Currently viewing the tag: "Branch Davidians"

waco_fireToday is the 21st anniversary of the holocaust that killed 76 Branch Davidians at Waco. And though their deaths have been politicized in a thousand different ways by now — and even used as an excuse to commit more mass murder — their deaths were real and they were completely unnecessary. And, regardless of who set the fire or how it happened, the fault lies with the federal agents and government officials who are tasked with legal force and who fell down so colossally on their jobs that day. Waco should be an issue of bipartisan horror, and in some ways it is. But there are people who still refuse to admit that it was more than just a battle cry for the anti-government fringe; that it was real, and it was wrong, and it didn’t need to happen at all.

A hundred years ago, or perhaps a decade, Rachel Maddow seemed like a reasonable, nuanced type of liberal. She and Tucker Carlson — who, even if you are not wild about the Daily Caller, is a fantastic magazine writer in his own right — used to have respectful, interesting debates on Carlson’s MSNBC show. Now Fox has turned MSNBC into the Fox of the Left — though arguably worse, since MSNBC were sniveling hacks during the war in Iraq; Fox at least hates the executive branch half the time — and Maddow has turned into the female Keith Olbermann, with the towering self-satisfaction to match.

I don’t particularly care that Maddow seems to be for some modicum of gun control, or even that she believes some type of federal agency should be in charge of enforcing some of those firearms laws. What disturbs me, and what makes me believe that Maddow has truly crossed over into the realm of pure partisan hack is how she talks about Waco or Ruby Ridge. Maddow seems barely able to recognize that those two tragedies involved the deaths of more than 80 people (including federal agents). She seems to believe that to reference Waco or Ruby Ridge with anger or as a remembrance of what government excess can do is simply a sign of right-wing extremism. Whether she believes that truly, or whether it is part of the act, isn’t really the point.

Though CNN’s shockingly one-sided “documentary” on Waco from last year cannot be beat in terms of excluding information that provides shades of gray or context, Maddow’s bizarre campaign to be best friends with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF, in common use) is still impressive in its dishonesty.

Take her piece from early 2013 about right-wingers who dislike the ATF. Besides making me like the NRA more than I ever have before by mentioning (clutch your pearls!) that they published something that called ATF agents “jack-booted thugs” a mere month after the Oklahoma City Bombing, Maddow also has a bizarre screed about how right-wingers think Waco was a conspiracy.

In the report, Maddow traces the history of fringe candidates in ’92, including Bo Gritz who helped to talk Randy Weaver into surrendering after an 11-day standoff at Ruby Ridge. Or, as Maddow put it a “violent, fatal standoff” — then she cuts to a contemporary news report on the situation, to make sure no larger context is available. The Weaver family is described as “hiding” in the cabin which they lived — that became a cause for the anti-government, far right. (Fine.)

Then she moves onto Waco, making sure to call David Koresh a cult leader (accurate in my mind, but a very loaded term — she says “four members of the cult were killed”) and the Davidians’ home a “compound.” Maddow doesn’t touch the fire controversy herself, she simply cuts to Tom Brokaw on April 19, 1993 talking about the apocalyptic messiah complex of Koresh and heavily suggesting he “took his followers with him.” Again, why bring in any uncomfortable nuance or context from 20 years on, when you can just sum up the situation with a media report from the day of the tragedy? (Sure, the press was kept a mile away and forced to depend on FBI press releases, but that’s no reason not to believe them.)

Now Maddow gets very strange. She says “what happened at Waco was an absolute nightmare. But on parts of the very far right — the anti-government, far-right fringe, it was seen not just as a a nightmare, but as a conspiracy — as a government conspiracy. As something that was ginned up and in fact faked by the government to create a big enough, scary enough, situation that it would justify taking away everyone’s guns.”

Her language choice is fascinating. The tamest possible acknowledgement that Waco equals bad was used — it was “a nightmare.” But then come the dire suggestions that anti-government folk think Waco was a conspiracy. How exactly? That it was a false-flag or something? She doesn’t say what she means exactly, but by merely mentioning “conspiracy” the lens shifts — suddenly viewers are thinking of Alex Jones’s wildest claims, not those found in Academy Award-nominated documentaries.

