Militia groups remain upset over Waco standoff

Associated Press/April 17, 2003

Waco, Texas -- Militia groups and others who don't trust the government use one word when making their case: Waco.

They still get angry over the deaths of nearly 80 people a decade ago in an inferno at a religious compound near Waco, ending the group's 51-day standoff with federal agents.

"April 19 continues to haunt a lot of people," said Dan Powell, leader of the Northeast Texas Regional Militia of Texarkana. "What happened in Waco was a domestic act of terrorism that has never been prosecuted."

His group raised nearly $1,000 to buy a large granite monument for the site. The plaque lists the names of 82 people who died, including six killed in the initial raid in February 1993 and two unborn children whose mothers died in the fire.

Anti-government crusaders were already upset over the 11-day standoff at the Ruby Ridge, Idaho, cabin of white separatist Randy Weaver in 1992. His son and a federal agent were killed in a shootout. The next day, an FBI agent killed Weaver's wife while she held her 10-month-old baby.

When federal agents stormed the Branch Davidian compound Feb. 28, 1993, trying to arrest leader David Koresh for stockpiling illegal weapons and explosives, militia groups were even more outraged. They sympathized with the group, contending the government was infringing upon the Davidians' rights to own guns and worship as they pleased.

"Why would you send 50 to 60 agents in there on a misdemeanor warrant?" Powell said.

In 1999, the FBI for the first time admitted that agents fired two potentially incendiary canisters away from the Davidian compound on the final day four hours before the blaze started.

A subsequent investigation - citing 2.3 million pages of documents and 1,000 witness interviews - said the fire was not started by those devices or by tear gas sprayed into the compound from military vehicles.

Powell's group and others don't believe the extensive probe revealing that the Davidians committed suicide by shooting each other - including some of the two dozen youngsters inside - and setting the blaze.

Militia groups say the FBI's concealing the use of incendiary devices make all of the report suspect.

"Lives were lost in America at the hands of federal agents who ... got away with murder," Powell said.

A right-wing extremist named Timothy McVeigh was so upset about the 1993 tragedy that two years later, he detonated a truck bomb outside the Oklahoma City federal building, killing 168 people.

Outside the Davidian compound during the standoff, McVeigh sold anti-government bumper stickers with slogans such as "A Man Without a Gun is Not a Citizen" and "Is Your Church ATF-approved?"

Powell's group and others have always denounced the bombing and emphasized that McVeigh, executed in 2001, was not a member of a militia.

"All militias are not terrorists or extremists. We are patriots," Powell said. "McVeigh was a murderer and a monster, and he got what he deserved."

April 19 was already an important date for anti-government groups.

That day in 1775 marked the beginning of the Revolutionary War - as well as the militia movement - after a clash between colonial minutemen and British troops at Lexington, Va., and became known as the "Shot Heard Round the World."

In April 1985, FBI agents surrounded a remote Arkansas religious community known as the Covenant, the Sword and the Arm of the Lord that embraced a theology of racism. Agents arrested its leader after four days of negotiations.

"That date is forever etched in their memory, even in the absence of Waco," said Brent L. Smith, the author of "Terrorism in America: Pipe Bombs and Pipe Dreams" and a University of Alabama professor.

But the Texas incident stirred up militia groups, who already opposed the Clinton administration's support of gun ownership restrictions, abortion, gay rights and other liberal issues, Smith said.

"The extreme right felt they were being attacked on two fronts: freedom of religion and the right to keep and bear arms," Smith said. "For the isolationists, they want to get away from the evils of urban society. ... They saw in Clinton a morality that exuded that ... much more so than any other Democratic president."

After the Oklahoma City bombing, some predicted a wave of violence from militias. Law enforcement agencies began to track such groups.

Powell said some of his members were followed, received harassing notes and even fired from their jobs. The Northeast Texas Regional Militia of Texarkana has since split into smaller groups who try not to draw attention to themselves.

Even extreme groups have simmered down since President Bush, a Republican, was elected in 2000. And their patriotic nature has emerged even more since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and war with Iraq.

"People who were the most offended by Waco were primarily members of the extreme right, and they mute their criticism of the federal government at a time like this when we're being targeted by the outside," Smith said.

Powell said he does not foresee another attack like the Oklahoma City bombing, even from extremists.

"The vast majority now have unlocked and unloaded and put away their guns," Powell said.

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