Why Waco?: Cults and the Battle for Religious Freedom in Americaby James D. Tabor, Eugene V. Gallagher
The 1993 government assault on the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas, resulted in the deaths of four federal agents and eighty Branch Davidians, including seventeen children. Whether these tragic deaths could have been avoided is still debatable, but what seems clear is that the events in Texas have broad implications for religious freedom in… See more details below
The 1993 government assault on the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas, resulted in the deaths of four federal agents and eighty Branch Davidians, including seventeen children. Whether these tragic deaths could have been avoided is still debatable, but what seems clear is that the events in Texas have broad implications for religious freedom in America.
James Tabor and Eugene Gallagher's bold examination of the Waco story offers the first balanced account of the siege. They try to understand what really happened in Waco: What brought the Branch Davidians to Mount Carmel? Why did the government attack? How did the media affect events? The authors address the accusations of illegal weapons possession, strange sexual practices, and child abuse that were made against David Koresh and his followers. Without attempting to excuse such actions, they point out that the public has not heard the complete story and that many media reports were distorted.
The authors have carefully studied the Davidian movement, analyzing the theology and biblical interpretation that were so central to the group's functioning. They also consider how two decades of intense activity against so-called cults have influenced public perceptions of unorthodox religions.
In exploring our fear of unconventional religious groups and how such fear curtails our ability to tolerate religious differences, Why Waco? is an unsettling wake-up call. Using the events at Mount Carmel as a cautionary tale, the authors challenge all Americans, including government officials and media representatives, to closely examine our national commitment to religious freedom.
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What Might Have Been
The FBI agents called to Mount Carmel center outside Waco, Texas, on February 28, 1993, can hardly be expected to have packed their Bibles. In retrospect, it would not have been such a bad idea. The news of the bloody shoot-out between agents of the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (BATF) and an obscure religious group known as the Branch Davidians, on the peaceful Sunday morning had been flashed around the world. (1) For months the BATF had planned a "search and arrest" assault on the group based on allegations that they possessed illegal firearms materials and were possibly converting AR-15 semiautomatic rifles into machine guns. At 7:30 A.M. an eighty-vehicle convoy, including two cattle trailers pulled by pickup trucks loaded with seventy-six heavily armed BATF agents, had made its way to a staging area a few miles from the rural Mount Carmel property. Shortly after 9:00 A.M. the assault began. The two cattle trailers drove rapidly up to the property, halted in front, and the BATF agents stormed the center. Over head two Blackhawk helicopters arrived simultaneously. Local newspaper and television people, who had been alerted to the raid, watched and filmed from a distance. On Saturday, the previous day, the Waco Tribune-Herald had begun to publish a dramatic front-page series called "The Sinful Messiah," which alleged that the `cult' and its leader, David Koresh, were guilty of bizarre sexual practices, child abuse, and paramilitary activities.(2)
Who fired the first shot that morning is disputed. David Koresh, the leader of the Branch Davidians, claimed that he went to the front door and shouted to the arriving agents, "Get back, we have women and children in here, let's talk," only to be cut off by a burst of gunfire.(3) The BATF claims that they tried to identify themselves, shouting to Koresh that they had a warrant, but were met with a hail of bullets.(4) Later, in the 1994 San Antonio trial of eleven Branch Davidians on charges of conspiracy to murder, it came out that the BATF had planned a "dynamic entry" with no realistic contingency for a peaceful serving of the search warrant. (5) A few minutes into the raid, the Branch Davidians called their local 911 number, demanding that the attack cease. By noon a cease-fire had been arranged. The BATF claims they were ambushed and outgunned by the Branch Davidians, who had known they were coming. The Branch Davidians maintain that their resistance was minimal and in self-defense, and that their 911 call demonstrated their nonconfrontational stance on that day. A standoff ensued, with Koresh and his followers inside refusing to surrender. Within hours the major television and print media had arrived, and the FBI was called in. For the next fifty-one days the situation at Waco dominated the news. David Koresh had instantly become a household name, and the public was hungry for information about this obscure thirty-three-year-old Bible-quoting Texan and his followers.
It all ended on Monday, April 19. Just after 6:00 A.M., two specially equipped M-60 tanks began to strategically punch holes into the Mount Carmel structure and insert CS gas in an effort to force the Davidians out. The wind was high that day, and most of the tear gas seemed to blow away. Over the next six hours the operation was stepped up, and four Bradley vehicles joined the tanks, firing 40 mm canisters of gas through the windows. A loudspeaker blared, "David, you have had your 15 minutes of fame.... Vernon [Koresh's given name] is no longer the Messiah. Leave the building now. You are under arrest. This standoff is over."(6) Around noon, smoke was seen coming from the second-story windows, and within minutes the thin frame building was engulfed in an uncontrollable fire, fanned by the gusty winds. The entire scene was carried live to the world over television satellite. Only nine Davidians were able to escape the fire. The bodies of most of the women and children were found huddled together in a concrete storage area near the kitchen, where they had apparently been trapped by falling debris.
