Why you should care
In 1993, a charismatic religious leader captured the attention of the world, as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms stormed his compound.
This is an OZY Special Briefing, an extension of the Presidential Daily Brief. The Special Briefing tells you what you need to know about an important issue, individual or story that is making news. This week, we’re taking a step back in time, looking to an event that polarized the nation in 1993: the 51-day siege in Waco, Texas. Get a foundation in how Waco continues to shapes politics today with a smart synthesis of the facts, opinions, images and videos that matter most, and tell us what you think by writing to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Who is David Koresh? David Koresh — born Vernon Wayne Howell in 1959 — was a high school dropout with a passion for religion, thanks to his family’s involvement in the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. After an unstable childhood in Houston, Koresh moved to Waco to join the Branch Davidian compound, an obscure offshoot of the Davidian Seventh-Day Adventists. Eventually, Koresh climbed the ranks to become a leader and godlike prophet to this isolated group. Some say he was a madman who abused underage “wives” and planned to bring about Armageddon. Others believe he was a gifted spiritual figure, against whom the federal government had a biased — and lethal — vendetta. The truth remains hotly contested, and it has reverberated throughout American culture for decades. Some even argue the political polarization of today’s United States can be traced to Koresh.
What did he do? Koresh led the Branch Davidians and lived with many of his followers at a compound near Waco, Texas, known as Mount Carmel. These Davidians believed other religious sects, like the Mormons, had lost focus on the imminent Second Coming. Koresh was considered the “Chosen One,” who would prepare his people for, and perhaps even bring about, the end of time.
What was it to the government? Fears over dangerous cult leaders — following cases like Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple mass suicides in the 1970s and the Manson Family murders of the 1960s — may have contributed to suspicion of Davidians, and Texas media ran several reports accusing Koresh of brainwashing and “marrying” girls as young as 12. In 1993, federal authorities received word Koresh was stockpiling an illegal cache of firearms at the Waco compound and chose to confront him. A shoot-out followed, killing both federal agents and Davidians, and leading to a 51-day standoff. The siege ended when the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) stormed the compound and a fire broke out, killing 86 people, among them Koresh and 25 children. The exact cause of the blaze, and the conduct of the FBI, is still disputed.
What the Davidians say: Surviving Davidian Sheila Martin — who lost four of her children in the fire — told CNN on the 18th anniversary of the tragedy: “David is the messiah, and he’s coming back.” Another survivor, David Thibodeau, said of the sect: “It was refreshing to see a group of people who wanted to live their lives according to Scripture. That was an honorable thing.”
What’s the cultural significance? The incident ignited criticism of what some felt was an overreaching liberal government under Bill Clinton, fueling the alt-right and giving rise to right-wing militias. Waco also kicked off debates about religious freedom, media sensationalism, gun control and government cover-ups.
WHO TO KNOW
Robert Rodriguez: Rodriguez was an undercover ATF agent who had infiltrated the Mount Carmel compound. When the Davidians got wind of the initial ATF raid intended to uncover an illegal weapons stash (a local news cameraman who had been tipped off about the raid unwittingly asked Koresh’s brother-in-law for directions), Rodriguez maintains he warned his superiors to abort the operation (they denied this). He later filed a lawsuit against the ATF for conspiring to scapegoat him and won an out-of-court settlement.
Gary Noesner: Though 21 children were successfully released during the siege, this FBI chief negotiator has claimed tensions within the agency’s negotiation team stopped them from securing the release of more Davidians. In the end, Noesner also spoke of a “controlling” Koresh and the difficulty of getting through to followers in the sect leader’s power. Nevertheless, he publicly blamed the “impatience” of authorities for the event’s fatal end.
Steve Schneider: Koresh’s top lieutenant handled FBI negotiations and helped Davidians who wanted to leave. On the one hand, Schneider told media he found spiritual truth in Koresh, and some suspect him of forcing followers to stay in the compound when it started to burn. But others claim he hated Koresh for taking his wife, Judy, as his own, and was won over by negotiators. Both Koresh and Schneider were found dead from bullet wounds — one theory is that Schneider killed Koresh and then turned the gun on himself.
Timothy McVeigh: Two years to the day after the fatal Waco fire, Timothy McVeigh bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma, killing 168 people. McVeigh had traveled to Waco to watch the 1993 standoff, and his legal defense centered on the bombing as revenge (McVeigh hoped to lead a revolt against what he considered an overly powerful federal government). Though right-wing paramilitary groups hailed McVeigh as a hero, Davidians didn’t support his actions. The bombing remains the deadliest domestic terrorist incident in U.S. history.
WHAT TO READ
Sacred and Profane, by Malcolm Gladwell at The New Yorker
“The lesson of … the battle of Mount Carmel … is that Americans aren’t very good at respecting the freedom of others to be so obnoxiously different.”
A Place Called Waco: A Survivor’s Story, by David Thibodeau, a siege survivor
”These torments are intended to sap our wills and compel us to surrender to an authority that refused to accept that we are a valid religious community with deeply held beliefs.”
Stalling for Time: My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator, by Gary Noesner
“I walked out in disgust. … It was the saddest and most painful day of my career.”
WHAT TO WATCH
Waco, Paramount Network
Telling the story of the siege from various perspectives on both sides, Paramount’s new six-part television event stars Oscar nominee Michael Shannon as chief negotiator Gary Noesner, while Taylor Kitsch (Friday Night Lights) plays the charismatic Davidian leader. As well as searching out the truth behind the tragedy, the television event examines how it has shaped America’s cultural landscape today.
Waco premieres on the Paramount Network on January 24. Watch the trailer below.