Waco --- Five Years After
The Ashes
Of Waco

An Investigation

Dick J. Reavis
(Simon and Schuster)
Like most Americans, I was only vaguely aware of the months-long stand-off between David Koresh's Branch Davidian cult members and the Federal government at Waco, Texas, until April 19, 1993, when it blew up in flames and billowing smoke and some eighty six people died, including twenty-five children. True, I was surprised by the armada the FBI unleashed against the religionists' compound ---nine Bradley fighting vehicles, five combat engineering vehicles, one tank retrieval vehicle and two Abrams tanks. I was less surprised that the FBI used CS tear-gas in the compound; although over a hundred nations prohibit the use of CS gas in warfare, the United States has never conceded that it is prohibited for use in domestic disturbances.

I was, however, troubled to learn that despite endless discussions of whether the highly flammable compound might ignite and whose fault that would be, there were no fire-engines at the compound at the time the FBI attack began (although the FBI did take the trouble to send an aeroplane equipped with advanced radar capabilities to fly over the compound, apparently in order to have evidence that if fire broke out, the FBI had not started it). It took forty-one minutes for fire-fighters to arrive from nearby communities, by which time most of the eighty-six dead were charred remains. Nearly three hours after the fire began, there were only nine ambulances at the scene. But despite questions about FBI tactics, I, like most Americans then and today, even following the summer's Congressional hearings, was willing to write off Waco as another of those inevitable shoot-outs between law enforcement and various strange religious sects that punctuate American history every few years.

Writing this review has convinced me I was quite wrong. The actions of the Federal government at Waco, both in relation to how the enterprise was conceived and how it was defended to the public afterwards, clearly show that (indeed, as various gun nuts, self-styled "patriots" and other right-wing populists have been insisting for two years now) Waco was not just a case of incompetent government responding to something that it couldn't leave alone, but represents a general and disturbing claim by the government about its authority over all American citizens. For, as Garry Wills wrote recently when discussing the Oklahoma bombing in the New York Review of Books, there is something new in the claims of these right wing groups, by comparison to conspiracy theorists throughout American history, and the reason is that it is hard, as Wills says, "to trace the exact line where extremism spills over into 'Mainstream' concerns about liberty." They are something new because the assertion of what might be called "libertal authoritarianism," which is now embedded in law-enforcement bureaucracies and which motivated the FBI at Waco, is itself something "new," at least in its virulence and reach.

The Clinton administration, as Wills detects, is the first in US history that has attempted to govern directly as a social-worker state, the first that has rested its legitimacy, an the exercise of the monopoly on violence, directly on the authority of the "helping professions." This is what the violence at Waco was all about. Janet Reno is also the first Attorney General who considers recourse to violence to be, fundamentally, therapeutic; that her very first recourse to violence to enforce the New Therapy killed twenty-five children was not ironic but inevitable.

Wills focuses on the effect, not the cause, but he is right to understand that this appeal to a novel source of governmental legitimacy is not popular in large sectors of America. He acknowledges in part, but resists acknowledging fully, that what makes today's anti-government "paranoia" different from the many other occasions of American paranoia, is that government has overstepped itself, at Waco and other places, and that its actions are illegitimate.

And they remain so today; it is distressing, although unsurprising, for example, that US Congressional hearings which might have restored some of this lost legitimacy were so unproductive. The hearings might have reasserted a rule of law other than the one which is now in effect, namely, that whatever Janet Reno thinks is good for children is the law of the land. The conspicuous failure to secure accountability merely adds to the evidence of illegitimacy.

An examination of the events at Waco that Congress, because of its moral and intellectual weakness, was unable to provide can, happily, be found in Dick J. Reavis's well-researched, plainspoken book, The Ashes of Waco: An investigation. Reavis dissects and demolishes, in what ought to become a standard account, claims that the sequence of events resulted merely from inept and ill-advised escalations of "pressure" on the Branch Davidians, leading, first, to the disastrous attack by U.S Treasury agents on February 28, 1993, that left four agents dead and twenty wounded and, second, to the FBI's April 19 attack, which saw all the casualties on the other side. The ease with which Koresh could have been captured or stopped for questioning when he went jogging outside the compound long before the shooting started, and the fact that the suspected violations of law (failure to comply with US laws on record-keeping in guns sales were among the most serious) were so minor by comparison with the fire-power brought to bear, make it hard not to conclude that the Federal government, and not merely David Koresh, thought the Apocalypse was nigh. But then this is consistent with a Justice Department that considers any allegation of child abuse --- an allegation which, Reavis points out, had been long since investigated by Texas authorities who had not found reason to intervene --- occasion for an apocalypse.