The Waco operation turned out to be one of the most massive and tragic in the history of United States law enforcement. (7) In the initial raid, four BATF agents were killed and twenty wounded, while six Branch Davidians were fatally shot, with four others wounded. (8) The Branch Davidians inside the rambling Mount Carmel complex following the raid numbered approximately 123 persons, including 43 children. They were heavily armed and solidly behind their leader. On April 19, when it all came to a fiery end, 74 Branch Davidians were listed dead, including 21 children under the age of fourteen. (9) In the aftermath BATF director Stephen Higgins and five other high-ranking officials resigned from the agency. (10)
On the very evening following the initial Sunday raid by the BATF, Koresh, who had been seriously wounded, spoke several times by live telephone hookup over Dallas radio station KRLD and CNN cable television. Koresh began, in those gripping interviews, the first of hundreds of hours of explanations, based on his understanding of the biblical apocalyptic significance of the situation in which he found himself. His last direct communication with anyone other than government agents was an impromptu conversation with the station manager Charlie Serafin over KRLD radio at 1:50 A.M. the next morning. (11) In those live broadcasts Koresh offered the key to the Branch Davidians' biblical understanding of events. Unfortunately, neither the FBI agents in charge nor the myriad of advisers upon whom they relied could comprehend their perspective.
By that Monday morning, March 1, the FBI had already been called in and was in the process of taking over operations from the BATF. FBI Special Agent Jeff Jamar, from San Antonio, Texas, had taken command of the situation. The FBI fifty-person Hostage Rescue Team (HRT), a counterterrorist unit, was arriving. The situation was categorized by the FBI on this very first day of the siege as a "complex Hostage/Barricade rescue situation" even though the FBI recognized that many of the elements typically present in hostage situations were lacking. As the FBI itself later noted, "Koresh had made no threats, set no deadlines, and made no demands. Koresh and his followers were at Mount Carmel where they wanted to be and living under conditions that were only marginally more severe than they were accustomed to."(12) Nonetheless, negotiators and tactical personnel were called in, SWAT teams were put in place, and a method of dealing with the Branch Davidians was initiated, which was basically followed for the next fifty days--leading to the tragedy on April 19.
Listening carefully to what Koresh said in those live interviews over KRLD and CNN, a person familiar with the biblical texts could have perceived the situation in wholly different terms from the government's "hostage rescue." For the Branch Davidians, no one was a hostage. The only "rescue" they needed was from the government itself. In their view, the federal agents represented an evil government system, referred to in the book of Revelation as "Babylon." The idea of "surrendering to proper authority," as the government demanded throughout the next seven weeks, was absolutely out of the question for these believers unless or until they became convinced it was what God willed. As they saw it, their group had been wantonly attacked and slaughtered by government agents whom they understood to be in opposition to both God and his anointed prophet David Koresh. Their fate was now in God's hands.
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.
In the KRLD radio conversations that first evening, the station manager urged Koresh to surrender and get medical attention. Since ten children had already come out, he was repeatedly asked whether he would allow more children to leave. In response, Koresh launched into a detailed message, quoting Scriptures and explaining his view of the situation. Most likely, his message was largely incomprehensible to the station manager and to much of the radio audience. Koresh was a master at his own form of biblical exposition and exegesis. From the theological perspective of the Branch Davidians, his message was highly systematic, rigidly consistent, and internally "logical"; to those unfamiliar with the prophetic portions of the Bible, however, the message, delivered in his typical nonstop style with lengthy quotations from the King James Version, surely must have seemed nonsensical. Among the many points he made in those initial conversations on KRLD, one stands out as particularly vital. "We are now in the Fifth Seal," he told his live audience--a cryptic reference to the book of Revelation.
The FBI negotiators spoke mostly with Schneider and Koresh in extended telephone conversations on the private line they had connected. (14) The Department of Justice report indicates that the conversations with Koresh were often two- or three-hour monologues in which Koresh attempted to teach them his biblical interpretations. Although the tapes of these "negotiations" have not been made public, the liberal samples quoted in the Department of Justice report give a fair idea of the style and content of Koresh's communications with the authorities. The FBI notes that his delivery of "religious rhetoric was so strong that they could hardly interrupt him to discuss possible surrender."(15) The report constantly laments that Koresh "refused to discuss any matters of substance" and merely insisted on "preaching" to negotiators. (16) What the authorities apparently never perceived is that Koresh's preaching was to him and to his followers, the only matter of substance and that a "surrender" could only be worked out through dialogue within the biblical framework in which the Branch Davidians lived.
