20 Years Later: Would the US Government Do It Differently Now? (On the Anniversary of the Branch Davidian Disaster)
I remember very well watching live network television when US government tanks inserted C-2 gas into the Branch Davidian compound near Elk, Texas in 1993. I remember thinking “They’re crazy! What are they thinking? There are children in there!” Watching as the compound burned to the ground, knowing that many innocent (especially) women and children were dying inside was one of the most horrifying things I have ever seen. My own country’s federal government attacking a religious community knowing very well (because they were warned) that the attack might result in mass suicide and murder.
Of course, I was also horrified when I saw the news footage of the ATF attack on the compound weeks earlier and the deaths of several ATF agents at the hands of some of the Branch Davidian men. I was deeply saddened by the tragic loss of lives but also astounded by the show of military force simply to impose a search warrant on a religious community infected with paranoia.
What I wondered as I watched the tanks insert C-2 gas into the compound buildings was this: “Would they do this in a hostage situation where children were being held by, say, bank robbers inside a bank?” I couldn’t imagine it—especially if they knew the robbers and hostage-takers were likely to kill the hostages and themselves rather than surrender.
Okay, at this point someone out there is reading this and raising questions about what “really” happened inside the compound that day. I’m not making any judgment about that. Did the C-2 gas cause the fire or did the Branch Davidian men start it? The US government claimed the Branch Davidians started the fire(s). At the time (shortly afterwards) I talked with a man who had been in the military and knew all about C-2 gas. He told me it most definitely could start fires by itself when exposed to heat such as light bulbs, lanterns, etc. So who knows? That’s not the point here. My point is that even if the Branch Davidians started the fires the government knew that mass suicide/murder was a possibility if they invaded the compound. Remember “Jonestown?” And I knew a man who talked to the negotiators during the siege of the compound and explained the apocalyptic and paranoid mindset of David Koresh and what could very well happen if they provoked him too far (e.g., by invading the compound).
To this day most Americans consider what happened there a tragedy—an unfortunate one. I consider it something more—at least an extremely unwise act and at worst a crime against humanity. To the best of my knowledge, however, nobody involved (on the government side) suffered any consequences as a result of the final attack on the compound and the resulting deaths of 18 children. But don’t ask me what consequences they should have suffered because I don’t know. I have no opinion about that. I only believe someone on the government side should have been disciplined in some way for what was at least an extremely unwise decision.
What should the government have done? Why couldn’t the siege have continued indefinitely? Eventually the accused parties would have surrendered. Why wasn’t the fate of the children inside the compound uppermost in the government’s minds? (Some say it was; that there was reason to believe the children were being starved or abused, etc. I have never seen or heard any convincing evidence of that.)
I grew up in a Christian community that taught me to believe what happened to the Branch Davidians is exactly what would eventually happen to all “real Christians” in the “end times.” Extreme persecution by our own governments was considered inevitable—not for real crimes but for exercising our religious beliefs and practices that would be wrongly criminalized. So I could understand the mindset of the Branch Davidians. They saw the initial ATF assault as the beginning of that great persecution. It seems crazy to most Americans, but that’s what they believed. I knew it was not just a matter of calculated belief, rationally considered, but what philosopher R. M. Hare called a “blik”—a perspective on reality that interprets it. I’m not sure the U.S. government agents ever understood that blik. If they had, perhaps they would have acted differently.
I suspect most Americans, blissfully ignorant of the Branch Davidian “blik,” to this day regard them as nothing more than a bunch of crazy religious fanatics and even potential anti-government terrorists and/or criminals (they allegedly stockpiled and sold or planned to sell illegal firearms).
After it was all over, except the finger pointing and rationalizing, many Americans I met, who found out I taught religion (including a course on “cults and new religions”), expressed strong opinion that the U.S. government ought to “watch” minority religious groups. I agree if there is strong evidence they are abusing children, plotting violence, or engaging in criminal enterprises. All of those things were suspected of the Branch Davidians, so I have no objection to the government investigating them. But I also think the government should consult religious experts about minority religious groups and try to understand their mindsets and take them into account as they interact with them.
After 20 years I still consider what happened near Elk, Texas those Spring days in 1993 a debacle, evidence of extreme ignorance and lack of wisdom on the part of our government, even callousness toward innocent lives. It ought to be remembered and lessons learned from it. I’m not sure it is or they have.