The lesson to be drawn from The Ashes of Waco is that the standard defence of the general legitimacy of governmental action, by conceding the incompetence of specific governmental actions, such as FBI or Treasury Department tactics at Waco, simply won't do. The evidence suggests strongly that more than mere incompetence was at work. One need not be an extremist to comprehend that the Clinton administration believes that the children of the United States --- often, unfortunately, more than their parents --- are its special province; Janet Reno's belief that she can protect the children of the whole country hides a multitude of specific sins against families that, as at Waco, ought properly to be considered crimes and an abuse of prosecutorial office.

These were crimes committed by government not from bad planning although in good faith, but crimes committed because, from the top down, it was believed that the Federal government, by definition protected kids, and therefore by definition acted in good faith and even, as Reno kept insisting throughout the Congressional hearings against the plain evidence, competently. This is not an accusation of conspiracy but of hubris, of a kind that should leave parents everywhere, or at least those subject to the jurisdiction of the US Department of Justice, anxious for their children; there is no reason why this hubris should stop with the dead families of Waco. And in fact it does not, to judge by the evidence of governmental intrusions against ordinary families in the name of, for example, combating child-abuse allegations that arise from nothing more than an anonymous phone call from anywhere in the country to a toll-free number, ferreting out alleged child pornography in postcards sent to Grandma, and harassing families that choose to engage in home schooling.

Then, too, there is the post hoc justification for the use of CS tear-gas in the raid offered by the US Justice Department and senior Clinton administration officials. The public generally, and even the Congressional hearings, seem to have accepted that the children at Waco were gassed and then died as, in effect, "collateral damage" in the course of a raid aimed at their parents. This is not quite the case, however, by the Clinton administration's own admissions. CS gas was used at the compound, in order, as senior White House adviser George Stephanopoulos said, echoing senior Justice Department statements, to "try and pressure" those in the compound. It was hoped, he said, that as this "pressure was increased, the matemal instincts of the mothers might take over and they might try to leave with their kids" (Washington Times, April 23, 1995).

But the FBI knew beforehand that adults in the Compound had gas masks; the gas therefore would not put pressure on them. On whom, then? If the FBI knew that the adults had gas masks, but went ahead with the gas attack anyway, it is plain that this "pressure" was brought directly against the children because, as the FBI knew, they could not fit into adult-size gas masks. "Maternal feelings," the FBI hoped, would be unleashed in the mothers by watching their children choking, gasping and blistering from the gas; the plan Reno approved and took to President Clinton for approval contemplated the children choking in the gas unprotected for forty-eight hours if necessary, to produce the requisite "maternal feelings." By taking aim at the children with potentially lethal gas, their mothers would be compelled, according to the FBI plan repeatedly defended by the Clinton administration afterwards, as "rational" planning --- to flee with them into the arms of those trying to gas them.

An independent report on Waco written by the Harvard Professor of Law and Psychiatry, Alan A. Stone, for the then Deputy Attorney General Philip Heymann, says it "is difficult to believe that the US government would deliberately plan to expose twenty-five children, most of them infants and toddlers, to CS gas for forty-eight hours." Unfortunately, however, that appears to have been exactly the plan. The effect of CS gas on an unprotected infant exposed for only two to hours is discussed in the report, in that case report dating from the early 1970s, the child's symptoms

    during the first twenty-four hours were upper respiratory; but, within forty-eight hours his face showed evidence of first degree burns, and he was in severe respiratory distress typical of chemical pneumonia. The infant had cyanosis, required urgent positive pressure pulmonary care, and was hospitalized for twenty-eight days. Other signs of toxicity appeared, including an enlarged liver.

Professor Stone's report is measured, careful and damning. It is hard to know whether Heymann's courage in commissioning it was a reason for his subsequent departure from the Justice Department. In the mean time, questions about the performance of the Justice Department are treated by the Clinton administration not as serious allegations of criminal activity, but as little more than a below-the-belt salvo in the culture wars.

I was shocked to read in Stone's report that the Justice Department had undertaken, and had defended in the press as such, activities which if conducted in wartime would constitute war crimes. Because exposing the children to CS gas was the point of the FBI exercise: no children exposed, no pressure. Whereas the laws of armed conflict are plain that non-combatants, such as children, may not be targeted as such and to do so is a crime. The actions sanctioned by the Justice Department did not result in "collateral damage," but took aim at innocent victims in a way that we expect the least army private to understand is wrong, illegal and, in the US military, potentially still a capital crime. Alas, that we could not expect the same moral and legal comprehension from the United States government's most senior lawyers.

--- Kenneth Anderson


Note: This review appeared in the TLS,
for 1 September 1995.

Go Home     Subscribe to RALPH     Go Up