In reading through the Department of Justice log of events, one detects early on a developing sense of frustration in dealing with Koresh. On March 5, the FBI agent in charge, Jeff Jamar, had summarized Koresh's position quite succinctly: "His stance is still that he's been told to wait, and when he gets the message to stop waiting, then we'll proceed from there." Indeed, on that same day, Jamar himself stressed that federal authorities were prepared to wait "as long as necessary to get Mr. Koresh and his followers out of the complex without violence, regardless of the time or expense."(17) This was in keeping with President Clinton's understanding that the FBI's philosophy was to "negotiate until the situation was resolved."(18)
Nonetheless, just over a week later, on March 15, the FBI agents in charge began to initiate an abrupt change in policy. Termed a "modified negotiation strategy," this new approach called upon the negotiators to be firm and to insist on peaceful surrender, but to refuse to listen any longer to what they now called Koresh's "Bible babble." (19) This shift in policy effectively sealed off any possibility of sympathetic communication between Koresh and the government negotiators. It deprived Koresh of the only means of communication he valued, namely his own biblical interpretation of what was unfolding. And just five days later--over one month before the April 19 fire--they began to discuss the CS gas option privately. (20)
At about the same time, the FBI began its "stress escalation" and harassment techniques. As early as March 9, a series of pressure tactics was initiated. For example, the electricity to Mount Carmel were temporarily, and later permanently, cut off. These tactics were expanded and intensified over the next few weeks. The pattern was that the FBI would demand that Koresh send out some of his people, the demand would be rejected, and the government would then retaliate with punitive measures. Searchlights kept the property brightly lit through the night, irritating noises and loud music were blared over large speakers, and vehicles and personal property of the Davidians were crushed or removed by armored vehicles. The FBI saw the situation as stalemated. They had little hope that Koresh would allow more children out. Those who were inside apparently intended to stay. All the while Koresh insisted that he would not exit until he received his "word from God."
As we mention earlier, Koresh and his followers had been labeled a "cult" and thoroughly "demonized" in a series of articles called "The Sinful Messiah" printed in the Waco Tribune-Herald beginning on February 27, just one day before the BATF raid. This series, based largely on charges by disaffected former Branch Davidians, painted a grim and bizarre picture of Koresh and his followers, echoing all the stereotypes the public had come to associate with unfamiliar groups or new religious movements that are pejoratively labeled "cults." Hungry for any "information" about this heretofore unknown religious group, all the major print, radio, and television media had snapped up this material the day of the February 28 raid. The FBI apparently shared and certainly tried to perpetuate the public perception of Koresh, charging that he was a power-mad, sex-crazed "con man" who constantly made up and changed the rules as things unfolded. They maintained that his word was completely unreliable, pointing to his broken promise to exit Mount Carmel on March 2, following the broadcast over radio of a fifty-eight-minute message he had recorded. After his default on March 2, two days after the BATF raid, however, Koresh stuck irrevocably to his position: God had told him to wait. No matter how hard the authorities pressed Koresh or his followers, demanding that they surrender and come out, the reply was the same: the group would not come out until Koresh received his "word from God." The potential horror of the situation was that if the group perceived itself to be "in the fifth seal," might they not unwittingly, or even willfully, orchestrate their own deaths in order to fulfill this prophecy of martyrdom?
Koresh talked most, almost incessantly, throughout the fifty-one days about the Seven Seals of the book of Revelation. Inseparable from his view of these Seven Seals was his understanding of himself as the unique messianic figure, sent by God to reveal the hidden meaning of the entire biblical prophetic corpus. This was clearly Koresh's primary theme. He would constantly challenge anyone, particularly the ministers and preachers of Christianity, to "prove him wrong" on the Seven Seals or to match him in expounding their hidden meaning.
In its opening chapters the book of Revelation describes a scene in which a mysterious book or scroll sealed with seven wax seals is introduced. The question is then raised: "Who is worthy to open this sealed book?" Koresh understood the sealed book to be the entire Bible, particularly the prophetic writings. Accordingly, to open the book is not only to explain it but also to orchestrate the events it sets forth, leading to the climax of human history, the end of the world. According to the book of Revelation, only one person can open this book, a figure called "the Lamb," whom Christians have always understood to be Jesus of Nazareth. Koresh, however, had an elaborate set of arguments to demonstrate that a figure other than Jesus was intended here, a second Christ, or Messiah, whom Koresh claimed to be. This second Messiah he found prophesied in many passages in the Bible, but particularly in the Psalms and in Isaiah, where he is called "Koresh," the Hebrew name for Cyrus, the ancient king of Persia who conquered Babylon. David Koresh, born Vernon Howell, claimed to be this special figure, sent before God's final judgment upon the world to open the Seven Seals of the book of Revelation and thus reveal to the world the full mysteries of the entire Bible.
