Twenty-five years ago today, FBI tanks smashed into the ramshackle home of the Branch Davidians outside Waco, Texas. After the FBI collapsed much of the building atop the residents, a fire erupted and 76 corpses were dug out of the rubble. Unfortunately, the American political system and media have never faced the lessons from that tragic 1993 day.
Fifty-one days before the FBI final assault, scores of federal Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms agents launched an attack on the Davidians’ home spurred by allegations that they had converted semi-automatic rifles to full-automatic capacity. The ATF’s lead investigator had previously rejected an offer to peacefully search the Davidians’ home for firearms violations. Four ATF agents and six Davidians were killed in the fracas on February 28, 1993. At least one ATF agent told superiors that the ATF fired first, spurring an immediate end to the official shooting review. But the media trumpeted the ATF storyline that its agents had been ambushed, entitling the feds to be far more aggressive in the following weeks.
What lessons can today’s Americans draw from the FBI showdown on the Texas plains a quarter century ago?
Purported good intentions absolve real deadly force.
Janet Reno, the nation’s first female attorney general, approved the FBI’s assault on the Davidians. Previously, she had zealously prosecuted child abuse cases in Dade County, Fla, though many of her high-profile convictions were later overturned because of gross violations of due process. Reno approved the FBI assault after being told “babies were being beaten.” It is not known who told her about the false claims of child abuse. Reno’s sterling reputation helped the government avoid any apparent culpability for the deaths of 27 children on April 19, 1993. After Reno publicly promised to take responsibility for the outcome at Waco, the subsequent Justice Department investigation was so shoddy that even the New York Times denounced the “Waco whitewash.”
It is not an atrocity if the U.S. government does it.
Shortly before the Waco showdown, U.S. government officials signed an international Chemical Weapons Convention treaty pledging never to use nerve agents, mustard gas, and other compounds, including tear gas against enemy soldiers. But the treaty contained a loophole permitting governments to gas their own people. On April 19, 1993, the FBI pumped CS gas and methyl chloride, a potentially lethal, flammable combination, into the Davidians’ residence for six hours, disregarding explicit warnings that CS gas should not be used indoors.
Rep. Steven Schiff (R-N.M.) declared that “the deaths of dozens of men, women and children can be directly and indirectly attributable to the use of this gas in the way it was injected by the FBI.” Chemistry professor George Uhlig testified to Congress in 1995 that the FBI gas attack probably “suffocated the children early on” and may have converted their poorly ventilated bunker into an area “similar to one of the gas chambers used by the Nazis at Auschwitz.”