It was probably inevitable that the tragic bombing of a federal
building in Oklahoma City would get linked to the disastrous fire
at the Branch Davidian compound. The events, as most everyone
knows by now, occurred exactly two years apart and the principal
suspect in the Oklahoma bombing not only visited Waco but is known
to have been greatly angered by what he saw there.
The link was reinforced when, a short time after the bombing,
President Clinton was asked a question on "60 minutes"
that sought to imply the events of Waco contributed to or even
justified what happened in Oklahoma. His reply was short and
direct as he challenged the temerity of anyone who would suggest
that Waco brought on the tragic bombing. That such a question
could even be asked shows how deeply ingrained some of the Waco
myths have become.
As the former director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms
(ATF), I have personally answered my share of similarly posed
questions. And I continue to be surprised - even after five sets
of congressional hearings and extensive government reviews - at
how much misinformation still persists about the event surrounding
Waco. It's probably evidence that what people hear first is what
they remember longest, even when subsequent reviews may show the
original reports to have been in error.
I am not so naïve to think that people will blindly accept
my accounting of the events surrounding Waco, only hopeful that
reasonable people will realize there are at least two sides to
every story. Here's mine.
First, let me say that, despite what fundraisers at the National
Rifle Association would have us believe, the ATF is not part of
some sinister federal plot to confiscate guns from innocent people.
In fact, it is a matter of public record that the ATF did not
go looking for the Davidians. In the first place. A local deputy
sheriff received a report from a United Parcel Services driver
who said that a package had broken apart on delivery, revealing
inert grenade casings inside. The driver also reported earlier
suspicious deliveries of firearms parts, casings and black powder.
In May 1992, the deputy asked the ATF for assistance, thus triggering
the extensive investigation that led the issuance of search and
arrest warrants by a federal magistrate-judge in February 1993.
So conspiracy theorists had best include the local sheriff's
office and UPS as part of the collusion.
On the day before the warrants were served by ATF officials, the
Waco Tribune-Herald began a series of articles on the Davidians,
detailing the potential danger the group represented to the community
as well as, somewhat ironically, the failure of local law enforcement
agencies in addressing the threat. (The conspiracy now would
have to include the local newspaper publisher!)
There are those who argue that the Davidians were a peaceful,
law-abiding people who at worst may have merely been violating
federal firearms laws in building their arsenal of automatic weapons
and explosives. But those who would so easily counsel the government
to ignore firearms violations should consider the potential consequences
of such a policy. They should recall that Davidian leader David
Koresh had told a social services worker from the Texas Department
Human Services that the work was coming to an end and that the
riots in Los Angeles would pale in comparison to what was going
to happen in Waco.
While it was never clear precisely what Koresh had in mind, during
the later standoff he sent a letter out of the compound, according
to the Justice Department reports, indicating he may have been
planning some type of operation to blow up the dam at Lake Waco.
A former resident of the compound later told government officials,
again according to Justice, that Koresh wanted to force an armed
confrontation with ATF and repeatedly at one point considered
opening fire at a Waco fast-food restaurant just to do so.
To those who remain convinced that such information should have
been ignored, or who believe that ATF was too concerned about
the possibility of mass suicide if ATF conducted a lengthy siege
of the compound rather than attempt a surprise entry, I can only
say: Remember Jonestown. Or remember the members of the sect
in Canada and Switzerland who committed mass suicide earlier this
year. Or look at what happened in the subways in Japan, where
a group whose presence was known and considered potentially dangerous
by government officials allegedly uncorked a deadly nerve gas.
The day has long passed when we can afford to ignore the threat
posed by individuals who believe they are subject only to the
laws of their god and not those of our government.
Most disturbing to me is the persistent claim by many Koresh sympathizers
that the Davidians were only defending themselves when they shot
and killed four ATF agents and wounded numerous others on Feb.
28, 1993 - the morning of the raid. While there have been some
allegations that the agents were in fact killed inadvertently
when other ATF officers opened fire, the Treasury report found
this was not the case. Only one agent inside the compound may
have been wounded by friendly fire, but even this was never clearly
proven. Yet what possible excuse could there have been for the
Davidians even taking up arms - let along using them - upon learning
inadvertently from a TV cameraman that ATF agents were on their
way to serve warrants?
The law requires that when served a warrant, we comply with that
warrant and let the judicial systems determine our ultimate guilt
or innocence. Had the Davidians done so, there would have been
no subsequent loss of life on either side.