When Koresh spoke about being "in the fifth seal" the day of the BATF raid, he was referring to his particular understanding of a sequence of events to unfold before the end, which he also connected to a host of related texts throughout the Bible. What is operating here is a series of interpretive dynamics, well known to scholars of Jewish and Christian apocalypticism, which have played themselves out countless times in the past twenty-five hundred years. (21) Biblical apocalypticism involves the interplay of three basic elements: (1) the sacred Text, which is fixed and inviolate; (2) the inspired Interpreter, who is involved in both transmitting and effecting the meaning of the Text; and (3) the fluid Context in which the Interpreter finds himself or herself. The Text functions as a "map" of things to come, setting forth an "apocalyptic scenario" of End Time events. Koresh's Text was of course, the entire Bible, particularly the books of Daniel, Revelation, the Psalms, Isaiah 40-61, and the Minor Prophets, which he had woven into a complex prophetic sequence of events that had deeply impressed his followers and convinced them he was a prophet himself.
Although the Text itself is fixed and unchanging, setting forth in advance what "must happen," there are two variables in this scheme of things, allowing for a high degree of flexibility. First, the Interpreter is interpreting the Text and the Context, or outside events. And further, outside events are always changing. In our view this was an important key to effective negotiations during the entire fifty-one-day standoff at Mount Carmel. The government largely controlled the Context, or outside situation, and therefore unknowingly possessed the ability to influence Koresh in his interpretations and thus in his actions. Unfortunately, the standard negotiation strategies and tactical maneuvers associated with complex Hostage/Barricade rescue situations confirmed Koresh in his initial perception of the events of February 28--that they were "in the fifth seal" and that the entire situation might well end tragically. In other words, the FBI unwittingly played the perfect part of Babylon throughout, validating in detail Koresh's interpretations of Scripture.
The Fifth Seal of the book of Revelation is chilling in its potential implications for the situation at Waco: "And when he had opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held; and they cried out with a loud voice, saying, How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth? And white robes were given unto every one of them; and it was said unto them, that they should rest yet for a little season, until their fellow-servants also and their brethren, that should be killed as they were, should be fulfilled" (emphasis added). (Rev. 6:9-11) This Fifth Seal takes place shortly before the cosmic judgment of God, the great day of the Lord's wrath, which is to be revealed by a massive earthquake and various heavenly signs, introduced by the Sixth Seal (Rev. 6:12-17). In other words, it is the last major event leading to the end of human history. The text speaks of some of the faithful being slain, followed by a waiting period before the rest are killed. Koresh connected this with Psalm 2, which tells of a final confrontation between the "kings of the earth" and an anointed one, or "messiah." Based on this possible interpretation of events, the killing had begun on February 28. From the Branch Davidian point of view, those six who had been killed had died for no other reason than they were studying the Bible with David Koresh and thus were branded as part of a "cult"; they gave their lives "for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held," which is precisely what the book of Revelation prophesies. Accordingly, the group believed it was to wait for a "little season" until the rest would also be slain. The martyrdom of those remaining inside Mount Carmel would lead to the Sixth Seal, which would bring about the judgment of God on the world. As long as the Context outside continued to cause Koresh and his followers to believe that the fulfillment of this Fifth Seal was upon them, they viewed their impending death as inevitable.
