Revisiting the Waco Siege

Malcolm Gladwell, of all people, has published a searing indictment of the feds' behavior in the Waco siege of 1993, when the ATF attempted to raid the Branch Davidian religious community, the Davidians fired on the invading agents (who may have fired first), and a long standoff ended with dozens of Davidians dying a fiery death. Gladwell's basic argument is that the government fundamentally misunderstood what sort of group it was dealing with:

Cackling in the flames? Seriously, TIME?Time[The FBI's] task, as they saw it, was to peel away the pretense—Koresh's posturing, his lies, his grandiosity—and compel him to take specific steps toward a resolution.

That is standard negotiation practice, which is based on the idea that, through sufficient patience and reason, a deranged husband or a cornered bank robber can be moved from emotionality to rationality. Negotiation is an exercise in pragmatism—in bargaining over a series of concrete objectives: If you give up one of your weapons, I will bring you water. When this approach failed, the F.B.I. threw up its hands. In bureau parlance, the situation at Mount Carmel became "non-negotiable." What more could the bureau have done? "I guess we could have fenced it off and called it a federal prison," Bob Ricks, one of the lead F.B.I. agents during the siege, said last year in an interview.

But, as the conflict-studies scholar Jayne Docherty argues, the F.B.I.'s approach was doomed from the outset. In "Learning Lessons from Waco"—one of the very best of the Mount Carmel retrospectives—Docherty points out that the techniques that work on bank robbers don't work on committed believers. There was no pragmatism hidden below a layer of posturing, lies, and grandiosity.

At one point, Gladwell writes, "the Davidians asked the F.B.I. to bring milk for their children, and the bureau insisted that some of the children be released before the supplies were handed over":

"Listen. I'll, I'll get the milk to you for two kids."WPAThis is how negotiations are supposed to work: tit for tat. But what proposal could have been more offensive and perplexing to a Branch Davidian? The bureau wanted to separate children from their parents and extract them from the community to which they belonged in exchange for milk. "That doesn’t make any sense," a Davidian named Kathy S. tells the negotiator. But the negotiator thinks she means that the terms of the deal aren’t good enough:

F.B.I.: Listen. I'll, I'll get the milk to you for two kids.
Again, Kathy S. reacts angrily, and the negotiator gives up. He thinks the problem is that he's saddled with someone who just isn't reasonable.

Gladwell's argument will be familiar to people who have already delved into the subject, but it'll be new to a lot of his readers. Check out the whole thing here. And for a selection of Reason's Waco coverage, go here, herehere, here, here, and (way back in '93 itself) here.

Bonus links: For the last time I said something nice about a Malcolm Gladwell article, which doubles as the only time I have said something nice about a David Denby article, dial the Wayback Machine to 2004 and go here. To see me being less enthusiastic about Gladwell's work, go here, here, and here. And to see the one time the man wrote something for Reason, go here.

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  • sarcasmic||

    Obey or die. It's that simple.

  • CE||

    And that freedom of religion stuff? We meant freedom to exercise an approved religion.

    And that right to keep and bear arms not being infringed? Well, if you modify your guns in an unacceptable manner, we're going to bring a tank and burn you down in your church.

  • newshutz||

    Not "if you modify your guns"

    If we suspect that you have modified weapons in an unacceptable manner, even if our undercover agent has found no evidence of such . . .

  • ||

    Fucking this. Leaving aside the absurdity of the firearms laws in question, they weren't even being broken.

  • AlmightyJB||

    What could they have done?

    They could have arrested him without incident on one of his many trips into town as the local police originally suggested. But then they wouldn't have been able to play with all of their military surplus toys they had been amassing. This easily avoidable situation and subsequent death of children was caused by nothing more than a war boner by the authorities. An opportunity to show how "badass" they were. Fucking tragic.

  • Drake||

    Yep. Pretty much everything wrong with modern law enforcement. A combination of laziness, lack of common sense, heavy weapons, and desire to sure them.

  • PRX||

    it was the ATF's annual network news made for TV SWAT raid right before appropriations. if you check, there was one every year for several years, always at the same time of year. in Waco, the extras shot back.

  • The Laconic Marc F Cheney||

    Waco never fails to turn my rage up to a simmer.

    And then when I think about how Moobs is still alive and elected, it gets turned up to medium-high.

  • AlmightyJB||

    I'm not sure if it was the fact that we had just had our kids and I was starting to settle down and pay attention, or if it was the gun grabbers of the era, or if it was Waco and Weaver or rouge ATF and DEA agents, probably all of the above. But this is the time in my life where a really started to see that the federal government and their enforcers were a serious threat to all of our freedom. And that they viewed the populace, not as their constituents to protect, but as potential enemies to be controlled. This period of time is when I really started forming the views I hold today.

