Great balls of fire

The press got a little burned at Waco as well.


Sean Elder
September 9, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

Though the government's siege and destruction of the Branch Davidian headquarters in Waco, Texas, in 1993 has returned to the news with an incendiary burst in the last few weeks, it never really went away. On a host of right-wing Web sites, in fringe literature and on talk radio, "Waco," like "Ruby Ridge," has become a kind of code for all the far right's worst fears about government interference in individual freedom and the state's determination to resort to violence when denied absolute obeisance. One phenomenon feeds the other, of course. The press ignored the inconsistencies in the FBI's account and accepted the government's pat answers to seemingly logical questions. (Why assault the "compound" and endanger the children within if David Koresh and his followers were the unstable, apocalyptic cult they'd been portrayed as?) It has accordingly been demonized by the right as being irresponsible and worse.

As Steven Brill can tell you, there's no better way to get the press to ignore you than by challenging its credibility. It's fair to say most people covering Waco had never been anywhere near that town before and won't be heading back soon. More to the point, the people bearing the conspiracy theories since -- the nut jobs who see black helicopters behind every UNICEF card -- are not considered reliable witnesses.

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Mark Pitcavage is a historian who charts the doings of the militia movement and heard the Waco theories long before the FBI began "discovering" evidence the existence of which it had previously denied. Like a lot of people, he didn't trust the messenger. "They deserve a little bit of credit," he told the New York Times of the conspiracy theorists who kept this story alive, "but you wish that someone else had discovered this stuff instead. These guys have ulterior motives." ("Mr. Drudge, a Ms. Goldberg on line one.")

"For quite some time, all of the accusations about Waco were from very unreliable people or people who mixed valid allegations with very invalid allegations," Pitcavage told me. "It's natural to distrust things like that." What is ironic is that many of the same journalists who mistrust the Waco alarmists when they question the government grew up distrusting the government themselves, following (and sometimes covering) stories as diverse and earth-shattering as My Lai, Watergate and Contragate. Pitcavage, who has worked closely with the FBI since Waco and Randy Weaver's siege at Ruby Ridge in Idaho (during which government sharpshooters fatally shot Weaver's wife and son), does not see a double standard there. "The FBI has gained a lot more credibility since, say, 1970," he believes. "Cointelpro is a thing of the past."

This is just the sort of attitude that drives those who see problems in the Waco siege wild. "I have heard this over and over again," says Dan Gifford, one of the producers of the 1997 documentary "Waco: The Rules of Engagement." Mimicking the knee-jerk response, he continued: "'You know that evil FBI had that Cointel program; they investigated Martin Luther King and wrote a letter threatening his life and Daniel Ellsberg yada yada -- all these people whose politics I like. But they would never do that to someone whose politics I don't like, and whose culture I don't like.'" Gifford is downright moderate by the far right's standards; he was a producer at CNN for 10 years before lighting out for Hollywood, and his film wears the mantle of respectability, having opened at Sundance and been nominated for an Academy Award. (The video, recently released, is available at most video stores and on Gifford's Web site. In keeping with the hall-of-mirrors reality of conspiracy theorists of all stripes, there are now two versions of "Rules of Engagement" out there. More on that later.) Still, he feels that Koresh and company were disposable by the standards of the liberal elite -- the people who control the press and the government. "Here in Hollywood it's the last type of person you can make fun of without impunity: the angry white guy."

It was not Koresh's anger that many found objectionable -- on the videos that remain he comes off as rather passive-aggressive, a rock 'n' roll preacher with a Jesus complex. It was his "lifestyle" -- sleeping with 14-year-old girls and just about any other woman he wanted in the Branch Davidians -- and the nearly 50 semiautomatic weapons the church had in its possession the day the ATF came calling in February 1993 that give folks the willies. In his book "A Place Called Waco," David Thibodeau, one of the handful of Koresh followers who survived the assault, reflects on his leader's unusual sexual arrangement:

At the time, all I knew for sure was that David was the only male who was allowed a sex life and that he had a number of "wives," some of whom were legally married to other men. I didn't know the details of how the couples felt about this bizarre arrangement or how hard it had been for them to accept it. At times I suspected David might just have conned everyone into allowing him an exclusive harem, so to speak. Still, I knew there was more to it than that.

