Branch Davidian impact felt after 20 years

While neighbors in nearby West, Texas, reeled from a deadly fertilizer plant explosion, scholars gathered in Waco to discuss the lasting impact of the siege and raid on the Branch Davidian compound 20 years ago.

By Ken Camp

Twenty years after a 51-day siege at the Mount Carmel compound near Waco, Texas, ended in the deaths of about 80 members of the Branch Davidian sect, the event continues to shape national debate on subjects ranging from religious liberty and individual rights to policies on terrorism, experts told a conference at Baylor University.

“There is a road that runs from Waco through 9/11,” said Philip Jenkins, author of Mystics and Messiahs: Cults and New Religions in American History.

Branch Davidians FlagJenkins, distinguished professor of history and co-director of the program on historical studies of religion at Baylor University, addressed a conference, “Reflecting on an American Tragedy,” held at Baylor’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary April 18.

That was one day before the 20th anniversary of the climax of the Branch Davidian siege and the 18th anniversary of the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. Baylor’s religion department and the Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion sponsored the event.

Explosions in Boston and nearby West, Texas, in the days before the conference provided explicit context and unspoken subtext for conference presentations. Baylor President Ken Starr in opening remarks expressed sorrow for “the tragedy that has befallen our neighbors in West” and for what he called “a 21st century Boston Massacre.”

“Things never happen on their own; they are contextualized,” Jenkins said. He said the tragedy at Mount Carmel, and the American response to it, must be understood in light of other events, including a deadly confrontation between federal authorities and survivalists in Ruby Ridge, Idaho, in 1992.

On Feb. 28, 1993 -- two days after Islamic terrorists detonated a truck bomb below the north tower of the World Trade Center in New York City -- agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms raided the Branch Davidian headquarters 9 miles east of Waco. A gun battle followed, resulting in the deaths of four ATF agents and six followers of David Koresh, the self-professed prophet of an offshoot Adventist sect.

In the weeks that followed the ATF raid, FBI negotiators convinced Koresh to release 19 children from the compound, and a few adults followed. After negotiations broke down, the FBI assaulted the compound on April 19, launching tear gas. During the attack, fire engulfed the building, and 76 people inside died.

In time, those deaths produced anti-government backlash, and the Branch Davidian tragedy became “a key organizing force of far-right movements,” Jenkins observed.

In public perception, Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh and Koresh became the face of terrorism in the early 1990s, he observed. Events at Mount Carmel “reshaped ideas about terrorism and brought it home,” he said. The resulting focus on homegrown terrorists, in turn, shifted focus away from the rising threat posed by Al-Qaeda, he added.

Conference speakers -- ranging from the retired chief of the FBI negotiating team to a pair of Branch Davidians, as well as several academic experts -- illustrated the changing narrative surrounding Mount Carmel.

Initially, reports on Koresh and the Branch Davidians focused on allegations of child molestation and fears of a heavily armed apocalyptic doomsday cult. After the fiery conclusion of the standoff at Mount Carmel, some elements of popular culture portrayed the Branch Davidians as deeply religious people who died for their faith, martyred by oppressive government forces.

Stuart Wright, professor of sociology at Lamar University and author of Armageddon in Waco, characterized events at Mount Carmel as “a historical marker that gave the far right an identity and a reason to be.”

From the time of the initial ATF raid through the final FBI assault, commanding federal authorities demonstrated “a preference for military and tactical solutions that undermined and sabotaged negotiations” that could have resulted in a peaceful resolution of the standoff, he insisted.

“The impact is substantial and far-reaching. It is viewed as a sign of government overreach that galvanized the (antigovernment) patriot movement,” he said. “Timothy McVeigh was there, and he watched the tanks roll in.”

Philip Arnold, executive director of the Reunion Institute in Houston and founder of the Religious Crisis Task Force, said events at Mount Carmel cannot be understood apart from awareness about the Branch Davidian belief in the literal fulfillment of biblical prophecy and Koresh’s perception of himself as a latter-day prophet.

Arnold said the siege lasted so long because Koresh believed he had received divine insight about the meaning of the seven seals in the New Testament book of Revelation that provided the key to understanding all the Bible, and that revelation needed to be recorded. “David Koresh believed he was writing something that would revolutionize Christianity,” he said.

Gary Noesner, retired chief of the FBI negotiating unit, said he believed Koresh “played games” with negotiators because he wrestled with ambivalent desire. “I think there was a part of him that wanted to come out and a part of him that wanted to stay,” he said.

Narratives used to describe the events at Mount Carmel as a story of a destructive cult, deluded psychopath or government conspiracy ultimately fall short, said Gordon Melton, distinguished professor of American religious history at Baylor.

“The folks at Mount Carmel were our neighbors, much like our neighbors today,” he said. “Their strangeness quotient is no higher than mine,” he said, noting the Branch Davidians’ fascination with End Times prophecy is different only in degree from the preaching in many churches.

Likewise, federal agents at Mount Carmel may have operated from bad information and made bad decisions, but they were not bad people, he insisted.

“Single stories do not work, given the complexities of events,” he said. “There are no heroes here and no villains -- just people caught up in events bigger than they were.”