Waco as Metaphor

On April 19, 1993, agents of the U.S. government assaulted the Branch Davidian “compound” at Waco, Texas – a religious community of Adventists under the leadership of David Koresh – killing 74 men, women, and children, including 12 children younger than five years of age. It was an act of state terrorism so blatant that our government and its media enablers have spent 12 years, several official reports [.pdf], and a lot of time and energy lying about the circumstances surrounding the event and covering up the truth. The parallels with the Iraq war are all too obvious in that, first of all, the Waco attack was an act of U.S. state terrorism. Even more striking, however, is the propagandistic penumbra that hung over both events, generated, of course, by the government and its apologists, one that only dissipated well after the smoke over the battlefield had cleared. When the “fog of war” lifted and the truth came out, the reality of what had occurred sunk in – and questions about who we are, and what we as a nation thought we were doing, began to be asked.

As in Iraq, so in Waco: the government was fed false “intelligence” by officials with their own agenda, who, in turn, were given information about the Koresh group by a number of “defectors.” Sound familiar? These ex-members claimed that “child abuse” was rampant among the Koreshians, although a nine-week investigation conducted in 1992 by the Texas Bureau of Child Protective Services found zero evidence of this. Nonetheless, Attorney General Janet Reno made the accusations a central feature of her rationale for ordering the invasion and subsequent slaughter.

The media, which was in swarm mode, was very receptive to the government’s message that these were dangerous social deviants who deserved to be killed. As Dean M. Kelley put it in First Things:

“Several hundred reporters from across the country and around the world gathered in Waco and were kept by law enforcement officers at a ‘safe’ distance of about two miles from the scene of action. The main source of information was a daily briefing by official spokesmen of the federal agencies at the convention center near the Hilton Hotel in town. Most of the mainstream media contented themselves with uncritically relaying these government handouts to their readers and viewers. A few representatives of the ‘alternate’ press tried to do a little independent investigating, but their voices were not widely heard, and several were excluded from the daily FBI briefings after asking impertinent questions about the official version of events.”

After a long process of negotiation, and just as it seemed that Koresh and his remaining followers would be coaxed to come out, the FBI assault began. CS gas, a highly flammable substance, was pumped into the compound, and not surprisingly, a fire broke out: fire trucks were called to the scene, but were held back for “safety reasons.” The people inside were roasted alive.

In the aftermath, a series of exculpatory reports were issued that tried to whitewash the role of law enforcement in precipitating the tragedy, but the truth came out in any case – and it wasn’t pretty. The main justification for going in there and trying to arrest Koresh to begin with had been his alleged possession of illegal firearms – purportedly a massive cache of deadly high-grade automatic weapons – but the warrants authorizing the entry were sealed for the duration of the siege, and their contents were only made public in June 1993.

What evidence was there that these firearms existed and that they were illegal? The answer is: none. Koresh had been brought to the attention of federal authorities by a suspicious UPS delivery man who had delivered a box of empty hand grenade shells to the Branch Davidians’ home. A federal agent then inspected UPS records and found similar deliveries of weapon-related materials, but according to the report issued by the Department of the Treasury, two weapons experts examined the same records and concluded that not a single illegal weapon had been delivered to Koresh.

No weapons of mass destruction! Now doesn’t that ring a bell?

However, the U.S. government wasn’t about to convict itself of mass murder. The Treasury report disregarded both logic and the facts to come to the conclusion that the raid had been justified after all, but not without getting highly creative. The method they used to arrive at their predetermined verdict was to anticipate the theory behind the Bush Doctrine. They rationalized the assault on Waco as a preemptive strike against what Koresh and his followers might have done under certain conditions. As Kelley put it:

“If the Branch Davidians had the necessary milling machine and metal lathe, and if they had ‘appropriate tooling’ for them, and if there was someone able and willing to use them, and if they had a sample ‘drop-in automatic sear’ to clone, then it was ‘highly probable’ that they could convert the legal semi-automatic weapons they were known to have had into illegal automatic weapons, and it was ‘possible’ that they had done so. Therefore, concluded the experts, the warrants were valid and sufficient.”

If Saddam Hussein had biological, chemical, or nuclear weapons of mass destruction, and if he put them into the hands of terrorists, and if he was collaborating with al-Qaeda and if, together, they were getting ready to commit a spectacular act of terrorism on American soil, and ifas Andrew Sullivan believed – Saddam was really behind the anthrax attacks, then the invasion and conquest of Iraq was valid and the war was just according to the strictures of international law and universal morality. Sullivan wrote that the use of nuclear weapons against Iraq could not be ruled out, and, at the time, this sort of hysterical nonsense was considered acceptable, because the process of demonizing the Iraqis was just as far gone as that which had been directed at the Davidians years before.