It is obvious that Koresh himself was confused by the events that had transpired. His prophetic scenario did require fulfillment of this Fifth Seal, but Koresh had taught for years that it would happen in Jerusalem, in the land of Israel. Further, from their calculations of the End Time the group was expecting the final confrontation to come in 1995, not in 1993. Koresh had told his followers that, as the final Christ figure, he would inevitably be required, at some point, to die in a battle. The latter verses of Psalm 89, which Koresh mentioned on the day of the initial BATF raid, predict just such a fate for this Davidic figure. However, beginning in 1990, and particularly following the Gulf War in 1991, Koresh had speculated that at least a portion of these final events might take place in Texas rather than Israel. (22)
Koresh's uncertainty about whether or not the BATF raid presaged such a scenario offered the best hope for a peaceful resolution of the situation. In the February 28 KRLD radio conversation, the station manager asked Koresh how he felt about the BATF agents that had been killed and wounded. He answered emphatically, "My friend, it was unnecessary." He went on to say that the whole thing was regrettable, that innocent lives had been lost, and that he would have submitted to any governmental investigation of the weapons he had purchased. Indeed, nearly a year earlier, in July 1992, when BATF agents had questioned the Waco gun dealer Henry McMahon in their initial investigation of the Branch Davidians, Koresh had actually invited them to Mount Carmel to talk and later faxed copies of his arms purchase receipts to McMahon to assist him in responding to the BATF inquiry. (23) In the KRLD conversation Koresh described his cordial relationship with the local McLennan County sheriff Jack Harwell and other law enforcement officers, including the undercover BATF agent Robert Rodriguez, who had tried to infiltrate the group earlier that year. The 911 tapes, made on the same day, within minutes of the BATF raid, also reveal a panicked group inside Mount Carmel who desperately wanted the authorities to back off. On March 7 the group recorded a one-hour video of Koresh with his wives and children. In this video Koresh addresses the federal authorities in a most accommodating manner, stating his desire to resolve the situation peacefully, while still sharply blaming them for initiating the entire encounter. At the end of the tape he says, "Hopefully God will grant us more time."
These actions indicate that Koresh did not see the February 28 confrontation as an inevitable fulfillment of the final prophetic scenario that he had proclaimed to his followers in such detail. Some events did not match; the outcome was open ended and still to be determined. Yet he had been wounded, people had been killed, and he was now confronted by official agents of the United States government, whom Adventists had historically identified as the leader of the Babylonian system that Christ defeats in the book of Revelation (17-18). It is clear from conversations with surviving Branch Davidians who were inside Mount Carmel that the group feared that the overwhelmingly superior government forces might force their way in and kill them all at any moment. Koresh was convinced that the attack on February 28 was related to the final sequence of events foretold in the Bible, but, given these ambiguities, he was uncertain of what he was to do. Although the apocalyptic Text was fixed, like a script written in advance, the Interpretation and the precise Context were variable. Koresh was waiting because he believed that God had told him to do so and because he understood a waiting period to be required by the "fifth seal." In the meantime he was seeking his "word from God," which would clarify the ambiguities and uncertainties inherent in the changing outside situation.
On Friday, March 19, a significant event occurred that the group interpreted as the sign for which they had been waiting. The Branch Davidians were able to listen to local radio stations on transistor radios despite their electricity being cut off. Paul Harvey had mentioned a "guitar-shaped nebula" on his national radio news report. Koresh was extremely excited about this report, thinking that it might well be one of the "signs" from God that he was looking for. He discussed it with the FBI negotiators and later claimed that it was "his sign" sent by God to draw the world's attention to what was happening. (24) According to the Gospels, Jesus had predicted that shortly before the end such heavenly signs would appear. (25) The Davidians were particularly impressed that this comet had been described as having a guitarlike shape, since Koresh had always understood his role as a guitar player in his rock band to be an integral part of his prophetic mission. The surviving Davidian David Thibodeau, who was the drummer in the band, reports that Koresh and all the Davidians were deeply moved by what they understood to be the clear correspondence between this rare heavenly sign and their situation. (26) Obviously, Koresh and his followers were anxious to see some indication from God, some supernatural manifestation, that would confirm them in the course they had taken. This also comes out in the series of letters Koresh sent out during the final week of the siege. In his last letter he actually predicts an earthquake to occur in the Waco area. These elements of his thinking indicate that the situation was much more flexible than one might have supposed and that Koresh's insistence upon waiting for a word fro m God suggested fluidity and open options rather than intransigence.
