Twenty years ago, on February 28th 1993, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) launched an assault on the Branch Davidian religious compound just outside Waco, Texas. The resulting siege ended more than seven weeks later, on April 19, but not before claiming the lives of 80 men, women and children -- many burned to death in the final inferno that destroyed the compound.
Even today, videos of the burning buildings remain vivid reminders of an assault gone horribly wrong, from start to finish; and, lessons from what has become known as the “Waco Tragedy” should be borne in mind by all Americans lest a similar tragedy occur in the future.
Although I was not yet a formal candidate for the United States House of Representatives in February 1993, two years later in early 1995, I was a member of the House Judiciary subcommittee that led a series of lengthy hearings into the Waco tragedy. In the immediate aftermath of the 1993 Waco siege, then-President Bill Clinton, through Attorney General Janet Reno, accepted “responsibility” for the results of the raid on the Branch Davidian compound. Unfortunately, the difficulty we in the Congress encountered in obtaining answers from Administration witnesses to our many questions regarding its execution of the operation showed the true hollowness of this acceptance of “responsibility.”
Evidence clearly established that Branch Davidian leader David Koresh (who died in the final conflagration) was a charismatic figure who took advantage of the many devoted followers at the Waco compound for his personal gratification. However, of primary concern to many of us in the Congress was the justification for, and actual conduct of, the government’s assault and lengthy siege of the religious compound.
The government claimed it possessed pre-raid evidence that Koresh and his followers were stockpiling illegal, automatic firearms, and was manufacturing illicit drugs within the compound’s several buildings. Ultimately, no evidence was ever revealed establishing that any automatic firearms were located, or being produced, at the Waco compound although this provided the legal basis for the ATF investigation and initial raid.
Similarly, despite government assertions that Koresh and his followers were manufacturing illicit drugs within the compound, no evidence was ever found to support such allegations. As was revealed during the 1995 congressional hearings, assertions that the Branch Davidians were engaged in the manufacture of methamphetamine and possibly other controlled substances provided justification for the FBI to request and obtain assistance from the U.S. military; assistance that would have been prohibited under the Posse Comitatus law without such evidence.
The manner in which the government used the flimsiest of evidence to justify, and then broaden, the assault on the Davidian compound, and the overall manner in which a massive assault was carried out against a religious group -- albeit not a mainstream one -- led many Americans to lose faith in, or at least question, their confidence in federal government power. This always should be of concern to citizens and government officials alike. Actions tending to undermine that relationship should be addressed openly and vigorously by both groups, but especially by the government, which depends on the confidence of the People for its proper functioning, and ultimately for the success of its programs.
The lack of concern for the human cost of the Waco Siege reflected in the refusal by the Clinton Administration ultimately to account for the conduct of the operation, however, is perhaps the darkest and most tragic aftermath of the siege. The government used armored tank-like vehicles to break down walls of the building in which dozens of men, women, children and infants were known to be huddling, then injected massive quantities of tear gas (known to be highly flammable) into that structure. Witnessing the not-unexpected resulting deadly fire seared in the minds of many good, law-abiding Americans the true human cost of unfettered and unaccountable government power.
On this 20th anniversary of the Waco Siege, and in memory of all who died in the tragedy, including four ATF agents, we all should pause and pray that never again might we witness power run so tragically amuck.
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