More to the point, says Pitcavage, is what they were doing with all those guns. "I'm curious how many weapons made fully automatic by the Davidians ended up in the hands of the militia groups," he says. "That's not dangerous in the sense that they're gonna go out and attack Waco town hall, but [it's] dangerous to society."

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In "Rules of Engagement," defenders of the Branch Davidians (an offshoot of the Seventh Day Adventists who had been involved in an interfaith shootout years before) point out that they were licensed to sell guns at fairs, and the "stockpile" of weapons the media refers to would be called an inventory in any other business. Waco, Gifford maintains, was a war of words that was fought with just such semantic weaponry. "When you use the word 'compound,' you are perpetuating this newspeak image," he insists. "[It's a] psychological warfare word chosen by the FBI for these situations. I'm sure you've noticed every time they're in a standoff, the guy could be in an outhouse in the middle of a cow pasture, well, that's a 'compound' suddenly."

Neither was the choice of nomenclature lost on those within the walls of Mount Carmel (as the church called its headquarters)."The constant use of that word by the feds and the press to describe Mount Carmel really annoyed us," Thibodeau writes. "It made us seem as if we were living in a prison camp, locked like convicts in a circle of barbed wire ... The word was meant as a clear putdown, meant to reduce our status as free men and women." At a remove of several miles from Mount Carmel, the press was allowed to watch the siege -- rather boring stuff until that final day, though the sight of the buildings shimmering in the Texas sun became as familiar as wallpaper to watchers of CNN. There were daily news briefings during which federal spokesmen handed down the truth about Koresh and the Davidians. When asked if they were using sound effects and music (sirens, seagulls, the mews of slaughtered lambs and Nancy Sinatra singing "These Boots Are Made for Walking") to disrupt the Davidians' sleep, the government blandly denied it. All of this, sound effects and denial, are captured in Gifford's film.

Now about those two videos: Gifford's is the official version, the one nominated for an Oscar and lauded by critics across the country. The rogue version is the work of Michael McNulty, a co-producer and original researcher on the film who felt Gifford's film was not vehement enough. (For future versions, McNulty, who hosted a right-wing radio program in Colorado and has strong ties to the militia movement, has threatened to trace the decision to attack in Waco all the way to that mistress of the dark side, Hillary Rodham Clinton.) The matter is under litigation now, which may further complicate the film's message, and that's too bad.

The film is heavily slanted toward the Davidians (it features several religious scholars who come off as cult apologists) and inconclusive in its charges that the government was firing on the building on April 19 or meant to start a fire. Still, it is persuasive to those who tend toward the view that the assault was a murderous travesty of justice and that no one was ultimately held accountable.

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Both sides are skeptical that any new investigation (congressional or the independent one to be headed by former Sen. John Danforth) will cast much new light on the subject, even as it becomes apparent that law-enforcement figures lied about the use of incendiary tear gas canisters and the presence of military personnel. (Still unclear is whether the forces actually shot at the compound, particularly during the fire, as "Rules of Engagement" alleges but others dispute. For a thorough hashing -- and a persuasive, if not definitive, debunking -- of the videos' claim that an infrared tape "proves" government agents fired on the compound before the fire, see the Washington Post's exhaustive article of April 18, 1997.)

But the half-truths and coverups can only fuel the burning rage and paranoia those on the Waco fringe feel. They should concern you, too. As Pitcavage acknowledges, it ain't just Janet Reno who has a credibility problem. "If they were wrong about this," he says of the government, "after denying it for six years, can you accept their word on this or that or the other thing?" And if you don't think that kind of doubt has major repercussions, ask Tim McVeigh, or anyone in Oklahoma City.


Sean Elder

Sean Elder is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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