Some people do think it was a deliberate execution. I believe they are probably mistaken. Waco was “merely” criminal negligence, criminal homicide, assault, and a staggeringly high level of incompetence. But Maddow, by focusing on the unspecified crazies who seem to think Waco was a gun-grabbing excuse, doesn’t have to focus on any of that. She goes on to talk about then-Congressman Steve Stockman who also once wrote a piece on how Waco was an excuse for gun grabbing. This is what outrages Maddow — that a US Congressman would engage in such paranoid fearmongering. Paranoia — only slight paranoia — is the moral failing. Twenty melted children is a “nightmare.”

And now we’re on to Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City Bombing. McVeigh, not a militia member in spite of what Maddow said, went to Waco! He was angry about Waco! He hated the ATF! McVeigh, that asshole, made sure there would always be a tie between being mad about Waco and being suspicious. But someone actually smart — and God knows, Maddow thinks she’s smart, and is certainly book smart — can recognize that there is nothing strange about being horrified at Waco. Maddow doesn’t have the courage to just say she thinks it’s suspicious, she just presents all this in a faux-neutral manner. She thinks Waco was a “nightmare,” so she is fair.

Now, I didn’t follow the beginnings of the standoff between rancher Cliven Bundy and agents from the Bureau of Land Management. According to Maddow last Wednesday (and various clips from pundits), Fox News was going a little crazy with the comparisons between Bundy Ranch and Waco. Although any kind of resistance to federal law enforcement instinctively goes there for some people, the comparisons are not always ideal. Certainly, if the Fox News pundits were rubbing their hands together in glee, it could be seen as bad taste — they want dead patriots to prove their own ideological points. (The clip includes comedian Tom Shillue noting that the folks in all these places were a little kooky, so yes, a reasonable government would BACK OFF). Nobody sensible wants that kind of bloodshed to happen again. But Maddow’s objection doesn’t seem to be about the victims of Waco whom she barely acknowledges. No, it’s about Fox News being paranoid about “jack-booted thugs” again. Again, paranoia and fear towards the government is the ultimate moral failing according to the MSNBC queen.

So, to demonstrate her true news bona fides on Wednesday, Maddow spent six minutes letting former ATF agent Jim Cavanaugh spout off about the dangerous cultists that he confronted in Waco. She doesn’t ask one single question that is remotely confrontational. She just lets him talk, then thanks him.

When researching my senior thesis on the media’s unquestioning narrative towards Ruby Ridge and Waco, one chapter in this compilation on Waco stood out and influenced my conclusions — the one that used Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent.  I have yet to read the latter work, but in the chapter the authors note that the victims of Waco were not, to use Chomsky’s term on how the media treats certain people, “worthy victims.” They were, as is and was endlessly repeated, members of a cult. They were strange and heavily armed and dared to resist federal agents. The Weavers were racist. Koresh probably molested children.

And, there were no photographs of the Waco victims when they died. Their deaths were simply a burning building a mile away. Hell, before the fire the feds refused to release the video the Davidians shot during the siege to the media because it would humanize them too much.

The same can be said about most war victims, at least where the American press is concerned. This point was raised disturbingly eloquently by none other than Timothy McVeigh back in a 1998 essay. And McVeigh’s crimes at Oklahoma City were captured by the famous photo of the fireman holding a dead toddler. Naturally this made the victims of McVeigh true and worthy ones. Waco didn’t have that. Sam and Vicki Weaver didn’t have that. They were weirdos and victims of law enforcement. They “deserved” it.” Just like foreigners in countries the US chooses to invade.

Had the media been honest at Waco, they would simply have said, “We don’t know what happened, though law enforcement says X.” They didn’t do that. They treated — and continue to treat — law enforcement as ivory tower experts, instead of individuals with their own biases and agendas. And at Waco, where the press were corralled more than a mile away, trusting the very people who were infringing upon their access was particularly lapdog-like.

Maddow is free to advocate for gun control all she likes. But her inability to admit that the victims of Waco and Ruby Ridge were real people, not just dog-whistle causes for the anti-government fringe she fears, makes her a callous hack and a true journalist in the saddest, most craven definition of the word.

