This Saturday, April 19, 2003, is the ten year anniversary of the fiery culmination of the 51-day standoff between federal officials and the Branch Davidians at Waco, Texas, in which more than seventy civilians died, including nearly two dozen children. Many have more or less forgotten the event and simply want the rest of us to get over it.
Most people would agree it was a huge disaster, but some controversy still exists as to how blameworthy the government is. Some Americans accuse the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) and FBI of committing outright murder. On the other hand, some who may concede that authorities acted inappropriately do not think we should dwell upon it too much; it was ten years ago, after all. Either interpretation should leave all us with a fear in our hearts that is profoundly unsettling.
First, a recap:
The initial ATF raid on March 28, in which several Davidians and four agents died, was orchestrated with shady justifications. Although the ATF officially claimed they were there to search the Davidian home for illegal firearms, months before the raid sect-leader David Koresh had offered to give bureau agent Davy Aguilera a tour and show him all their firearms, but Aguilera refused. The ATF also claimed they had only wanted to bring Koresh and not his followers into custody, but if this was the case, they could have simply arrested him while he was out jogging or visiting local bars. Their real reasons for the raid? Multiple agents interviewed by 60 Minutes said they believed the assault was planned as a publicity stunt to improve ATFs public image, recently tarnished by reports of sexual harassment within the agency.
After the forty-five minute gunfight, a stand-off ensued and the FBI took over, turning the siege into a military operation. They harassed the press and kept them two miles away from the scene. They called in Army tanks and heavy artillery. Although the FBI said their ultimate goal was to draw the Davidians out of the building, the agency often threw flash-bang grenades at people who did come out, scaring them back inside. The agency used psychological warfare, shining bright lights at the building and playing recordings on loud speakers throughout the night of sheep being slaughtered, Tibetan monks chanting, and Nancy Sinatra singing These Boots Were Made For Walking.
The conflagration that ended it all had government malice written all over it. The FBI had smashed a hole in the building with a tank, which then pumped CS gas into the building for six hours before the fire broke out. CS has been implicated in numerous international human rights abuses and was eventually outlawed for use in military combat in the Chemical Weapons Conventionmonths before it was used by the FBI against its own citizens at Waco. It is also flammable, and deadly in the high concentrations the Davidians were subjected to. Though the Davidians were accused of setting the fire, infrared evidence has shown that the FBI used incendiary devices on April 19, which could have sparked the flames that engulfed so many lives that day. The same evidence shows that FBI agents fired machine guns at the only remaining escape from the fire, after all other doorways had collapsed under the flames and the tank. Agents kept firefighters away from the fire until the entire building was burned down. The FBI then bulldozed the evidence and began a cover-up that continued into the lackadaisical Congressional hearings two years later.
Confronted with these facts, some will still excuse the federal governments conduct at Waco. The most common arguments, along with simple refutations, are as follows:
- Koresh sexually abused children.
No evidence has proven this, and besides, barbecuing the children supposedly victimized by Koresh seems an outrageous remedy.
- They were a bizarre cult with dangerous weapons.
Even so, the first and second amendments to the Constitution expressly protect the rights of Americans who are so inclined. And even if you agree with the existing gun laws, no evidence shows the Davidians had broken any.
- Something had to be done before the cult hurt someone.
In America, youre supposed to be innocent until proven guiltylet alone be sentenced to death before any crime has been committed.
- They killed four ATF agents.
The Davidian survivors were later acquitted in the murder trial on grounds of self-defense. Apparently, the jury thought they had a right to shoot the ATF agents who had attacked and killed several of themand who had little reason to be there in the first place.
So government apologists come up with one final excuse: Maybe the government handled it poorly, maybe their reasons for being there were questionable, and maybe Koresh wasnt a real threat. But they didnt know that at the time. They made a mistake. It was a catastrophe, but get over it.
And thats the worst argument of them all. How sad, that we live in a country that was founded on the concepts of liberty, presumed innocence, and limited government, where were now supposed to simply get over it when our government makes a mistake that results in eighty civilian deaths.
Waco must always be remembered. Every April 19, and every day. All decent Americans who love this country and the principles on which it was founded must resolve never to forget what happened there. Maybe then it will never happen again. But if we discount such atrocities as mere mistakesand continue to allow the government perpetrators to go unpunishedwe might see many more Wacos to come. And after every one of them, there will be plenty of people standing around telling us all to get over it.
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.