10 Years Later: Would the US Government Do It Differently Now? (On the Anniversary of the Branch Davidian Disaster)

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.

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  • Tim Reisdorf

    Roger, thank you for bringing this back to our remembrance. It was a horrible situation and a horrible conclusion. You hope of lessons learned, I must admit that I can’t think of many. We are still dealing with the same issues of conflict between those who govern and those who don’t want to be governed. I suspect this conflict will be exacerbated in coming years, to the horror of many.

  • Bill McReynolds

    I was reminded of this a few weeks ago when law enforcement officials did almost the same thing in their standoff with Christopher Dorner in Big Bear, CA. I thought at the time: they are using the Janet Reno approach, injecting highly flammable tear gas into the building, knowing (as one Sheriff’s deputy said) that the bldg would likely catch fire. I lived in Dallas in 1993, and there is no question but the Feds knew they were murdering all those women and children.

    • Surprise123

      “and there is no question but the Feds knew they were murdering all those women and children.” NO question? Really?

      Mr. Olson assumes that federal officials understood that an ongoing siege might encourage mass suicide among this group; but, an equally plausible assumption is that federal officials assumed that mass suicide might occur no matter that (they), the federal officials did, and an all out attack was the only thing to prevent mass suicide.

      Yes, federal officials made some horrible decisions that day, but they should be given some slack, knowing that the Jonestown massacre was fresh in their memories.

      • rogereolson

        I personally know a religion scholar (who holds a Ph.D. in religious studies) who grew up in a group similar to the Branch Davidians and understood David Koresh’s mind who went to the government officials leading the siege and begged them to listen to him and understand David Koresh’s mind–not to agree with it but to understand it so they would not make a terrible mistake. They refused his offer to help them.

  • Jim LaGrand

    It’s right that we remember this shameful moment. Thanks, Roger, for writing this piece.
    Back in 1993, Leon Wieseltier captured perfectly what happened at Ranch Apocalypse. Although not a religious believer himself, he defended what he called the Davidians’ “spiritual strangeness” and saw clearly the secular- and therapeutic-style mania that drove the ATF to attack.
    His piece — “The true fire: in defense of spiritual strangeness,” The New Republic 208 (May 17, 1993), pp. 25-27 – is a masterpiece. Those with electronic access to it will find it’s well worth reading on the 20th anniversary of this tragic event.

  • Steve Rogers

    There were two “bliks” in play that day, the Davidian’s and the government’s. The government had more fire power. One can only hope that post event analysis will lead to more restraint when innocent lives are involved. My suspicion is that if and when such a standoff occurs again, the response won’t be rumbling tanks in broad daylight in full camera view. Rather, a drone will sneak over at night and “surgically” do its thing. Too bad, the collateral damage.

  • plutosdad

    Having read a few books by people who were there, we have indeed learned a lot. When there are hostage situations, we sit and wait and don’t go it, don’t bow to political pressure. Reno put huge pressure to resolve the standoff quickly. Now we put lives first, and embarrassment second. Only a year later there was a 90 day standoff in MO that you never heard about, because no one died, because we sat and waited them out.

    Similarly just a few weeks ago we let that man hold the boy in a bunker for 6 days, we only went in when we became convinced he was about to harm the boy.

    As for your other questions, they were resolved when I read up on the Davidians and the town nearby and what was going on there. Koresh definitely needed to be removed, and his people needed to be freed. Of course, that is the issue: they needed rescue from him, and many of them were victims, though like any other group there were some with more power than others that used it to their own advantage.

    • rogereolson

      And according to many people in the community Koresh could easily have been picked up out and about any time.

    • Leslie

      Why did Koresh “definitely need to be removed”? What do you mean by “removed”? Killed? Jailed? Why did his people need rescuing? No personal disrespect to you, truly, but you don’t know what you’re talking about. Koresh may have been crazy (I’m not a psychologist, and Koresh is not longer around to be evaluated), and even his supporters admit he had too much of a thing for young girls (whom he “married” with their parents’ permission). But until the government invaded his property (and no one knows who shot first), he was not a physical threat to the community. The people at Mt. Carmel wanted to be there, and they were committed to their faith. I don’t believe in their faith, and I have no connection to them. But you’re misrepresenting them, as any basic reading of the facts about the event will demonstrate.

      • rogereolson

        You are over-reading what I wrote. It was about the criminal Koresh, not about the group who fell under his leadership. There is little doubt on the part of anyone who knew him intimately that he was having sex with underage girls.

  • VJ

    Just passing though here, but I recall things a bit differently. Everything should have been done better. And the official inquest after the disaster said so, and did in fact come up with many recommendations, some of which were incorporated into later training protocols. However what we forget is that it was indeed a ‘no win’ situation. The ‘compound’ was indeed ‘bugged’, and the Feds had reason to believe that great harm was being done or threatened to be done to the women & children there. Moreover, we already know that the yes, Madman David Koresh had already raped many of the children inside (yes, Statutory rape is still rape, and few seemingly were consensual), producing at least a few ‘children of children’ for his pleasure & dictates.

