Nineteen years ago, just outside Waco, Texas, the FBI demonstrated once again that the state at its core is a killing machine. Monarchy, democracy, or republicany government as conventionally defined is a legal monopoly on violence. The state is always inclined toward oppression, division, conquest, and bloodshed, because these are its tools of trade.
Matters are no different here. The myth of a free America was always seen with bitter irony by those not blessed by such freedom. In the founding generation, as half a million labored in slavery, many who fought in the Revolution genuinely believed in liberty, but for the ruling elite who chided them on, liberty was hardly more than a slogan. This has always been true of our political leaders. The Father of the Country was a centralizing slaveowner. Old Hickory talked up freedom as he threatened war on South Carolina and forced the Cherokee to flee from their ancestral land on a barbarously murderous walk of shame. The Great Emancipator turned America into a military dictatorship and abolished the revolutionary right of secession. Wilsons New Freedom was cover for a Prussianized war machine generating revenue for his profiteering buddies on Wall Street. Roosevelts Four Freedoms failed to include the freedom not to be drafted or interned in a concentration camp. Ronald Reagan threw the word freedom around as he trained Latin American torturers and raped the Bill of Rights in the name of fighting drugs. The United States has never lived up to its rhetoric.
But the events from February 28 through April 19, 1993, still stand out in my mind as a watershed. It was the post-Cold War regimes coming of age, signifying a major event in cultural history.
Everything about Operation Showtime was brazen, and it seemed like an overreach even by some of the governments establishment defenders. Yet today Washingtons fixers must look back at these embarrassments as a hiccup at most, as growing pains on the way to establishing a militarized law-and-order apparatus of nearly unlimited power. That this stepping stone was reached on the eve of the Internet era, right before the old media began its decline in influence, was most convenient for the police state and its solidification.
The propaganda against the Branch Davidians was perfectly tuned to appeal to the masses, each adjustment in frequency coming just in time to keep the people listening. Religious fanatics with a meth lab, armed and dangerous, abusing their childrenfew wanted to stand up for these people during the siege. Even fewer wished to identify the Davidian response to the original raid for what it was: self-defense. The Davidians fired on the ATF so long as the ATF fired upon the Davidians, and when the ATF ran out of ammo, the Davidians held their fire. The governments officials were the aggressors. What followed were fifty-one days of psychological warfare designed to isolate the Davidiansfrom water, from food, from the press, their lawyers and familyand break them down like any wartime enemy.
So preposterous was the standoff that eventually even the mainstream media began asking questions. A New York Times exposé on March 28 raised all sorts of troubling issues, which only multiplied in the days that followed. Federal agents said that supervisors had known they had lost the element of surprise, but decided to go ahead with the February 28 raid anyway. Agents were reportedly unhappy with their equipment and communication methods. The poor planning and lack of contingency options were exposed. No medical assistance had been prepared for the ATFs raid. Reports emerged that some of the ATF agents had injured or killed one another in friendly fire. There were hints that other agents might have even been captured and let go by the Davidians. The ATF intelligence chief stopped holding press conferences as the heat continued to mount.
On April 19, tired from the boredom and bad publicity of just standing around outside the compound, the FBI drove a tank through the Davidians home, pumped it full of CS gas, launched incendiary devices at the building, and watched it go up in flames. As soon as the stakes became higher, as soon as questioning the feds meant implying they had committed mass murder, the media stopped barking defiantly and jumped back to the governments lap.
The Democrats, home of Americas center-left, oversaw this exceedingly important event in the development of the police state. Unsurprisingly, every respectable liberal defended the government and believed Clintons people when they demonized the Davidians. The entire respectable right went along with the bloodletting, too. Why wouldnt they? It was a raid planned by George H.W. Bushs ATF, carried out by the Clintonistas, and ultimately rubberstamped by the Republicans in Congress, and so everyone could get behind it. Some libertarians wavered, including Randians and other proponents of violent national secularism, and much of the radical left went limp too.
The Oklahoma City incident two years later was spun by the media as an example of anti-government extremism somehow being a greater threat than the government itself. It became increasingly un-PC to bring up what had happened in Texas. The election of Dubya and 9/11 washed away the paranoid anti-statist instincts of much of the Clinton-hating right.