The best summation of Ruby Ridge, culturally-speaking, is by bluegrass musician Peter Rowan. Here is Dave Rawlings and Old Crow Medicine Show covering it:

“I got a wife and kids on Ruby Ridge/Please don’t shoot me down.” Human beings were there, human beings died at Mt. Carmel —  this is something Maddow seems completely unable to grasp because it gets in the way of her agenda.

15752340I have no idea why people join cults, and certainly the fear of cults as moral panic has caused its own misery (Waco being the most prominent example). But followers and leaders of Jonestown, The Family, Heaven’s Gate, and yes, the Branch Davidians themselves caused plenty of suffering. And every single survivor of these horrors that I have heard of speaks of their cults in the same fashion — they always say it was wonderful at first. They talk about how people loved each other so much.

I saw the ghastly Jonestown photos years before I learned that the members of the People’s Temple started out feeling as if they had found a place of benevolent communism and racial harmony. The Manson Family was hippie farm living for lost souls until it was stabbing Sharon Tate and painting the walls with her blood.

My mom is always skeptical about the trope of the neighbor who thought the BTK killer was just a charming fellow. She tends to think people can see who will go bad, or who always was bad, if they only look a little harder. But brainwashing works wonders, as does a mixture of kindness and cruelty and charisma. People join cults. People voted for Hitler. There’s got to be a reason, and we all endlessly wonder about the reason. Young Adult novels, with their angsty first person narratives and their action — not their “Oh my God, the suburbs are like, totally artificial, bro” whining — are a great format with which to explore why someone might give up their free will and what they do when it comes creeping back thanks to teenage hormones and rebellion.

In Gated, by Amy Christine Parker, our narrator is Lyla. Her parents, and her three friends, and the leader known as Pioneer are the main characters. Cute son of the local sheriff Cody is mostly a plot device for some serious faith questioning, but then, that’s lampshaded enough to be fairly unannoying. The whole idea there is that Lyla — “intended” toward her friend Will — has never had the pleasure of teenage attraction. It doesn’t matter if Cody is important himself, just that Lyla has been deprived of the pleasures of youth. Yes, all the teenagers in the cult are engaged to be married to someone picked by Pioneer, but this ain’t the Children of God or even the Branch Davidians. Everyone is 18 when they are married, so it’s nice and legal. But they do have an awful lot of guns! And a bunker!

Lyla, 17, and her family have been in the cult for ten years, since her older sister was kidnapped from the front yard and 9/11 happened all in the span of a week. The book opens with a demonstration of Lyla’s inability to shoot the human-shaped targets in the head and chest, and her scolding by Pioneer. (Yes, it’s Chekov’s gun-y.) Yes, well, it’s sort of silly to be unable to shoot a damn target. But we quickly learn this group is preparing for a time when they may need to shoot unworthy, desperate outsiders who may come for their supplies or to hurt them once they realize the truth — that the apocalypse is only months away.

For someone well versed in real cults and some of their disastrous endings (with or without an outside authority making things worse) the only question is how things are going to end for the group. Will it go Jonestown, Manson Family, Heaven’s Gate, or Waco? Parker mixes in hints that suggest it could be any of them, upping the tension for old fogy readers like me.

Though law enforcement characters are disappointingly not at all bad, the cult itself is pleasingly gray. Most of the people Lyla lives with she truly loves, but she and they are all true believers to varying degrees. The community is rigid, but pleasant and pastoral. Pioneer is all “brothers and sisters” and mood swings between joyful and wrathful God. (Very Koresh and Jim Jones, and most every other big and small molder of minds and sapper of free wills, it seems). Some of the best bits are when Lyla questions something small about Pioneer’s teachings, but demonstrates in that narration that she has yet to even consider that maybe the Brethren, the alien-god types, have not chosen her and her loved ones. Maybe they are not at all real. Instead, it’s maybe that Pioneer didn’t need to punish Lyla and her friends so hard, but certainly the apocalypse is only months away and the Brethren are watching from above. That slow build of questioning in someone already more skeptical than average, and less willing to harm potential outsiders, works flawlessly well. I suspect there would be levels of realization like that.

