Film & TV

Paranoid, Yes. But Are We Paranoid Enough?

Taylor Kitsch in Waco (Paramount Network/IMDb)
A new/old series depicts the entirely unnecessary horror of the Branch Davidian massacre.

One of the things that good people of Waco would like the world to know is that the events depicted in Waco, a television series about the Branch Davidian standoff and massacre in 1993, did not actually happen in Waco. Waco is Chip and Joanna Gaines and Baylor University — David Koresh’s Mount Carmel compound was out there in the unincorporated county.

It is a testament to the cultural force of Netflix that it has captured the public imagination with Waco, a television miniseries that actually aired two years ago on a foundering competitor channel but that is, for all most people know, a fresh Netflix production. If it wasn’t on Netflix or Amazon Prime Video, did it really happen?

The Branch Davidian story is shocking, and it has not lost its power to alarm. For those who do not remember the 1990s (which are turning out to be a decade of our history almost as fiercely contested as the 1960s), the events depicted must seem both unlikely and grotesque: an ATF publicity stunt that turned into a bloodbath, a siege, and, finally, a horrifying fire that took the lives of 76 people trapped inside the compound, including 25 children and two pregnant women.

I was present as a young student journalist for some of that drama, although, as was true for most of the media there, what I saw was mostly other media, a fantastical display of lights out in the otherwise dark countryside, a scene having the atmosphere of a kind of grim county fair. A couple of photographers with whom I worked at the University of Texas newspaper were detained by authorities for crossing the police cordon in pursuit of a better shot. (The photographers from my college newspaper staff, a rowdy but gifted bunch, went on to collectively earn four Pulitzer prizes in photography their first few years out of college.) It was a little like an NFL game: You want to be there in person, but you really get a better view on television.

It was, above all, confusing. The confusion is with us, still.

One of the great losses at Mount Carmel, beyond the unnecessary and therefore unforgivable loss of human life, is that David Koresh and the others who died there were never put on trial — and neither was the ATF. (A handful of Branch Davidian survivors were convicted on charges ranging from voluntary manslaughter to resisting arrest; civil suits by survivors against the authorities have mostly come to nothing.) Instead of the gold standard of a criminal trial under American law — imperfect but nonetheless one of the great unsung achievements of American life — we got the Danforth report, a dozen competing narratives warped by political allegiances and motivated reasoning, paranoia, myth, self-reinforcing biases, and a great deal of dishonest bureaucratic ass-covering.

And so the wound remained open, and festered.

David Koresh was no stranger to violence: He’d earlier been tried on attempted-murder charges after a shootout over control of the Mount Carmel compound. Koresh gained control of Mount Carmel only after a rival faction leader, who had unsuccessfully challenged Koresh to a resurrection contest after digging up the corpse of one of his followers, was obliged to plead insanity in an axe-murder case.

Koresh was a lunatic. He may or may not have been guilty of the federal firearms charges that were the subject of the warrant the ATF was there to serve. The ATF, which to this day defends its actions at Mount Carmel, says that it was moved to action in part by the fact that the Branch Davidians had acquired 136 firearms, 700 magazines, and 200,000 rounds of ammunition — none of which is illegal, and none of which is even especially surprising given that a federally licensed firearms dealer was based on the premises, out of which the Branch Davidians operated a commercial firearms business. The ATF charged that the Branch Davidians had components that would have allowed them to produce illegal weapons. That is true. It is also true of any American who owns both a shotgun and a hacksaw, as the ATF knows all too well.

The weapons case was weak, but the Branch Davidians, a bunch of goofy rustic cultists out there in the boonies, presented an attractive target for the Clinton administration.

Koresh almost certainly was guilty of sexually abusing young girls, but he was not charged with those crimes.

He could have been, easily.

Instead, the ATF staged an assault, complete with helicopters and other military swag, for the benefit of the cameras and, through them, congressional appropriators who were giving the agency the hairy eyeball after the fiasco at Ruby Ridge. Koresh and his parishioners were well known to and in some cases friendly with the local sheriff and his staff, and Koresh was far from being a recluse holed up in his compound: He was a jogger and sometime musician who frequently was out and about in town unaccompanied. He could have been brought in quietly by a couple of locals or discreetly by the feds, but doing it quietly and discreetly would have defeated the purpose of the operation the ATF nicknamed “Showtime.”

The assault was bungled, and the bungling compounded by lies. The ATF had lied about the presence of a methamphetamine lab in the compound in order to secure helicopters (used purely as props for dramatic purposes) from the military under the increasingly militarized practices of the so-called war on drugs; in fact, there were neither drugs nor even drug charges. Federal authorities subsequently lied to Congress and investigators about the use of incendiary devices in the assault and later were obliged to engage in some very vigorous handwaving when confronted with physical evidence to the contrary. Damning pages from a report to Congress went missing with no explanation. As Newsweek put it at the time, the federal authorities “concealed and may have lied about relatively minor mistakes, and fueled a conspiracy when there didn’t need to be one.”

Much of the following discussion was about who fired first: Waco proposes (as one ATF agent reported at the time) that the first shots were fired by ATF agents killing the Branch Davidians’ dogs — and suggests that the rest of the agents on the scene, who had not been expecting to hear those gunshots, opened fire in panic and kept firing until they ran down their ammunition. But the real issue is not who fired first; the real issue, as Waco emphasizes, is that the federal government under the Clinton administration staged a military operation instead of a law-enforcement operation, that it did so for purely political reasons, and that in doing so it created a situation that was far more combustible than the one it was, in theory, attempting to police.

The Clinton administration was succeeded by the George W. Bush administration, which constructed a theory of unlimited presidential power in a “war on terror” in which the battleground is literally everywhere. The Bush administration was succeeded by the Barack Obama administration, which claimed for itself the power to assassinate American citizens as part of that same unceasing war. Barack Obama was succeeded by Donald Trump, who declared himself to be in possession of authority that is “total.” The pissant mayor of New York City has threatened to permanently shut down churches and synagogues that violate the city’s coronavirus social-distancing mandates. Many Republicans agree with my National Review colleague and former federal prosecutor Andrew C. McCarthy that “there was no good-faith basis for an investigation of General Flynn,” that the case against him was part of a political operation masquerading as a law-enforcement operation. Many progressives take it as an article of faith that local police routinely murder young black men with no consequence, and Joe Biden recently suggested that the Trump administration intends to execute what amounts to a coup d’état by canceling the election.

There is a strain of unreasoning paranoia in American public life, and it is a serious problem — but it did not come from nowhere.

It came, at least in part, from Waco.

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