Not a single one of these conditions was met in light of the post-invasion evidence, however, and by the time we’d sunk hip-deep in the Iraqi quagmire, it was all about “democracy” and “nation-building.” The same sort of massive “intelligence failure” preceded the Waco massacre: Kelley cites a retired FBI official as saying:

“There was not even one fact in the probable cause affidavit … stating that a violation had or was taking place at Mt. Carmel. The rationale by the ATF [Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms] was that if two or more legitimate objects exist in a location, then at some unknown time they might be used to produce an illegal object, and that would be reason to obtain a search warrant. For example, probably half the homes in America contain a long- barreled gun and hacksaw. The hacksaw, at some time or other, might be used to saw off enough of the barrel to make it illegal. Based on this rationale, the ATF could search half the homes in the United States.”

Invoking an identical principle of preemption – the centerpiece of George W. Bush’s foreign and military policy – the U.S. could invade more than half the countries on earth.

The Iraq/Waco connection extends to the matter of how the U.S. government managed to get away with it without arousing massive public opposition among the American electorate. As Kelley notes, reporters were fed a propaganda line by the authorities, and they readily ate it up – and, as we have often noted on this site, the “mainstream” media regularly broadcast the Bush administration’s certainty that Iraqi WMD were ready and waiting to be launched as if it were fact, while marginalizing knowledgeable critics, such as former weapons inspector Scott Ritter.

To this day, the media promulgates the official myth about the Waco assault, and you’ll note that the anniversary is being eclipsed, as least in the mainstream outlets, by observance of the Oklahoma City bombing. We avert our eyes from the corpses of incinerated children – in Waco and Iraq – convinced that if we pay too much attention we court the danger of turning into a Tim McVeigh. So forget about state terrorism – the government wants you to pay attention to the alleged danger of the free-lance variety, and it just so happens that a “top secret” report on the danger of “domestic terrorism” has been leaked to ABC News in time for the April 19th anniversary.

The big danger, we are told, is from over 20 “domestic terrorist” groups, most of them far right-wing fringe groups. ABC cites one Brian Levin, director of the “Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism” at California State University, San Bernardino:

“The Internet is where law enforcement should be looking. Because that is where the next Timothy McVeigh probably is right now.”

The guardians of our thought processes hate technical innovations that ordinary people can use, because they put people beyond their power to police – and that, in the view of Levin and his confreres, is getting us into some dangerous territory. That’s what the Internet is to them: a realm of extremism, where evil flourishes, unregulated by government agencies and not subject to the speech codes that constrict the intellectual life of our college campuses. Oh, the sheer horror of it! So let’s start regulating the Internet, before it blows us all to Kingdom Come.

Gee, come to think of it, doesn’t this make the Internet a “weapon of mass destruction”? Quick, somebody call the cops!

McVeigh was a nutball, but what drove him over the edge? He had served in the first Gulf War, was a decorated war hero, and returned to civilian life with the moral sense of a man who can commit mass murder with the proper sense of “clinical detachment,” as he put it in a missive to Gore Vidal:

“Bombing the Murrah Federal Building was morally and strategically equivalent to the U.S. hitting a government building in Serbia, Iraq, or other nations. Based on observations of the policies of my own government, I viewed this action as an acceptable option. From this perspective what occurred in Oklahoma City was no different than what Americans rain on the heads of others all the time, and, subsequently, my mindset was and is one of clinical detachment. (The bombing of the Murrah Building was not personal no more than when Air Force, Army, Navy or Marine personnel bomb or launch cruise missiles against [foreign] government installations and their personnel.)”

How many more Tim McVeighs, embittered and to a certain extent driven mad by their war experience, are we generating in Iraq today? God only knows.

Waco and Iraq – in both instances, we’re talking about the slaughter of the innocents, in the case of the latter as many as 100,000 innocent civilians. These twin atrocities were engineered by agenda-driven U.S. government officials and covered up by a campaign of lies, government propaganda, and a complacent media – all of it finally culminating in an orgy of destruction and mass murder.

It is, I fear, a sign of the times. The Clinton administration came up with the doctrine of military preemption long before that son of a Bush ever dreamed of the White House – and, what’s more, they applied that doctrine on our own soil, against Americans. The liberals went along with it, and so did the neoconservatives – who were horrified that the reaction of most real conservatives was to become more militantly “anti-government.” (Alas, to no avail.) To all those liberal Democrats out there who are horrified by the Iraq war and its consequences, just remember this: before there was a Donald Rumsfeld in the Pentagon, there was a Janet Reno in the Department of Justice.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of Antiwar.com, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].