Phillip Arnold and James Tabor offered their services to the FBI on March 7. (27) As biblical scholars they specialized in the history of biblical apocalyptic interpretation and were generally familiar with Adventist groups although neither had ever heard of David Koresh and the Branch Davidians before February 28. They studied carefully the fifty-eight-minute tape that Koresh had released on March 2 and began many hours of theological conversation over the telephone with Livingstone Fagan. Fagan had been sent out of Mount Carmel by Koresh on March 23 to act as a theological spokesperson for the Davidians; he was now being held in jail in Waco on charges stemming from the February 28 BATF raid. He holds a graduate degree in theology and is an articulate defender of Koresh's teachings. Tabor and Arnold began to grasp the details of Koresh's teachings. Their intentions in approaching the FBI were twofold: First, they offered to help the negotiators to interpret the complexities of books like Daniel and Revelation, as understood by the Branch Davidians. But even more important, they wanted to communicate with Koresh directly, offering him sympathetic and informed response to his apocalyptic interpretations. Their goal was to build upon the ambiguity that they knew he already felt about his situation. Fagan had stressed to them that from the Davidian viewpoint the outcome of the crisis was completely opened-ended and undetermined. According to Fagan, what would transpire depended on how the government authorities responded to Koresh's efforts to communicate his biblical faith. Fagan saw the Mount Carmel siege as a kind of spiritual trial, or test, for our culture, to determine whether or not we would li sten to God's final messenger. Tabor and Arnold hoped to build on this point with Koresh, emphasizing that given his interpretation of the Bible, right or wrong, one might not necessarily understand the standoff at Waco as a fulfillment of the penultimate End Time scenario. It was clear that Koresh desperately wanted the FBI to recognize his skill and wisdom in the Scriptures. His preaching to the negotiators was a monologue, because none of them was equipped to discuss the many texts that Koresh brought up and no substantive dialogue ensued. (28)
In early March, Arnold had done short interviews over Dallas radio stations KRLD and KGBS, discussing the book of Revelation and its relevance to how the Branch Davidians understood the situation at Mount Carmel. These broadcasts had attracted the attention of Koresh and Schneider who were able to listen on their battery-powered transistor radios. On March 16, they made a formal request that they be allowed to discuss the Bible with Arnold. The FBI denied their request but allowed tapes of the radio interviews with Arnold to be sent into Mount Carmel. (29) Encouraged by this positive response, Arnold and Tabor began to formulate a more carefully worked-out plan to communicate with Koresh. Ron Engleman, host of a daily talk show over station KGBS, had shown sympathy toward the Branch Davidians from the day of the initial BATF raid. His program was faithfully followed by those inside Mount Carmel. (30) On April 1, Arnold and Tabor spoke on Engleman's show and discussed in some detail the prophetic technicalities of the Waco situation as it might be viewed by the Branch Davidians. Although this program took the form of a dialogue between Arnold and Tabor, it was deliberately pitched for the ears of Koresh and his followers and was designed to show that someone outside was listening and capable of discussing the book of Revelation on a level the Davidians could appreciate. David Thibodeau, who was inside, remembers that this program created a very favorable response. (3;s1 Around this time Arnold had also spent many hours with Dick DeGuerin, Koresh's attorney, who was meeting daily with Koresh inside Mount Carmel. DeGuerin reported that Koresh wanted most to discuss the Bible, and Arnold tried to lay ou t for him the religious framework of his client. On April 4, just before Passover, the FBI allowed a tape of this radio discussion to be taken into Mount Carmel by Dick DeGuerin and given directly to Koresh. This was the last face-to-face contact anyone from the outside had with those who died inside Mount Carmel. (32)
On April 14, following the eight-day Passover celebration of the Davidians,(33) and just four days before the FBI gas attack and resulting fire, Koresh received his long-awaited "word from God." According to survivors of the fire, he had spent the prior Passover week in deep prayer and meditation, seeking an answer to his question as to what God expected him to do. On that day, a Wednesday, Koresh released a letter addressed to his lawyer, Dick DeGuerin, which would be his final communication to the outside world. In it he joyfully announces that the group will come out as soon as he finishes writing his basic message on the Seven Seals and sees that it is delivered to Arnold and Tabor. In part the letter reads:
I am presently being permitted to document, in structured form, the decoded messages of the Seven Seals. Upon completion of this task, I will be free of my "waiting period." I hope to finish this as soon as possible and to stand before man to answer any and all questions regarding my actions.
This written Revelation of the Seven Seals will not be sold, but is to be available to all who wish to know the Truth. The Four Angels of Revelation are here, now ready to punish foolish mankind; but, the writing of these Seals will cause the winds of God's wrath to be held back a little longer.
I have been praying so long for this opportunity; to put the Seals in written form. Speaking the Truth seems to have very little effect on man.
I was shown that as soon as I am given over into the hands of man, I will be made a spectacle of, and people will not be concerned about the truth of God, but just the bizarrity of me in the flesh.
I want the people of this generation to be saved. I am working night and day to complete my final work of the writing out of these Seals.
I thank my Father, He has finally granted me the chance to do this. It will bring New Light and hope for many and they will not have to deal with me the person.
I will demand the first manuscript of the Seals be given to you [Dick DeGuerin]. Many scholars and religious leaders will wish to have copies for examination. I will keep a copy with me. As soon as I can see that people like Jim Tabor and Phil Arnold have a copy I will come out and then you can do your thing with this beast. (34) (Emphasis added.)