The prose is all basic, but YA-serviceable. It’s superior to the later Hunger Games novels, but not as interesting as the more flawed 5th Wave. Lyla herself isn’t a terribly compelling character, but then, perhaps she hasn’t yet become one due to her upbringing. Making her both solidly brainwashed and sympathetic is a hard narrative task, but Parker pulls it off well. Lyla’s friend Marie is also similarly deftly drawn. Marie is both a stauncher believer and more prone to small acts of rebellion (sneaking out with the boys, smuggling in verboten Coca Cola) than her friend. Lyla’s dad is clearly struggling with belief, whereas her mother, it is implied at the end, may never recover and go back into the world. They both commit unforgivable betrayals, but they both care about their daughter. They are credible people. They are good people who suffered, and began to believe something stupid, then wrong, then evil. You can make a whole life out of what’s been poured into your head from people who swear they know everything, and you are a cipher for their will — or the will of alien gods who have been telling you their will, depending.

The tension in Gated builds admirably towards what becomes an early deadline for the group to hide in the bunker and await the end. The ATF and police come, though Lyla sees almost none of it. The bunker is closed. Pioneer goes even more mad; and I have to say, I prefer either a true-believer villain, or one who knows exactly the evil he does (shades of The Operative in Serenity). A con man or someone enjoying the process of evil is no fun.

The very end (spoilers) is relatively happy. Only a few of the cult members die. And the final scenes are of Lyla and Will (not intended for marriage anymore, but friends again after his disbelief in her) staring at the stars with the other members of the group on The Day, waiting to make very sure that an apocalypse doesn’t come. This has shades of the Great Disappointment, but it’s more a melancholy moment of crumbling belief combined with hope that the real world might be worth living in after all. (Apocalypse averted is also important as a theme — hell, it’s the whole damn Cold War, now that I think about it.)

Gated is a satisfying picture of the types of people who need someone to follow, and then do so at the cost of their own lives. The strangest thing about it is how true it is to varying degrees for so many people in the world. There are people waiting for the end of the world every day, because they’re bitter or because the Messiah had tarried long enough. And there are many, many individuals who are quite keen on other individual wills being subservient to that of someone who knows better. Most people may not be alien doomsday cultists, but everyday nationalism and statism and much religion seems to be a difference in degree, not kind.

Last week CNN´s Crimes of the Century — a show that has so far covered cases like the Unibomber, the DC sniper, and Andrea Yates — decided to tackle the 1993 Waco standoff between federal law enforcement and the Branch Davidian sect. And the end result, inexplicably produced by Ridley Scott, is one of the worst, most dishonest tellings of those still-controversial events that I have seen in a long time. By 2013, the usual thesis on Waco — even coming from lefties — is that it was a major law enforcement fuck-up, if not a purposeful federal holocaust. CNN has decided that the way to approach this tragic event with the right amount of sadness is to have a lot of tearful federal agents reminiscing about how they wanted to rescue those kids. And that’s all.

Here are the individuals CNN interviewed:

  • Davy Aguilera, ATF
  • Randy Parsons, FBI
  • Byron Sage, FBI
  • Jim Cavanaugh, FBI
  • The then-Editor in Chief of the Waco Herald-Tribune, the paper that called Koresh ¨The Sinful Messiah¨
  • Brian Levin from something called ¨The Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism¨
  • Errol Southerns, author of Homegrown Violent Extremism
  • Clive Doyle, a Davidian who still believes, who doesn´t come off well, and whose 18-year-old daughter was ¨married¨ to Koresh. Doyle did not rescue her, or — apparently — attempt to.

Not included:

  • A single credible person to challenge the pro-fed narrative.

Here is a short list of nuance-building facts that CNN failed to mention in their hour:

