WHAT HAPPENED? (1)
To be honest, I had another story planned for the actual day of the Waco siege, so I had to find another relevant date/event to use. This to say, this story will primarily be about the Branch Davidians cult, partially about the siege itself, and pretty minimally about the actual bulldozing of the compound.
So what happened? The Branch Davidians were a religious community (read: cult) that was founded by Ben Roden in 1959. It is an "offshoot" of the Davidian Seventh-Day Adventist Church, but with more creepy, cultish, undertones and a dash of pedophilia.
The Branch Davidians are in most famous U.S. cult conversations, but are most associated with the Waco siege of 1993, which took the lives of 86 total people during a standoff between the Davidians and the FBI.
THE HISTORY OF THE CULT, AND LIFE INSIDE
Back in 1929, a Bulgarian Seventh-day Adventist Sabbath School teacher Victor Houteff claimed that he had a new message for the church. (This is never a good sign). The shared his views in a book, but the Adventist leadership rejected his views, and he was disfellowshipped, along with some of the followers he had scrounged up. (1)
A few years later, he established a headquarters for his new church, The Davidians, just west of Waco, Texas. Years later, he renamed the group the General Association of Davidian Seventh-day Adventists. When he died in 1955, his loyal followers continued, lead by Houteff's wife. (1)
His wife, Florence, convinced the group of an imminent apocalypse, one not written about in her husband's writings, but nevertheless, they gathered together for the fulfillment of Ezekiel. Obviously, nothing happened. Ben Roden was disappointed that that nothing happened, and broke off to make his own group called the Branch Davidians, and took control of their compound. His wife, Lois, took over for him after his 1978 death. Then, she died, and Roden's son, George took over. Within a year, however, another member named Vernon Howell rose to power, and the Roden family was ousted from power. (1)
Everyone was pretty cool with Vernon. They were now living in the Waco compound. He was young, but nevertheless had an affair with Lois Roden when she was in her late 60s. This is why George Roden and Vernon Howell began to clash. (1)
So, in a bizarre attempt to regain the support of the cult, George challenged Vernon to raise the dead. He exhumed a corpse to help the process along. However, that is super illegal and Vernon filed charges against George... But he was told he needed proof. This lead to a November 3, 1987 raid on the Mount Carmen Center, their compound, from Vernon and 7 of his followers with lots of guns. However, after the whole ordeal, the trial ended and George was found not guilty. (1)
If you haven't caught on yet, this dude who loved guns and having sex with other people's wives is David Koresh. He changed his name to be more powerful, David from King David and Koresh, the Hebrew name of Cyrus, as in Cyrus the Great. He was trying to create a new lineage of world leaders which sounds powerful in theory but in practice just means "child abuse", part of the reason for the siege. (1)
Life was, to put it lightly, not great in the compound. In the years after the siege, survivors have told their stories about what it was like living under David Koresh in the cult. "The helper" was the name of the wooden paddle used to strike children. They were struck for spilling milk, or for not fighting other children hard enough while "training for the final battle". (2)
Koresh told the children to refer to their actual parents as "dogs", as he was their father. At the horrifically young age of as young as 11, girls were given a plastic Star of David that signified that they were ready to have sex with him. (2)
Men and women in the compound were strictly separated. Koresh had "wives" as young as 11, and he discussed sex openly with the youngest children during bible lessons. The compound had no running water or plumbing, and the children used a pot for going to the bathroom. Being paddled wasn't the only punishment they got, either. Sometimes, they were refused food if they misbehaved. (2)
Girls were allowed to sleep in, but boys had to rise at 5:30 AM for "gym", which entailed marching and drilling, possibly with guns. Though the kids had age-appropriate reading levels, they had no actual schooling outside of the bible. (2)
But for the kids who grew up in what reads like a modern day horror story, everything was pretty normal. After they were released, most of the kids said that they loved David, drawing photos of him with hearts. But they didn't really know what love is, and experts believe what they were truly feeling was fear. He controlled their entire lives: sex (rape), school, play, and diet. When placed in Child Protective Services, some of the kids talked about how odd warm food was. (2)
The children experienced physical abuse, and for the young girls, sexual abuse. Their ties with their actual parents were completely cut. He shamed them, coerced them, scared and intimidated them, humiliated them and was aggressive, but also loving, towards them for the sake of manipulation and power. (2)
Women had to wear certain clothes, and makeup and jewelry were forbidden. They couldn't eat sugar, dairy or any processed foods, so it was kind of like Whole30 but also a cult. The reason for not drinking milk was that it is baby food, and they weren't babies. (3)
One follower, Sheila Martin, moved to the compound with her husband and 5 children in 1988, and she said it was "fun as long as we were being obedient". (Also, your children were taken from you and sexually abused, so doesn't seem that fun, Sheila.) (3)
Joann Vaega, who was 6 years old when she left, said she was hit regularly and discipline was a constant thing. She said she was raised with fear. She remembered being told the end of the world was coming, but the chosen people would survive because David was the son of God. They had to prepare for the end times. (3)