This letter is invaluable as a reflection of Koresh's personal piety and his apocalyptic way of thinking. He speaks of receiving permission to write out his message of the Seven Seals. In his understanding of things, this point is of supreme significance. Indeed, as he now saw it, the time had arrived, at long last, for the mysteries of the book of Revelation, which had been revealed to him in 1985, to be given to the world. In Revelation 10, an angelic figure is told to "seal up" and not write the mysteries of seven "thunders," which are equivalent to the events of the Seven Seals. Yet this figure has in his hand a "little book," and he is given all the "mystery of God as declared to the prophets." This messenger, whom Koresh claimed to be, is subsequently told, "You must prophesy again before many people, nations, and tongues, and kings" (emphasis added). Arnold and Tabor had discussed this passage in detail in their April 1 tape. They knew that he claimed to be this very figure in Revelation 10. They pointed out to him that, although his name was now a household word and he had been on the cover of Time and Newsweek and he was mentioned hourly in CNN news reports, all the public knew about him were the charges of child abuse, sexual molestation of minors, and a myriad of other bizarre practices widely reported by the media. The figure in Revelation 10 has a "little book," which apparently contains the sealed message; yet at some point this messenger is told to go to the world at large with the message. Arnold and Tabor had stressed that no one outside Mount Carmel understood his central claim--the meaning of the Seven Seals. His letter clearly responds to the major points they had raised in that tape. He now wanted to separate what he calls the "bizarrity [sic] of me in the flesh" from his message of the Seven Seals, and he was ready to "stand before man to answer any and all questions" regarding his behavior.
The FBI apparently failed to recognize that according to this letter, Koresh had finally received his word from God. He clearly says that his "waiting period" will be over once he completes this manuscript on the Seven Seals. The FBI immediately responded to this latest breakthrough with ridicule. They joked about Koresh, the high-school dropout, writing a book and labeled Koresh's "word from God" nothing more than another "delay tactic" to prolong the agony of the siege for his own purposes. The daily chronology log in the Department of Justice report does not even mention this letter of April 14; it merely notes that "David had established a new precondition for his coming out."(35) The Arnold-Tabor audiotape is never mentioned either. From the Department of Justice report, it appears that nothing was working, that all negotiations had failed, and that the government had one alternative--the CS gas attack. In fact, the only strategy that seemed promising was that of a dispassionate, reasoned dialogue based on the prophecies of the Bible, coupled with the legal arrangements for surrender worked out by the attorneys DeGuerin and Zimmerman.(36) Unfortunately, by that time the government authorities on the ground in Waco were exasperated and had already decided to move with force. Although some in the FBI's inner circles of advisers argued for continued negotiation and more time, on the whole the government did not trust Koresh and considered him insincere and manipulative.(37) Koresh had promised to come out on March 2 when the authorities agreed to have his fifty-eight-minute "message" played over radio but had gone back on his word. Subsequent indications that he would soon exit proved unfounded. T his latest letter was seen as another ploy. The FBI asked Murray Miron of Syracuse University to examine this and four other letters sent out the previous week. Miron concluded that the letters bore "all the hallmarks of rampant, morbidly virulent paranoia."(38) In fact, the other four letters consisted mostly of scriptural quotations related to Koresh's understanding of the situation. If Miron had had any training in Scripture, or in the long history of apocalyptic interpretation, he would have recognized that those texts were a kind of code mapping out the perspectives of the group in biblical language. Miron so seriously misunderstood this vital April 14 letter that he apparently thought the mention of the names Tabor and Arnold had to do with book rights, as if they were literary agents and Koresh were interested in cutting a deal with them, despite the fact that Koresh insists that his manuscript is not to be sold. The FBI summary of Miron's findings on this "fifth letter" echoes this serious failure to comprehend the situation: "With regard to the fifth letter, Dr. Miron noted that the letter appeared to be a ploy designed to buy more time for Koresh. Dr. Miron noted that Koresh's discussion in the letter of mundane issues such as book rights, and his ability to contact his lawyer after he `comes out,' were future oriented and therefore inconsistent with typical suicide precursors such as self-blame, guilt, or despair. After analyzing all five letters, Dr. Miron concluded on April 15, 1993 that he did not believe `there is in these writings any better, or at least certain, hope for an early end to the standoff.'"(39) This influential analysis was submitted just three days before the fire. The official opinion was now fixed: Koresh was a determined, hardened, manipulative, and paranoid adversary who had no intention of delivering himself. This appears to have been a serious misreading of the Mount Carmel situation. It is doubtful that Miron had the competence to judge or evaluate this type of biblically based material.(40) From Koresh's worldview, the April 14 letter is "rational" and consistent, reflecting the Branch Davidians' unfluctuating understanding of the situation. For seven weeks Koresh had said, consistently and incessantly, he would not come out until he received his word from God. Then he wrote that he had received that word and that he was coming out. All the legal issues related to a surrender had been worked out by DeGuerin and Zimmerman prior to Passover, which began on April 5. Koresh repeatedly told them that he was coming out, but that he had first to resolve what course he should take from his own religious perspective and faith.