Waco, from the raids planning to the cover-up and show trials, taught the U.S. government what it could get away withwhich is to say, practically anything. It can gas innocent children with internationally banned chemicals. It can hoist a federal flag atop a torched American home, claim victory, and see its public image improve. It can throw grenades at people trying to escape a building and claim they are being held hostage. In the name of protecting these hostages and children, it can watch as they burn and keep the firefighters away. And the massacre will be tolerated, even applauded.
Dozens of people of color died at the hands of the federal government, and the official Civil Rights movement hardly spoke up. Dozens of people were targeted for their religion, and it hardly bothered many of the very conservatives who allege a war on religion waged by DC. The largest federal-military killing of civilians on U.S. soil in a century has now become one more notch on the progressive lefts timeline of major events in anti-government extremism, as opposed to a principal example of government extremism where a tiny minority community was virtually exterminated.
Indeed, in 1993 the Davidians were only the most conspicuous and recent example in Americas long history of the demonized Other, the marginalized underclass in the official hierarchy of human worth. Slaves, Indians, Mexicans, Southerners, Catholics, Irish and German-Americans, Chinese immigrants, Japanese-Americans, Mormons, homosexuals, alleged Communists, rightwing extremists, and many others have played the role, often for their imagined association with the wartime enemy, but always for being out of step with the governments accepted definition of legitimate humanity. Many look back at incidents of intolerance with disbelief that Americans could be so blind to oppression. Yet when the topic of Waco comes up, they will think only of those nutcases who, according to the government and media, attacked federal agents and then killed themselves.
In the nineteen years since Waco, we have seen the police state explode in every direction and now we are all ensnared. Some groups are always more threatened than others, but no one is truly safe. The prisons have swollen to the largest detention system since Stalins gulags. The police conduct three thousand SWAT raids a month. The war on terror has made a total mockery of what remained of the Fourth Amendment. Torture has lost its taboo. So has indefinite detention. The feds irradiate and molest airline passengers by the millions. People are jailed for taking medicine, buying Sudafed, sharing songs, and selling milk. The Kafkaesque regulatory state threatens people of all economic classes with crushing fines and a fate in a cage. The public schools, always authoritarian institutions, have become explicit adjuncts of the criminal justice system and military recruitment offices. Every major police department has tanks and battle rifles and drones are being used for surveillance and God knows what else. Each federal department has enough firepower to conquer a small third-world country. DHS alone has ordered enough ammo to shoot every American man, woman, and child. The president claims the right to kill American citizens anywhere on the planet on his say-so alone. And he exercises that power.
Why do some of us continue to fixate on Waco? If for no other reason, because April 19, 1993 was a squandered opportunity if ever there was one. The people could have risen up and said, Enough! They could have demanded the military occupation retreat from their own neighborhoodsboth the federal presence and its satellite jackboots in the city police. They could have demanded an end to the gun laws, drug war, and federal war on crime, each of which was instrumental in ending the lives of more than twenty children at Waco. They could have turned against the media whose elites stood and applauded the White House as it announced and defended its latest killing spree. They could have seen the federal government for the clear and present danger it obviously posesthe only government that had militarily mass murdered American civilians on American soil since the collateral damage at Pearl Harbor. They could have turned their backs on the killers in DC, refusing ever to believe in their lies again, saving the lives of uncountable Americans, Serbians, Afghans, Iraqis, Libyans, Yemenis, Palestinians, and so many others who would bear the wrath of an unhampered imperial executive in the nineteen years to come, sparing the priceless liberties we have seen shredded on the altar of state power.
Instead, they looked the other way, they yawned, even cheered. There might still be time to turn things around. But the tanks are closing in.
THE POWER OF HABEAS CORPUS IN AMERICA: From the Kings Prerogative to the War on Terror
As perhaps the most important legal protection, habeas corpus has a rich history from medieval England to modern America involving opportunistic power plays, political hypocrisy, ad hoc jurisprudence, and many failures in effectively securing individual liberty.