  • That the government used the baseless accusation of meth manufacturing to get access to Bradley Fighting vehicles and other military tech for the raid. (Thanks, Reagan.)
  • The 911 call the Branch Davidians made shortly after the shoot-out with the ATF began. Koresh called 911 about an hour into the siege as well.
  • An explanation, or a pressing question about why the ATF did not stop the February 28 raid, even after learning that the Davidians knew they were coming. Aguilera says he’s sure that the raid would have succeeded if they had had the element of surprise, and then the narrator brushes past that with a hand-waving, drama-building piece of nonsense, “the impetus to act had already reached critical mass.”
  • The feds’ refusal to release the footage that David Koresh and others shot inside the building to the media, out of fears that it would build sympathy for the sect.
  • The Feds cutting Koresh’s access to the media, and them being barred from Mt. Carmel and kept more than two miles away. (“In over thirty years, twenty-seven of which have been with Time-Life, I have covered wars and riots — you name it. I have never been restrained as I was in Waco, and I will say needlessly and senselessly.”– said Shelly Katz, a photographer.)
  • The feds use of incendiaries, and their denial of that fact for six years. 
  • The fact that the feds bulldozed the site after only a week of examination. 
  • Any evidence of the dangers of six hours of exposure to CS gas on children.

The biggest lingering questions — who started the fire on April 19, and who shot first in the February 28 raid — are addressed in a pro-fed fashion. Allegations that the shoot-out began after agents shot the Davidians’ dogs are not mentioned. The disappearance of the front door is not mentioned. (A lot of this comes from Waco: The Rules of Engagement, but I wrote a whole damn thesis largely about the event as well, meaning I have read multiple books and media reports.) The nod to the controversy of who shot first being as such is a recording of a phone call where Koresh says the feds did it. Dead, delusional Davis Koresh gets to say it, but nobody else alive or with credibility gets to say it. We also get the Editor in Chief of the Waco Herald-Tribune saying ¨the only person who will ever know who shot first is the person who shot first” which is a little better.

The feds seem moved, some tear up, giving them the opportunity to express regret for how things went down. Aguilera says the ATF agents had candy in their pockets for the kids. Sage says he arrived after a 45 minute shoot-out and over the phone, Koresh’s second in command screamed that the feds had no right to be there. Again, the 911 calls from various Davidians are not mentioned.

The shoot-out lasted around two hours. Doyle simply says he doesn’t deny that Davidians shot back when fired upon. The footage of ATF agents screaming at and attacking a KWTX-TV cameraman is included without any enlightening narration.

The narrator moves on with ¨what started as a carefully-planned raid…¨ (That seems like it’s pushing it a bit, considering.)

The next section is devoted to a compilation of Koresh lying and putting off the time when he will come out and surrender. This is true, as far as I know. Two different religious professors wrote a book called Why Waco? which suggests that approaching Koresh from a religious perspective, as opposed to that of a conman and criminal, might have lead to a different outcome. None of this is to defend Koresh, who was a creep, a cult-leader, and a child rapist.  But since the stakes for resolving the situation were as high as they were, it’s indefensible that the feds only slightly pursued this avenue of negotiation, giving up all too soon out of impatience and a conviction that Koresh’s mad opinions weren’t sincere.

For the next 51 days, the feds grow more annoyed.  They harass the Davidians with the sounds of rabbit slaughter and ¨These Boots Were Made for Walking.¨ They cut the power and water, then point to the horrible situation the children are living in. Finally, they get impatient and shiny new Attorney General Janet Reno okays the use of CS gas in the infamous FBI assault.

The disturbing aesthetic of the tanks smashing the walls, the voice of Byron Sage over the bullhorn saying ¨submit to the proper authorities¨ is not acknowledged by the narration as anything troubling. Aguilera says he did not know about the FBI’s gas plan.

Sage now says “I don’t think we — the FBI, the ATF — ever had any control over how this was going to end.  I I think the only control we truly had was when it was going to end.”

Levin, from ¨the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism¨ says “Koresh had his playbook already decided in advance, that he would destroy his followers rather than give up to the evil armies of the federal government.” Sage says, ¨We banked on the fact that parents would “move heaven and earth to get them to a position of safety. We were wrong.” Soundtrack is is a dramatic heartbeat. There is footage of the burning Mt. Carmel. Parsons said he thought “thank God those mothers  will bring their children out now.¨ And they didn’t.

Waco: The Rules of Engagement (watch it!) delves into questions of whether any feds fired on the Davidians who were fleeing. I am not comfortable saying anything definitive on that, but the FLIR footage with the bursts look much more like gunfire than the supposed sunlight. And it’s worth looking into that allegation, or at least mentioning its existence.