What is doubly tragic is that Attorney General Reno was apparently never told about this April 14 breakthrough, nor shown this crucial letter. The Department of Justice report reveals that meetings were held in Washington throughout the week prior to the Monday, April 19, CS gas assault on Mount Carmel.(41) The FBI was pressing for permission to go in with force. Reno was very hesitant and kept asking whether there was any other way. She repeatedly asked, "What are the arguments for waiting?" A crucial meeting was held with the attorney general on April 14, the very day Koresh released this letter, to discuss the effects of CS gas on children.(42) Toward the end of that week, as deliberations in Washington continued, Reno decided to go ahead with the FBI plan but then reversed herself on April 16, requesting more information. The FBI not only supplied her with the religiously uninformed analysis of Miron but also, on April 17, they presented her with a memorandum from Park Dietz of the UCLA School of Medicine, which also concluded that Koresh was a con man, that further negotiations were hopeless, that he was not coming out, and that he was likely involved in the continued sexual abuse of the children inside. Reno was finally persuaded and gave permission for the CS gas operation. From her account to the media the day of the fire, clearly this unsubstantiated charge of child abuse, more than any other factor, pushed her over the edge. Later that week the Department of Justice issued a "clarification" stating that in fact they had no evidence of child abuse during the fifty-one-day siege. Indeed, Texas Children's Protective Services had thoroughly investigated the child abuse charges in 1992 and dism issed them for lack of evidence.(43) Apparently, Reno was not apprised of this information. There is also no indication anywhere in the Department of Justice report that the attorney general was ever shown the videotapes the Branch Davidians had made and sent out during the siege, which included interviews with many of the adults and their interactions with the children. If she had viewed these tapes, her perceptions of the Davidians might have been humanized, and she would have seen Koresh's relaxed and normal interaction with his children. Even in the official Department of Justice report, the FBI maintains that "historical evidence suggested that Koresh had engaged in child physical and sexual abuse over a long period of time prior to the [B]ATF shootout on February 28."(44) The evidence was technically hearsay coming from disaffected former Davidians and, whether true or not, was passed on as undoubted fact.
On April 19, the day of the fire, Jeff Jamar, the FBI agent in charge at Waco, emphatically stated on CNN's Larry King Live and ABC's Nightline that the FBI had incontrovertible evidence, based on classified government surveillance techniques, that Koresh had not begun his manuscript on the Seven Seals and had no plans to do so.(45) When he was specifically questioned about the April 14 letter and Koresh's promise to surrender, he insisted that, based on this undisclosed evidence, Koresh's latest claim was merely a further attempt to delay surrender and manipulate the authorities. The Department of Justice report makes it clear that the FBI had already decided weeks before that they were going ahead with the CS gas attack and that they were not to be deterred. Their only obstacle was convincing Attorney General Reno. By a highly selective presentation of the evidence, and through a reliance upon the one-sided opinions of their two outside "experts," the FBI prevailed. When Dick DeGuerin told Jeff Jamar about the April 14 letter, Jamar was apparently concerned about not tipping him off regarding the upcoming plan to go in with force. He told him, "We've got all the time it takes"; yet he was aware that on that very day meetings were being held in Washington to plan the Monday assault.(46)
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 scenari o 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.
Who or what caused the fire on April 19 remains a matter of controversy. The government claims that the evidence shows the fire was deliberately set on orders from Koresh.(49) The survivors vehemently deny this. First, they insist that, according to their beliefs, suicide is a serious sin. Further, they maintain that most of the women and children who died were trapped by the fire in the concrete storage vault and could not escape.(50) They report that before noon that day Koresh himself had led them there for their safety to escape the gas, urging the women to protect with wet blankets the children who were too young to wear gas masks. These Davidians maintain that it is inconceivable that Koresh would allow his followers--not to mention his own wives and children, whom he deeply loved and treasured--to die in this way. Whatever the truth, the actions by the government on April 19 were inexcusable, particularly given the positive turn in the situation the week before. The entire fiasco was unnecessary. What is doubly tragic, as this book will demonstrate, is that the government, including the president and the attorney general, the media, and the general public have not begun to comprehend what went wrong at Waco in the spring of 1993 and its implications for religious freedom in our society.
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