    So in a month long stand off with literally ‘no way out’ and religious scholars consulted who were mystified about what might have been going on or what larger ‘motive’ or purpose was being served by Koresh’s yes, Hostage taking, and use of his Human Shields, the Feds just more or less gave up. When met with a true terroristic threat that continues for weeks, they were at a loss at how to end the ‘standoff’ honorably or even ‘peaceably’. The Cult did not and would not conform to any sort of federal law, and they were belligerently and quite openly and proudly hostile to most laws they did not like. Including a host of social ‘niceties’ involving incest and the impregnation of little girls against their will or complete understanding And a degrading form of plural marriage as a integral part of the doctrine of their cult.

    So yes, ‘mistakes were made’. Errors were seen in retrospect. But these were decidedly NOT some simple ‘peacenicks’ or ‘refusenicks’. This was a cult that demanded and indeed Courted a directly violent confrontation with the ‘evil’ federal government as part & parcel of their central doctrine. And that’s never going to end well, given the circumstances. Most of the useful suggestions to the Feds going forward were by way of operational security and better planning and logistics. There’s still very little that might have been done much better given the circumstances. And no, I really don’t blame the government for all of it either.

    Hopefully this might be useful to others in memory of the innocent killed on both sides. Thanks. ‘VJ’

    • rogereolson

      Again,though, why didn’t they just wait it out? There was no evidence from the listening devices that children were being abused. There was good reason to believe they might die if force was used.

      • VJ

        Yes, but of course again, you’re reckoning the whole concept of ‘innocents’ rather suspiciously and wrongly. The children were indeed innocent, but were in fact hostages. That’s very clear. They were being abused daily, and many of the girls, yes Raped daily to produce newly blessed ‘converts’ and unions.

        And yet until Koresh actually sought out a violent confrontation with the authorities, everyone & sundry were perfectly content to mostly look the other way. Similarly, it took well over a decade to decide to do anything about the numerous crimes of Warren Jeffs & Co. There too the legal community and the authorities for too long ‘waited it out’ to the clear detriment to now literally dozens of families destroyed or damaged involving perhaps 100’s of people, directly and indirectly.

        And yet you’ll happily (?) countenance such ongoing abuse and rampant and egregious lawbreaking all in the name of allowing such criminality to run riot for fear of any other detrimental consequences? I’m sorry that sounds an awful lot like encouraging a type of now quite familiar religiously inspired terrorism. As long as you can gather enough young and vulnerable hostages who are beholden to you (or have been otherwise captured and ‘detained’ with their families who are followers), you are suddenly made magically immune from the laws of the community, state, And nation you reside in? Again, I’m sorry, that’s the Jim Jones defense. It’s morally unacceptable and untenable. We protested and thought it particularly heinous when Saddam did the same. Why is this situation any different? He claimed a different religion?

        There WERE innocents in that compound. They were being abused and assaulted persistently, Daily, Nightly and certainly illegally. Evidently for years actually too. Eventually the law must step in to try and protect the multitudes that might be otherwise spared such ongoing abuses. To imagine otherwise is not only to countenance madness, but to undermine the rule of law. Koresh and similar ‘charismatic’ madmen Always imagine themselves to be singularly ‘above all man made laws’. That’s what makes them particularly dangerous in any organized society that claims any sort of moral basis based on laws.

        We could not ‘wall off the compound and call it a prison’ precisely due to the fact that most of the direct victims of Koresh’s madness were ‘safely inside’ under his constant control and willing and ready abuse. To not be able to ‘see’ these victims is yet another long term success of his ongoing terroristic enterprise. Can you not see that? “VJ’

        • rogereolson

          What evidence to you have that children were being abused inside the compound during the siege? I have not heard of it. For most of the fifty-plus days David Koresh was seriously wounded and virtually physically incapacitated. And if there was evidence that children were being abused inside the compound, why did the authorities wait fifty-plus days to invade it with flammable gasses? Sorry, I am not buying your defense of the government’s actions. Nor do I defend David Koresh and to say so is ludicrous. I have said no such thing. I do know that he could have been arrested on the streets of Waco many times without incident.

          • VJ

            You don’t know what you don’t know Pastor, which is highly unfortunate. The facts known are these. Koresh did indeed father children with several of his underage followers, and the teenage girls of his followers. That was a well known fact before the siege, but evidently not ‘enough’ of a provocation for the authorities to want to do much about it. He was indeed holding several of these underage ‘converts’ hostage, as a sort of collective non consensual concubinage. Again, also well known to authorities, and part of the series of inquests and media reports after the incident. Ergo, if we are want to take statutory rape seriously, especially from a self proclaimed religious sect leader, he’s liable under the laws, and he well knew that. It was part & parcel of his whole ‘anti-authortiarian’ ethos that eventually killed him and his fellow followers & Hostages.