Ricks talks about the feds starting the fire rumor, or FBI shooting people. Sage says we didn’t do everything right, but “we didn’t set the fires, we did not murder anybody.” A news report from April 19 has Wolf Blitzer saying “all indications are that the fire was set from within, presumably by some of David Koresh’s followers.” (This kind of immediate trust in the feds´ spin was not unique to CNN. CBS was also very bad. Weekly news magazines were bad and went full-on apocalyptic cult. Newspapers like The New York Times were best.)

Sage says seven of the nine Davidian escapees had accelerants  on their clothing. Doyle doesn’t know who set it, if Davidians did “is it our fault for being bent on dying, or is it the FBI’s fault for taunting David?” Doyle might be an awful person, or an awful interview, or just was badly edited here. (Maybe all three.)

Parsons says Steve Shneider, Koresh´s number two, shot Koresh, them himself. Ricks: “The children themselves were mostly executed. They were either beaten to death, stabbed to death, or shot. David Koresh was never going to walk out of that place on our terms. It was doomed, from day one, that that place — which went by the name Ranch Apocalypse — was destined to end up in flames.”

A 1995 episode of Frontline quotes the county medical examiner, Dr. Nizam Peerwani, as saying, ¨Altogether, there were 20 people who died as a result of gunshot wounds that particular day. Some 27 additional bodies were buried deep within the bunker. These were co-mingled bodies and all of these were women and children. They were huddled together, some of them. They were covered with blankets. Some of them had face masks. And most of them had died as a result of smoke inhalation or suffocation, but there were at least three kids who had been shot to death and one was stabbed to death.¨

The covering of faces suggests a desire to have the children survive — albeit without the parents going outside and surrendering — and there is no mention there (or anywhere else I have seen) of children having been ¨beaten to death.¨

Things wrap up quickly in the episode. Various feds talk about the kids they wish they had rescued. Nothing about the trial of the surviving Davidians is worth commenting upon, but it is important to mention that the Waco paper was a Pulitzer finalist for their reporting.

But the takeaway of all this, besides sad feds is, says the narrator:

“In the aftermath of the tragedy, not another Waco became a rallying crime for the ATF. The agency improved intelligence gathering and reporting methods. And changed policy on who makes on the ground incident decisions. The FBI made changes as well — forming a crisis response group to ensure complete communication between its negotiators and tactical response teams.”

Then there’s that infuriating Janet Reno footage where she says she is taking responsibility. (Rhetorical responsibility and that is all.)

McVeigh is mentioned twice — first that he was in the crowds watching the stand-off, and was inspired to murder 168 people in Oklahoma City because of what he saw. At the end, the narration mentions that there are three monuments at the remains of Mt. Carmel today — one for the victims of the OKC bombing (nice gesture, but sort of annoying at the same time), one for the 76 Davidians, and, says the narrator ¨The third — the smallest stone of all — remembers the four ATF agents who perished on February 28, 1993.”

Davy Aguilera tears up and mentions each ATF agent by name. (Note: the hideous TV movie made about Koresh after the raid, but before the fire, and whose screenwriter has entirely disowned it, was dedicated to those agents.) He says “…they were heroes. When I hear taps, or when I hear a bagpipes, I just break down. I’ll take this to my grave.”

We cut to footage of dejected ATF agents leaving the raid. Their hands are up, some are backing away. The final shot is of a petite female agent looking back at the camera.

In short — which this post wasn’t — this was an inexcusably light treatment of a horrible, controversial event in recent history. According to CNN’s narrative, the only thing that matters about Waco is how it affected law enforcement. From their sadness over the dead children, to the lessons learned in tactics, what matters is how they felt about the event.

The failure of the media at Waco — something I wrote a score of pages on for my thesis — was not entirely its own fault, in that they were simply not allowed to see and judge for themselves. But that’s not an excuse for their trusting, lapdog responses. In general, the press’ pathological inability to admit that they don’t know what happened often kills any chance at honest reporting — at Waco and at other big news events. They just can’t admit when they don’t know, and they rarely acknowledge that police and government officials — particularly ones who were one half of an event, and were rigidly controlling access to the other half — are not divorced, ivory-tower experts on the issue, but people with  bias and spin like anyone else.