Monday, April 19, 2004

WACO ANNIVERSARY: Eleven years ago today, the siege of the Branch Davidians came to its fiery and tragic end in Waco, Texas. Mark Goodacre points to a chapter in a book entitled Why Waco? Cults and the Battle for Religious Freedom in America, by James Tabor and Eugene V. Gallagher, which tells how it might have come out differently. Many years ago, Tabor was kind enough to send me a prepublication copy of parts of their book so I could use the material in my Apocalyptic and Gnostic Literature course.

It's hard to imagine how the authorities could have done a worse job of dealing with David Koresh and his followers. And they should not be allowed to forget it.

What Might Have Been

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 that of the Branch Davidians. (13) There was a way to communicate with these biblically oriented people, but it had nothing to do with hostage rescue or counterterrorist tactics. Indeed, such a strategy was being pursued, with FBI cooperation, by Phillip Arnold of the Reunion Institute in Houston and James Tabor of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, one of the authors of this book. Arnold and Tabor worked in concert with the lawyers Dick DeGuerin and Jack Zimmerman, who spent a total of twenty hours inside the Mount Carmel center between March 29 and April 4, communicating directly with Koresh and his main spokesperson, Steve Schneider. Unfortunately, these attempts came too late. By the time they began to bear positive results, decisions had already been made in Washington to convince Attorney General Janet Reno to end the siege by force. As we will show, those officials briefing her had decided on the CS gas option and were determined to get her approval, despite her caution and better judgment.


We now know that Koresh was working on his manuscript, which he considered his divinely sanctioned task and opportunity. He worked on it as late as Sunday evening, the night before the April 19 assault, completing his exposition of the First Seal. Those in Mount Carmel were excited and pleased by his progress, fully convinced that they would soon be able to come out peacefully.(47) Ruth Riddle, a Branch Davidian who survived the fire, served as his stenographer and typist that weekend. On the day of the fire, she carried out a computer disk in her jacket pocket, containing what Koresh had written up to that point. A substantial piece, it runs about twenty-eight manuscript pages; it reflects Koresh's personality in its style, content, and passion.(48) At the end of the document, he quotes the book of Joel and then offers his commentary: "'Blow the trumpet in Zion, sanctify a fast, call a solemn assembly. Gather the people, sanctify the congregation, assemble the elders, gather the children, and those that nurse at the breast; let the bridegroom go forth from his chamber, and the bride out of her closet [Joel 2:15, 16].' Yes, the bride is definitely to be revealed for we know that Christ is in the Heavenly Sanctuary anticipating His Marriage of which God has spoken. Should we not eagerly ourselves be ready to accept this truth and come out of our closet and be revealed to the world as those who love Christ in truth and in righteousness?" (emphasis added). Koresh had found his text for the situation at hand. As he then understood events, as always through the lens of the biblical prophets, the group was to come out and be revealed to the world. This does not mean he had given up his apocalyptic scenario or his view of himself as the Koresh/Christ who would in the end confront and defeat Babylon. He surely believed that God would bring about the final confrontation in the future. He had come to understand that his immediate task was to communicate his message to the world, after which he would surrender and allow God's will to unfold.

The only effective way to communicate with Koresh was within the biblically based apocalyptic "world" he inhabited, taking advantage of the inherent flexibility that the situation at Mount Carmel presented. Of course, no one can ever know if Koresh would have honored his pledge to come out once the manuscript was finished, but whether he would have or not, the outcome could not have been more terrible. To the FBI he was a con man using religion to cover his need for dominance and pleasure. To the psychiatrists he was psychopathic, suffering from delusional paranoia. Such perceptions, whether valid or not, obscured the only positive means of dealing with Koresh and his followers. Although the FBI has charged that Koresh constantly went back on his word, contradicting himself and willfully breaking his promises, the Department of Justice's highly detailed log reveals otherwise: Koresh and his followers were utterly consistent from March 2 onward. They had been told to wait by God; they would not come out until Koresh received his word from God telling them what to do. No amount of pressure or abuse would move them from this path. The final tragedy is that, when Koresh finally got his "word" on April 14, no one with any understanding of the religious dynamics of the situation had access to those making the decisions that week in Washington.


The authors have a web page on the book here. On it, inter alia, is a link to Koresh's unfinished magnum opus, Exposition of the Seven Seals, which, incidentally, I assigned as a reading toward the end of the above-mentioned course, and a commentary by Tabor and Philip Arnold.

Mark Goodacre has more here. My thanks to Mark for the reminder of the anniversary.

UPDATE (20 April): David Nishimura comments over at Cronaca.

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