It’s April 19th 1993. A raging fire has signalled the end of the Waco siege, 86 people are dead and the world is left stunned after a 51-day stand-off between the FBI and the Branch Davidians - a self-proclaimed religious cult who believe in the second coming of Jesus Christ and a day of judgement. On the one hand, it notoriously reignited the tinderbox between the so-called patriot movement and the federal government, representing the perceived erosion of American civil liberties and constitutional rights. On the other hand, it showed US authorities harshly, but effectively dealing with a prolific religious fanatic that was overstepping the law.
The Branch Davidians Christian sect settled in Waco, Texas in the 1930s after diverging from the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Undergoing various changes over time, the group was taken over by David Koresh in 1990, a polygamist, predatory and self-confessed messiah who turned an already ideologically dangerous cult into an armed militia, illegally stockpiling hundreds of automatic weapons, ammunition and explosives. After a tip-off from a UPS driver who had discovered he was unwittingly delivering hand grenades and weapons, the ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives) and FBI decided they needed to take action.
On the morning of February 28th 1990, authorities decided to take particularly drastic action launching a tactical dawn raid on the cult’s compound. Whilst it is unclear who started the gunfire, the ensuing 2-hour battle lead to the deaths of four ATF agents and six Branch Davidians leading to a retreat and the FBI becoming involved, immediately taking charge and surrounding the compound.
Negotiations initially took a mellow stance resulting in the release of 19 children in exchange for ammunition and food. Although shortly after this tensions quickly escalated with aggression on both sides. A particularly gruesome and unforeseeable chain of events unravelled over the following seven weeks. Shock tactics were used by the FBI: the power was cut off; loud music was blared towards the group; and, searchlights constantly lit up the compound. This was the perfect way to escalate an already bad situation. Fearing no end to this situation, authorities were given the green light to smoke the cult’s inhabitants out using tear gas on April the 19th. It is unclear if these actions started the fire or if it was started by a suicidal member of the Branch Davidians. The fire swiftly engulfed the compound killing everyone inside.
For many, the actions of the authorities represent a gross overstepping of government power that culminated in the deaths of mostly innocent Christian women and children. There were plenty of opportunities to intercept David Koresh peacefully prior to the events that unfolded. For example, he went on daily jogs outside of the compound as well as weekly visits to a diner with his family. It’s almost as though the authorities decided to put on a show to boost their image as if this would rectify a history of poorly handled events such as the Elián González scandal. The FBI was also very brutal in their negotiation tactics as well as their handling of events after the crisis, such as the harsh prosecution of surviving cult members - undoubtedly, these actions catalysed and aggravated wider anti-government sentiment. The Oklahoma City bombing happened 2 years later with the main perpetrators citing the event as retaliation for the Waco incident.
Without delving into the considerable debate surrounding anti-government and anti-gun arguments as well as religious movements in the United States, these events orchestrated a textbook example of how not to carry out a large scale enforcement operation. The unnecessary use of force, as well as unaccountable agencies sucking up to the Clinton administration, meant a peaceful resolution was almost impossible.