Instead, they armed themselves with automatic firearms, grenades
and semi-automatic .50 caliber rifle, opening fire when the agents
arrived. To those who insist that ATF fired first, the Treasury
report concluded it was the Davidians who had done so, and the
Texas Ranger interviews of the only impartial observers who were
there that morning - the media - all support the fact that it
was the Davidians who opened fire. In fact, several witnesses
reported agents being fired on even before they could exit the
As for those who insist ATF should have simply driven up to the
compound and politely asked to conduct a search without displaying
any firearms, I refer them again to the Treasury report, which
said it best by claiming such an approach would have been "foolhardy
and irresponsible." To which I could only add dangerous
and potentially suicidal.
Leave aside for the moment whether ATF commanders did in fact
determine the morning of the raid that Koresh had been tipped
off they were coming and tragically led the agents into an ambush,
as the Treasury report concluded. Assume for the sake of argument
that the raid commanders should have reached that conclusion and
canceled the raid. The fact is, the raid wasn't canceled. By
what perverted sense of logic or legality does it somehow follow,
as some have argued, that because the ATF made a mistake in not
aborting the raid, the Davidians were therefore entitled to offer
armed resistance and kill the agents as they arrived to serve
legal, court-ordered warrants?
In my view the Davidians reacted in a criminal and violent manner.
Unfortunately, there is a small but perhaps growing number of
groups that feel much the same way, thought they may not cloak
their beliefs in religion. By contending that they are not subject
to the laws that bind this country, we allow these groups to pose
a serious threat that far exceed their relative numbers.
With all that has transpired, what will another round of hearings
tell us? I've heard a number of commentators and even some members
of Congress suggest that another Waco hearing might help prevent
more tragedies like Oklahoma City. If that were true, I would
not hesitate to condone them.
Realistically, however, I find it hard to believe that the type
of people who would kill hundred of innocent people by bombing
a downtown building truly care about Waco other than to possibly
use it as an excuse for their behavior. What rational connection
can there be between the event on April 19, 1993, in Waco - where
an independent review concluded that the Davidians, including
many innocent men, women and children, died in a fire that was
set by other residents of the compound - and the bombing in Oklahoma
City where hundreds of innocent men, women and children were killed
or injured by criminals in a vicious and cowardly act? Less than
a day after the bombing, one individual told a television audience
that, while the bombing was regrettable, the bomb itself was a
"Rembrandt." Another person interviewed in Pennsylvania
two weeks after the Oklahoma bombing said his reaction to the
explosion was that it was a "damned good start."
Are these the kind of people who another hearing on Waco is intended
to influence? I can only hope that, out of the tragedy in Oklahoma
City there can in time come something positive. By seeing the
faces of the survivors and reading their stories, maybe those
who so vehemently rail against government authority in general,
and government workers in particular, will come to understand
better that those people they've been so quick to criticize have
real faces and real families. They car-pool to work. They coach
Little League sports. They mow their lawns. They're the family
next door that waters your plants and takes in your mail while
No one deserves to have their life placed in jeopardy simply because
they work in, or happen to be passing by, a government office.
And no one, not even law enforcement officers who get paid for
rising their lives, deserves to be targeted by violence extremists
threatening to kill them simply for doing their jobs.
As for people like Gordon Liddy who think words don't matter and
see nothing wrong with advising listeners to shoot ATF agents
in the head because they wear bulletproof vests, I doubt there's
much hope. Liddy dismisses such comments as mere words, nothing
to get stirred up over. ATF agents take little consolation in
Liddy's response that he meant his advice to apply only in self
defense, when his listeners probably include a number of potentially
violent individuals who think any time an ATF agent comes on their
property with a legal warrant they've somehow got a right to defend
themselves. As someone who has been an occasional recipient of
his invectives, I hope he's right, because I've got a lot more
to lose if he's wrong than he does.
If nothing else, however, I think it's worth remembering that
Waco was not the Alamo, and David Koresh was no Davey Crockett.
By his violent actions both on February 28 and April 19, 1993,
he showed that he placed no more value on human life than did
Charles Manson, the Son of Sam and those cowardly individuals
who placed the bomb in Oklahoma City. To make him into something
larger than that is to do a tremendous disservice to the young
agents who lost their lives.
We can't change the outcome of what happened at Waco, but we have
a responsibility not to ignore simple fairness and compassion
in our search for the truth. If there is to be another hearing
on Waco, let's hope it's for the purpose of examining the facts
and learning from the tragedy, not merely to please one more special
interest group with an anti-government agenda.