Thoughts and Reflections on the 25th Anniversary the Branch Davidian Tragedy in Waco, Texas
2018 marks the 25th anniversary of one of the most horrific tragedies in recent American history. It was not more horrific than others because of the number of people who died but because of the participants and especially because of the completely unnecessary deaths of about 18 children (depending on how one defines “child”).
I remember the events well even though I did not yet live in Waco, Texas. I watched the events unfold on CNN and other television news networks and shows and read about it then and afterwards. And I have talked with numerous people who had close knowledge of the events.
The reason I’m writing about is because 1) at the time it occurred I was teaching an elective college course on “America’s Cults and New Religions” (informally promoted as “Unsafe Sects”) and had a keen interest in the subject, and 2) the news media in the U.S. are now in a frenzy about the “Waco tragedy” in 1993 due to its 25th anniversary.
When it happened I knew little to nothing about the Branch Davidian sect—an offshoot of the Seventh Day Adventist Church. (Actually “offshoot” is not quite the right word because the Branch Davidians were excommunicated by the SDA General Conference.)
I well remember the very first news broadcast “from the scene” in 1993. The ignorant reporter stood in front of the “compound” under siege then by the “ATF” (Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms). She told viewers that this little-known religious sect called Branch Davidians was part of the Seventh Day Adventist Church. Of course, soon afterwards journalists discovered and reported that it was not part of the SDA Church.
Slowly it came out (but many observers never really learned) that there are several branches of the Branch Davidians in the U.S. and Australia, none of which are Seventh Day Adventist although their roots are in the Adventist movement. Even in Waco there were in 1993 two distinct branches, one that looked to David Koresh as their leader and one that did not. Both still exist as of 2017. (A non-Koreshite Branch Davidian church stands just blocks from my house.)
During the siege of the Branch Davidian compound twelve miles outside of Waco many facts filtered out about this strange religious movement, but much about it I did not learn until I moved to Waco in 1999. One of the first things I did was drive out to the site of the compound and siege and tour it. Then, in 1999, one could see much even though the buildings were gone. Today, as of 2017, almost nothing is left to see except the swimming pool. In 1999, however, I stood and looked down into the bus where approximately 18 children died.
I well remember weeping in absolute shock and horror as I watched the FBI attack the compound at the end of the fifty-two day siege. Almost immediately fire broke out throughout the compound. I knew there were children inside the buildings. (Actually, as it was later revealed, the children had been herded into a school bus buried underground—connected to one of the buildings by a tunnel. There they died of smoke inhalation.) I watched it on live television and simply could not believe what I was seeing. I thought of the children as hostages; apparently the powers that be (viz., Attorney General Janet Reno) did not.
*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*
Without doubt the Koreshite Branch Davidian sect was a cult, but what I want to say is that labeling a sect a cult is not fair when everyone in it is treated the same. In almost every case many of the members, especially the children, are victims of the leaders. The popular mind, however, TENDS to lump everyone in a cult together and think of them as evil.
I know people in Waco who knew David Koresh personally. He wanted to be a rock star—literally. He thought he was a musician as well as a prophet. He was well-known among musicians in Waco because he sought them out for advice and help in advancing his music career. I am told by people who lived in Waco and who knew him that the ATF could have picked him and the Branch Davidian leaders under him off the streets of Waco anytime. He and they were frequently about town. Why the ATF chose to raid the compound as they did is a mystery to many people.No doubt David Koresh was a narcissistic megalomaniac. Although he was never tried and convicted, there is strong reason to believe he was sexually abusing underage female members of the sect. Ostensibly the ATF raided the compound because it believed they were illegally modifying automatic weapons and possibly trafficking in them illegally.
And yet many of his followers were not insane or evil; they were deluded and brainwashed, but so are many other people—both secular and religious.
Many well-informed and thoughtful critics, not just anti-government conspiracy mongerers, sincerely believe the attacks on the Branch Davidian compound were unnecessary and ill-advised.
One of the things I like least about all the news programs, documentaries and probably forthcoming movie about the Branch Davidians and the tragedy is the lack of focus on the warmth of Koresh’s followers’ naïve faith and on their sincerely held beliefs. The focus tends to be solely on their bewildering and seemingly mindless faith in the would-be messiah and prophet David Koresh. Theology and the dynamics of faith get lost in the sensationalism.
What exactly David Koresh believed and taught is not easy to discover or understand. In order to understand it, one has to delve deeply into Adventist apocalyptic theology—as its background. Koresh put his own twist on all that, of course, and pointed to himself as much as to the returning Jesus Christ.
I personally know one religion scholar with a Ph.D. in religious studies who had studied that theology and approached the FBI during the siege and volunteered to “school” them in it so they could more helpfully converse with Koresh. He was rudely refused. He believes he might possibly have been able to convince Koresh that he was mistaken about the siege and the apocalypse and help convince him to surrender.
Now, please understand me. Or, please don’t misunderstand me. I am not playing a “blame game.” I was not on the inside of the decisions about how to handle the stand-off at the Branch Davidian compound 12 miles outside of Waco. (Many are surprised to learn that it did not happen “in Waco.” The reason most people think that is because the journalists reporting on it used “Waco, Texas” in their bylines because they were staying in Waco.) I do think the initial attack was ill-advised and the final attack was premature and did not sufficiently take into account the possibility of mass suicide (if that is what happened). However, I do not know what I would have done had I been in Janet Reno’s or others’ shoes—except seek out religion scholars’ advice and help. I think the authorities failed there. I also think they forgot the children or began to think of them as part of the mass of people inside the compound who refused to surrender and come out. (Some did exit before the fire.)
I wish the news and entertainment media (and it’s difficult to tell the difference) would restrain themselves and not sensationalize the horror that was the Branch Davidian conflict and tragedy of 1993. I wish the name of “Waco” were not once again being dragged through the mud for something that happened outside of the city and with which the city had nothing to do. I wish everyone would simply learn the important lessons of 1993 and other, similar tragedies that happened around that time (Jonestown and the Solar Temple, etc.). Especially the children of these religious cults are not to blame and all care should be taken to protect them—even if that means extreme restraint by authorities and others in dealing with the groups.
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