Dana Okimoto, who had Koresh's son Sky Okimoto, recalls beating her young son until he bled. She said it is the thing she would take back if she could and she felt so evil, but truly believed that God wanted and needed her to do it. (Translation: she was probably terrified David would beat her if she didn't.) (3)
And you wouldn't just get spanked by your own parent. Because it was a community, everybody was everybody's parent, and anyone could spank anyone's kids. (3)
Koresh was legally married to one woman, Rachel Jones, but while he asked all of his followers (even those who were married) to be celibate, he ended up dissolving the marriages so all of the women could be his wives. He referred to having sex with him as being in the "House of David" which is horrifying. (3)
Kiri Jewell said in a 2003 interview that her mother was one of Koresh's wives, and when she turned 10, she began his youngest bride. He molested her and she didn't realize that he was a pedophile until she got out. (3)
But ultimately, that's what cults do. The wool is pulled over your eyes and you don't realize what is going on is complete lunacy. Children being beaten and married off before they became teenagers. Husbands giving up their wives, wives giving up their children, parents allowing their kids to have sex with a grown man. When that grown man is scary and conniving and manipulative and powerful, you do what he says because you think it is the right thing. (3)
THE WACO SIEGE (4)
On February 28, 1993, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) had been told of illegal weapons violations and sexual abuse happening at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco. They attempted to get inside the compound, but their ammunition began to run low. During this initial attempted raid, 4 ATF agents and 5 Branch Davidians were killed (2 of them by their own, not by ATF). Hours after the ceasefire, follower Michael Schroeder was shot and killed by ATF when he tried to reenter the compound, coming back from work. He was shot 7 times.
After what can only be considered as an outright failure of a "raid", the ATF agents established contact with Koresh and everyone inside. The FBI was in command, and managed the release of 19 children easily on in the negotiations. The children had been physically and sexually abused, as you know from the previous section, but many of them did not understand what had happened to them until a long time after their release, and many claimed they were never hurt. When they were released, it does not appear that they were running for their lives or plotting their escapes before... They were just released into the arms of a bunch of FBI agents, without their parents, and they left behind the only world they ever knew.
During the standoff, the FBI played extremely loud music on speakers 24/7 to induce sleep deprivation. In a quote from the New Yorker, "the FBI assembled what has been called probably the largest military force ever gathered against a civilian suspect in American history." He lists everything they had: 12 tanks, 4 combat-engineering vehicles, 668 agents, 6 U.S. Customs officers, 15 U.S. army personnel, 13 members of the Texas National Guard, 31 Texas Rangers, 131 officers from the Texas Department of Public Safety, 17 McLennan County Sheffics, and 18 Waco police officers.
On April 19, 1993, after a 51 day standoff, the FBI moved for their final siege of the compound. The Davidians were heavily armed, and thus, so was the FBI. (If you recall, Koresh had told his followers they had to prepare for war or "the end times" - though this was an FBI raid due to illegal activity in the compound, his loyal followers probably believed this all but confirmed everything he had been saying.)
So on the day in question, the newly appointed Attorney General Janet Reno approved recommendations from the Hostage Rescue team for the assault. She had been told that the conditions inside were getting worse and children were being abused. Reno made the case to President Clinton, who suggested tactics like those used at The Covenant, The Sword, and the Arm of the Lord (CSAL) siege which was ended without loss of life. But Reno, tired of waiting, said the siege was costing $1 million a week, the Branch Davidians could hold out much longer than the CSAL, the abuse was getting worse, and she claimed that mass suicide was imminent, though there was nothing to support that Koresh had planned a mass suicide event.
Clinton eventually told her that if she thought it was the right thing to do, then she could do it. (In the next few months, Reno supported her final attack, claiming the Hostage Rescue Team had told her that children were being sexually abused and babies were being beaten, but the Hostage Rescue Team denied any evidence of child abuse during the standoff.)
Okay, back to the weapons. So the Branch Davidians are armed, so the FBI team has got their rifles and Combat Engineering Vehicles (CEV). Their plan? Use the CEVs to punch holes in the walls of the building so they could pump in tear gas so everyone would leave without harm. The plan was to pump increasing amounts of gas over the course of a few days to increase pressure, and "officially" no armed assault was to be made. They used loudspeakers to tell everyone inside that there would be no armed assault, and they asked them not to fire at the vehicles. When the Branch Davidians did fire at them, the response was just more gas.
So the FBI Hostage Team is putting grenade fire into the compound. They just kept putting different types of tear gas inside, but it wasn't causing anyone to come outside because everyone was hiding out in a bunker in the compound, or, if they were on the front lines, they were wearing gas masks.
