moore writes. “Mormon culture promoted all the virtues usually associated with the formation of middle-class consciousness—thrift, the denial of immediate gratification, and strict control over one’s passions.” Polygamy, the practice that so excited popular passions, was of little importance to the Church: “First, the vast majority of nineteenth century Mormons did not practice polygamy, and many of them found it distasteful, at least as a way of conducting their own lives. Second, those who did practice plural marriage scarcely exhibited the lascivious behavior made familiar in anti-Mormon literature. Plural wives were commonly the widowed or unmarried sisters of the original wife.”

So why were nineteenth-century Americans so upset with the Mormons? Moore’s answer is that Americans thought the Mormons were different from them because the Mormons themselves “said they were different and because their claims, frequently advanced in the most obnoxious way possible, prompted others to agree and to treat them as such.” In order to give his followers a sense of identity and resilience, Joseph Smith “required them to maintain certain fictions of cultural apartness.” Moore describes this as a very American pattern. Countless religious innovators over the years have played the game of establishing an identity for themselves by accentuating their otherness. Koresh faced the same problem, and he, too, made his claims, at least in the eyes of the outside world, “in the most obnoxious way possible.”

The risks of such a strategy are obvious. Mainstream American society finds it easiest to be tolerant when the outsider chooses to minimize the differences that separate him from the majority. The country club opens its doors to Jews. The university welcomes African-Americans. Heterosexuals extend the privilege of marriage to the gay community. Whenever these liberal feats are accomplished, we congratulate ourselves. But it is not exactly a major moral accomplishment for Waspy golfers to accept Jews who have decided that they, too, wish to play golf. It is a much harder form of tolerance to accept an outsider group that chooses to maximize its differences from the broader culture. And the lesson of Clive Doyle’s memoir—and the battle of Mount Carmel—is that Americans aren’t very good at respecting the freedom of others to be so obnoxiously different. Many Mormons, incidentally, would say the same thing. When the Mormons settled in Nauvoo, Illinois, local public opinion turned against them. Joseph Smith was charged with perjury and adultery, then arrested for inciting a riot. While he was in custody awaiting trial, in 1844, an armed mob stormed the prison and shot him dead.


First off, it's interesting to note that while the Mormons practiced, and still practice, many non-mainstream practices that lead them to be seen as the Other, they still profess values linked to all-American middle-class striverism and Protestant worth ethic.

Second, his critique of liberal acceptance to minority groups who assimilate enough to become acceptable to the majority is also interesting, and makes one consider the tolerance of groups that self-otherize, either intentionally or through the continued practice of distinctly non-mainstream customs. The Hmong in Michigan? Roma in Europe? Various segments of Muslim immigrants throughout the West?
posted by Apocryphon at 8:56 PM on March 25 [1 favorite]


Aw, man! Just started to put together a post on this, only to find out that I'm late to the party. Here's the post's body because I think I found a few good links (plus a few obvious ones):

In his article, Gladwell references the books A Journey To Waco by Clive Doyle, Learning Lessons From Waco by Jayne Seminare Docherty, Religious Outsiders and the Making of Americans by Rovert Laurence Moore, and Armageddon in Waco, edited by Stuart A. Wright. He specifically references two essays in this last book: an unnamed piece by James D. Tabor and Waco, Federal Law Enforcement, and Scholars of Religion by Nancy T. Ammerman.

According to the article, Doyle's autobiography grew out of participation in an oral history project by Catherine Wessinger. On her website, Wessinger has made a pdf of her book How the Millennium Comes Violently available to download. In addition to Waco the book covers Jonestown, the Montana Freeman, Ayum Shinrikyo, and other groups awaiting the Millennium.

While I couldn't find Tabor's essay, he and Eugene V. Gallager are known for writing their own book on the events at Waco: Why Waco? I also found this tripod site dedicated to Waco that has a page compiling much of Tabor and Gallagher's writing on the incident.
posted by Going To Maine at 2:14 PM on March 30 [2 favorites]


Make no mistake: the bad acts alleged in this case are among the most serious charges that can be leveled against a government– that its agents deliberately set fire to a building full of people, that they pinned children in the burning building with gunfire, that they illegally employed the armed forces in these actions and that they then lied about their conduct.

Why did I suddenly think of Iraq after reading that sentence?
posted by telstar at 12:55 AM on April 20


« Older "s/s/s started to sound like the Nazi Schutzstaffe...  |  The Vikings invented soap oper... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments