The Waco Siege: A Forgotten Tragedy

Everyone knows about Watergate. Everyone knows about the September 11th attacks on the world trade center, and everyone knows about the Boston Marathon bombing. So why is it that when I ask people about the siege on the Branch Davidians in Waco Texas, I get blank stares? The answer is tragic and simple: History is written by the victors. What happened in Waco in 1993 should infuriate anyone who calls themself an American, and here’s why:

The Branch Davidians were a religious group founded in 1955. Living in a compound in Waco, Texas, They had a strong belief in the imminence of the apocalypse. In the late 1980s, Vernon Howell, later known as David Koresh, became an influential member and leader of the group, as well as legal owner of the property. Koresh soon became popular in the media as “The Sinful Messiah” as he believed in polygamy and was allegedly pursuing brides as young as 12 and 13 years old. Let me be clear, David Koresh was not a good man—but this isn’t about David Koresh. 

In 1992, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) became aware of a suspected firearms infraction by the Branch Davidians. They later obtained a search warrant and attempted to search the property on the 28th of February, 1993. As the ATF surrounded the building, shots were fired. To this day, no one knows who shot first. 

Due to the death of federal agents in the shoot-out, the FBI took command of the siege. The Siege lasted a long 51 days. The FBI attempted to convince the followers to come out but their aggressive tactics only reinforced the zeal of the Branch Davidians, who believed their apocalypse had finally come. 

As public attention grew, the FBI became more aggressive. Using sleep deprivation tactics, they blared painfully loud recordings of music, screams, and chanting all throughout the night. Although many scholars who studied apocalypticism urged the FBI to cease these tactics, as it only fortified their resolve, the FBI paid them no mind and carried on with their siege. 

On the 19th of April, the FBI used tanks to tear large holes into the compound and pump CS tear gas in. Bear in mind, the United States had recently signed the chemical weapons convention banning the use of CS tear gas during warfare in January of 1993. A short three months later, they were pumping it into a compound full of American citizens. 

It is important to remember, as the Davidians waved white flags out of the holes in the compound, that this all began because of a suspected nonviolent firearm infraction. 

Tear gas rounds were thrown in as well, and another tank breached the wall of a concrete vault where the FBI believed a number of Davidians were taking cover from the gas. As the tank breached the concrete room, the rear wall collapsed, and a fire started. 

While there were a few survivors able to make it out, a total of 76 people died in the compound. 25 of the victims were children. 

Many believe the structural damage caused by the tanks in the compound trapped a majority of the Davidians in the vault. Although there is some debate as to how the fire started, CS tear gas canisters have been known to ignite into flames, such as the Kitsap stand-off in 2002, and the Boynton Beach pharmacy fire. 

The government, quick to save their image, decided the Davidians started the fires themselves in order to end their own lives. Although evidence strongly contradicts this as according to Gary Noesner, Chief hostage negotiator for the siege on waco, Koresh assured negotiators many times that there were no plans for a mass suicide. Beyond this, the idea that the fire was started as an act of mass suicide is firmly denied by the Davidians who escaped the compound that day. Furthermore, why wave the white flag of surrender if they were just going to end their own lives?

If there’s one take-away from the siege at Waco it’s that pride, incompetence, and aggression have become the trademarks of our government. Remembering Waco is more than remembering the mistakes of our law enforcement or the blatant federal overreach that took place, it is about remembering the innocent lives lost and granting them, in the very least, a place in history.