            Moreover, according to media reports of the time, Koresh was not very seriously injured, and certainly not incapacitated enough not to be able to entrap and somehow retain & contain perhaps dozens of innocents to suffer their eventual fiery fate.

            But the fact that he did indeed father several children with the girls of his (older female) converts is incontestable, just as it was for Warren Jeffs. Most of these girls were seriously underaged, and could not and would not have consented to being in such a plural concubine ‘marriage’ if they could have known the meaning and efficacy of their own consent or minds. That’s what & why we have these laws. And why plural marriage for such young girls is such a crime & a sin.

            And sadly, due to a very effective ‘early warning’ system in a remote small community, Koresh was largely immune from capture, and again he well knew that, and courted his eventual fate. He dared the Feds to ‘come & get him’. He well knew he had committed a series of serious criminal acts, and he wanted and hoped for a direct violent confrontation in hopes of starting a war of sorts. But you’re generally familiar with the type & the doctrine here. It’s the particular facts you’re seemingly hazy about. Koresh courted disaster and sadly he accomplished what he wanted. This is the way with many self made martyrs. But look to the documents, it’s in there. Thanks again, ‘VJ’

          • rogereolson

            I haven’t contested any of that. My only argument is that it doesn’t justify what was done by the government UNLESS the government had very good evidence that children were being abused inside the compound DURING THE SIEGE. I have never heard of that evidence. My own opinion is that the government simply ran out of patience and made an unwise decision to end the siege precipitously–something that would not have happened in a scenario such as I offered as illustration in my post (viz., a bank robbery hostage situation).

        • John I.

          It is not the jim Jones defence. It is not saying that the laws do not apply to them. Waiting them out entails applying the law to them. Using sufficient time to arrest with out injury is entirely appropriate.

  • I completely agree with you and this and am glad to see you draw attention to it. This massacre was especially tragic because (as you say) it was both unnecessary and predictable. I recall someone later saying, “Why not just build a wall around the place and call it a prison?”

  • just some guy

    I never really understood the outrage, a bunch of wacky apocalyptic cultists took things too far and wound up getting killed, I’m supposed to feel sorry for these freaks? David Koresh was a psycho who thought he was personally the second coming of Jesus Christ, if anyone is to blame for the whole debacle it’s him

    I DO feel sorry for the children though since they had no choice but to be there, but I don’t feel sorry for the adults, least of all David Koresh, they knew what they were in for and they all wanted the Apocalypse and got it, trouble is it was just an Apocalypse for only them, be careful what you wish for….

    • rogereolson

      So far as I have noticed the outrage is over the lost lives of the innocents.

  • Carl

    I am amazed that in your original article you did not mention Janet Reno and Bill Clinton—who happen to be Democrats.

    • rogereolson

      I didn’t mention any government officials by name, did I?

  • laverl09

    So, when we are afraid that the brain-washing of women and children has gone beyond the tolerance of our own values, we feel it is better to kill them BEFORE anyone else does?

  • VJ

    This might have been also directed at me so let me answer it briefly. ‘Brain washing’ (a term of art to be certain) is one thing. Demonstrable harm and rampant criminality is quite another. Sometimes they might go together. (We all can think of some religious & ‘quasi’ institutions here). But it’s my contention, and the clear record will reflect that Koresh and his head henchmen were in fact openly committing crimes, and often freely admitting this also. They thought their insularity and the fact that they were well known to be ‘well armed’ would provide them with a good modicum of protection in TX, and it did indeed for many years.

    But eventually, if you tell the government that ‘I’m committing crimes and you can’t do anything about it’, well the duly elected authorities, Republican, Democratic, Independent, Whig or Federalist will come for you. It was the same for George Washington in the Whiskey & Shays Rebellion, it was the same for the lesser well known ‘War of Regulation’ in the South (NC & SC), even Before Washington’s term as President. Before there were parties. So no one’s beyond the reach of the law, and no children should be considered ‘below’ it’s purview just because they’re being held in a intimate type of abusive familial bondage. The papers and news is filled with such tragic cases to this very day. You can not overcome manifest criminal evil by ignoring it. Sorry. ‘VJ’

    • rogereolson

      To what or whom is this supposed to be a response? So far as I know nobody has said anything here contrary to this. The issue is HOW the government should treat hostage situations involving children.

  • GreyLion

    “To this day most Americans consider what happened there a tragedy”.
    NO! Precisely. Most Americans know it for what it is – outright oppression.
    Do not forget Ruby Ridge. Same Same.
    We are sheep for our Lord but woves for the world.
    Contemplate and wonder.