At around noon, 3 simultaneous fires broke out in different parts of the building. The blaze was broadcast by television crews almost immediately. To this day, there is not an official ruling for the cause of the fire. The official FBI ruling is that the Branch Davidians deliberately started the fires, however, Branch Davidian survivors claim the fires were started either accidentally or deliberately by the assault.
Only 9 people left the building. The remaining followers, including children, were buried alive by rubble, suffocated, killed by smoke or carbon monoxide inhalation, or shot. Allegedly, Steve Schneider, Koresh's top aid, shot Koresh and then himself. In total, 76 Branch Davidians died. The Texas Rangers' arson investigator concluded that the occupants were not trapped in the bunker where they died, but either were denied escaping, or chose not to leave. Other independent reports conclude that the residents had plenty of time to escape the fire. So, either they chose to stay behind and burn, or someone wouldn't let them out.
Autopsies revealed many different causes of death. Some died from a concrete wall falling on them, while others died of cyanide poisoning from the burnt CS gas. At least 20 were shot, including Koresh and 5 children under the age of 14. One toddler was stabbed in the chest. Though these were all seen as "mercy killings", as they were trapped in the fire with no escape, it was proven that they could have escaped, so either they decided to kill themselves inside as to not give into the FBI, or they waited too long until they actually were trapped and decided to mercy kill some people. (4)
The expert retained by the U.S. Office of Special Council said of the gunshot wounds that they support "self-destruction by either overt suicide, consensual execution, or less likely, forced execution." (4)
Some of the surviving Branch Davidians were taken to trial, charged with aiding and abetting in murder of federal officers and firearms charges. 8 were convicted on firearms charges, 5 were convicted of voluntary manslaughter, and 4 were acquitted of all charges. All of them had been released from their respective sentences by July 2007. (4)
Many of the surviving Branch Davidians, as well as hundreds of family members of those who died, brought a civil suit against the U.S. government, but their case was rejected. They considered the actions of the ATF agents self defense, and their siege plan was a discretionary function of the government that couldn't be sued. Because they maintained that the Davidians started the fires, they couldn't be held accountable for those. Ultimately, however, the FBI, ATF of the U.S. government were never held accountable for the actions taken at Waco. (4)
The events at Waco remain to be seen as one of the biggest blunders in the FBI, and is commonly spoken about in relation to a mistrust of the government. (4)
The narrative throughout the media, and perhaps the narrative that made the FBI feel better about the deaths of 76 people, was that everyone inside was in a cult, and all of them were completely crazy and thus, they brought their fate upon themselves. But, despite the horrors happening inside the compound, the government didn't actually know what was going on. They had suspicions of abuse, but not enough to be conclusive. The government's primary interest in the compound was the possession of an illegal firearms cache on the site, which doesn't seem to be worth the deaths of 76 people. (5)
After the raid, President Clinton said that the FBI had no responsibility for their deaths, claiming, "I do not think the United States government is responsible for the fact that a bunch of religious fanatics decided to kill themselves." (5)
And sure, if you see everyone inside of Waco as a crazy religious fanatic who chose to commit mass suicide on their own accord (a la Jonestown, Heaven's Gate, etc.) then no, the government probably isn't to blame.
But for others, typically others who lean right politically, it was an example of unlawful government overreach. It became a rallying cry for those who saw the government as a threat to their existence. It was an example of the tyrannical government who killed its own people that they had been touting. (5)
Coupled with the Ruby Ridge siege the year before, aggressively right-wing patriots felt further supported in their belief that the government was prepared to kill its own people, believing Waco could happen to anyone at any time. Specifically, Timothy McVeigh used both Waco and Ruby Ridge as his reasoning for carrying out the Oklahoma City bombings on the anniversary of the deaths at Waco. (5)
Ultimately, David Koresh ran a cult. He was a leader who brainwashed people, raped and abused children and manipulated his followers into total power. He should have been stopped. He needed to be stopped. He was a bad person. But should that stopping come at the hands of a government entity that actually didn't know what was going on inside?
Are you on the side that all 76 deaths were justifiable because not only was a predator stopped, but also, because those 76 people (including children) were religious fanatics who chose to join a cult, and thus signed their own death wish? Or are you on the side that all 76 deaths were entirely unjustified and the government's involvement in the Branch Davidian lifestyle was an overreach? Or do you sit somewhere in between, that you're happy David Koresh is no longer alive to rape children, but you also believe there was a better way to do that than put nearly 80 people at risk?
I sit somewhere in the middle, for sure. I think someone needed to intervene. Leaving them unchecked would have resulted in more children being abused, and that isn't okay. But perhaps there was a far better way to make it happen.
Furthering implications that the government may have acted out of turn, the site was bulldozed on May 12, 1993 making the gathering of forensic evidence impossible. Whatever truly happened in the compound, we may never truly know, but 76 people lost their lives during the siege, and 10 more died in the original attack. And just because they were in a cult doesn't mean that they were disposable.