The 1993 Waco Disaster—How Not to Negotiate with Apocalyptic Believers
James D. Tabor, retired professor of Religious Studies, UNC Charlotte
In this three-part series James Tabor surveys what happened 30 years ago outside Waco, TX as Federal authorities violently confronted a group of apocalyptic believers who believed that David Koresh, their prophetic leader was a final messianic messenger of the book of Revelation.
Part I: Setting the Scene for a Fifty-One Day Standoff
The FBI agents called to Mount Carmel center outside Waco, Texas, on February 28, 1993, can hardly be expected to have packed their Bibles. In retrospect, it would not have been such a bad idea. The news of the bloody shoot-out between agents of the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (BATF) and an obscure religious group known as the Branch Davidians, on the peaceful Sunday morning had been flashed around the world. For months the BATF had planned a “search and arrest” assault on the group based on allegations that they possessed illegal firearms materials and were possibly converting AR-15 semiautomatic rifles into machine guns. At 7:30 A.M. an eighty-vehicle convoy, including two cattle trailers pulled by pickup trucks loaded with seventy-six heavily armed BATF agents, had made its way to a staging area a few miles from the rural Mount Carmel property. Shortly after 9:00 A.M. the assault began. The two cattle trailers drove rapidly up to the property, halted in front, and the BATF agents stormed the center. Over head two Blackhawk helicopters arrived simultaneously. Local newspaper and television people, who had been alerted to the raid, watched and filmed from a distance. On Saturday, the previous day, the Waco Tribune–Herald had begun to publish a dramatic front-pagese series called “The Sinful Messiah,” which alleged that the `cult’ and its leader, David Koresh, were guilty of bizarre sexual practices, child abuse, and paramilitary activities.
Who fired the first shot that morning is disputed. David Koresh, the leader of the Branch Davidians, claimed that he went to the front door and shouted to the arriving agents, “Get back, we have women and children in here, let’s talk,” only to be cut off by a burst of gunfire. The BATF claims that they tried to identify themselves, shouting to Koresh that they had a warrant, but were met with a hail of bullets. Later, in the 1994 San Antonio trial of eleven Branch Davidians on charges of conspiracy to murder, it came out that the BATF had planned a “dynamic entry” with no realistic contingency for a peaceful serving of the search warrant. A few minutes into the raid, the Branch Davidians called their local 911 number, demanding that the attack cease. By noon a cease-fire had been arranged. The BATF claims they were ambushed and outgunned by the Branch Davidians, who had known they were coming. The Branch Davidians maintain that their resistance was minimal and in self-defense, and that their 911 call demonstrated their nonconfrontational stance on that day. A standoff ensued, with Koresh and his followers inside refusing to surrender. Within hours the major television and print media had arrived, and the FBI was called in. For the next fifty-one days the situation at Waco dominated the news. David Koresh had instantly become a household name, and the public was hungry for information about this obscure thirty-three-year-old Bible-quoting Texan and his followers.
It all ended on Monday, April 19. Just after 6:00 A.M., two specially equipped M-60 tanks began to strategically punch holes into the Mount Carmel structure and insert CS gas in an effort to force the Davidians out. The wind was high that day, and most of the tear gas seemed to blow away. Over the next six hours the operation was stepped up, and four Bradley vehicles joined the tanks, firing 40 mm canisters of gas through the windows. A loudspeaker blared, “David, you have had your 15 minutes of fame…. Vernon [Koresh’s given name] is no longer the Messiah. Leave the building now. You are under arrest. This standoff is over.” Around noon, smoke was seen coming from the second-story windows, and within minutes the thin frame building was engulfed in an uncontrollable fire, fanned by the gusty winds. The entire scene was carried live to the world over television satellite. Only nine Davidians were able to escape the fire. The bodies of most of the women and children were found huddled together in a concrete storage area near the kitchen, where they had apparently been trapped by falling debris.
The Waco operation turned out to be one of the most massive and tragic in the history of United States law enforcement. In the initial raid, four BATF agents were killed and twenty wounded, while six Branch Davidians were fatally shot, with four others wounded. The Branch Davidians inside the rambling Mount Carmel complex following the raid numbered approximately 123 persons, including 43 children. They were heavily armed and solidly behind their leader. On April 19, when it all came to a fiery end, 74 Branch Davidians were listed dead, including 21 children under the age of fourteen. In the aftermath BATF director Stephen Higgins and five other high-ranking officials resigned from the agency.
On the very evening following the initial Sunday raid by the BATF, Koresh, who had been seriously wounded, spoke several times by live telephone hookup over Dallas radio station KRLD and CNN cable television. Koresh began, in those gripping interviews, the first of hundreds of hours of explanations, based on his understanding of the biblical apocalyptic significance of the situation in which he found himself. His last direct communication with anyone other than government agents was an impromptu conversation with the station manager Charlie Serafin over KRLD radio at 1:50 A.M. the next morning. In those live broadcasts Koresh offered the key to the Branch Davidians’ biblical understanding of events. Unfortunately, neither the FBI agents in charge nor the myriad of advisers upon whom they relied could comprehend their perspective.
By that Monday morning, March 1, the FBI had already been called in and was in the process of taking over operations from the BATF. FBI Special Agent Jeff Jamar, from San Antonio, Texas, had taken command of the situation. The FBI fifty-person Hostage Rescue Team (HRT), a counterterrorist unit, was arriving. The situation was categorized by the FBI on this very first day of the siege as a “complex Hostage/Barricade rescue situation” even though the FBI recognized that many of the elements typically present in hostage situations were lacking. As the FBI itself later noted, “Koresh had made no threats, set no deadlines, and made no demands. Koresh and his followers were at Mount Carmel where they wanted to be and living under conditions that were only marginally more severe than they were accustomed to.” Nonetheless, negotiators and tactical personnel were called in, SWAT teams were put in place, and a method of dealing with the Branch Davidians was initiated, which was basically followed for the next fifty days—leading to the tragedy on April 19.
Listening carefully to what Koresh said in those live interviews over KRLD and CNN, a person familiar with the biblical texts could have perceived the situation in wholly different terms from the government’s “hostage rescue.” For the Branch Davidians, no one was a hostage. The only “rescue” they needed was from the government itself. In their view, the federal agents represented an evil government system, referred to in the book of Revelation as “Babylon.” The idea of “surrendering to proper authority,” as the government demanded throughout the next seven weeks, was absolutely out of the question for these believers unless or until they became convinced it was what God willed. As they saw it, their group had been wantonly attacked and slaughtered by government agents whom they understood to be in opposition to both God and his anointed prophet David Koresh. Their fate was now in God’s hands.
The Waco situation could have been handled differently and possibly resolved peacefully. This is not unfounded speculation or wishful thinking. It is the considered opinion of the lawyers who spent the most time with the Davidians during the siege and of various scholars of religion who understand biblical apocalyptic belief systems such as