  • AlmightyJB||

    I think originally I was pushed toward the GOP because Clinton was a democrat as were most of the gun grabbers. The GOP also had the small government rhetoric going on at the time. That was a pretty short honeymoon once I figured out that they were all liers and were the flip side of the same coin. The only statist ideas that either party doesn't like is the ones they didn't come up with.

  • Tony||

    I was radicalized against Republicans during the Iraq War, which got vastly more people killed than Waco, and for even more dubious purposes. But yeah, two sides of the same coin, truly.

  • ||

    ...and for even more dubious purposes.

    Yeah, stacked up against suspected modification of 100% legal lower receivers, invading a neighboring country to steal its resources is nothing.

    You are such a cunt you can't even be right by accident.

  • Redmanfms||

    I was radicalized against Republicans during the Iraq War, which got vastly more people killed than Waco, and for even more dubious purposes. But yeah, two sides of the same coin, truly.

    The Dems gave us WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Bosnia/Kosovo, and the "surge" in Afghanistan.

    But yeah, Republicans are the only ones with the "war" problem.

    Jesus you are a fucking piece of shit.

  • The Last American Hero||

    Likewise - the events of this time pushed my default position from "The Feds are generally trying to do the right thing, even if they fuck up now and then" to one of "These are a dangerous bunch of power-tripping a-holes that occasionally fuck up and do something that benefits the country."

  • PRX||

    and don't forget that the ATF blamed the media for blowing operational security on a publicity stunt that had no operational security because it was a publicity stunt.

  • Ron||

    yes because we all know, nobody would have ever noticed the tank that came rolling on in.

  • Agile Cyborg||

    The federal government fundamentally misunderstands practically EVERYTHING that cannot be shoe-horned or easily dominated. Large collectives imbued with authority seem to exhibit the least amount of flexibility and totally lack a desire to pragmatically assess for optimal results. Sadly, it must be in human nature to collectively view any resistance as a sort of violence which must be met with extreme prejudice.

  • Ron||

    And lets not forget the whole thing never needed to happen in the first place. They could have arrested the man a few days earlier when he was in town but the government wanted the world to see how it treats people of a different faith in an attempt to scare the populace into compliance. I think it may have worked.

  • Doctor Whom||

    They were heretics, and we all know what is done to heretics.

  • ||

    When I read the article, it seemed to me that Gladwell was saying that the fundamental reason the siege went bad was that Americans have a hard time understanding our religious kooks. Which is true enough, I suppose, but it seems much more productive to focus on the proximal cause, which was an out-of-control federal bureaucracy that wanted to make headlines.

    At least he (implicity) called out the old lie that the cultists set themselves on fire.

    By the morning of April 19th, the Feds had had enough. The F.B.I.’s tanks rumbled up to the Mount Carmel buildings, and punched holes in the walls with their mechanical arms. Some four hundred cannisters of CS gas—which can be flammable under certain conditions—were shot into enclosed spaces lit by candles and Coleman lanterns. Walls were rammed, sending huge chunks of concrete crashing down on those huddled inside. Doyle says that he crouched on the chapel floor, between the pews, trying to escape the tear gas. Someone yelled that a fire had started.
  • Tim||

    You got your religious kooks and you got your government kooks.

  • Raston Bot||

    the New Yorker printed that? wow. i predict asplosions all over metro areas.

  • R C Dean||

    Man, that's some shitty negotiating.

    Its not always tit for tat, you know. Sometimes, you give the other side something just because you have no good reason to deny it, to maintain credibility, build trust, create goodwill.

    But that presumes negotiation is trying to reach an agreement. I don't think that's what the ATF is really after when they negotiate. They have nothing on the table, nothing at risk, and their goal (you, in chains or dead) is never up for discussion.

  • Tim||

    The 90's had Waco, Ruby Ridge, The travesty of the Atlanta Olympic Bombing where they publicly destroyed an innocent Richard Jewell. I draw a line through all of them.

  • The Laconic Marc F Cheney||

    Which reminds me, Lon Horiuchi is still alive and free. I don't know how one could square that fact against a belief in a benevolent deity.

  • Tim||

    He was only following orders.

  • Spoonman.||

    That truly is a shame.

  • Paul.||

    90s pc... it was a disease.

  • Cdr Lytton||

    There was also a backlash against all of that. Remember when the Wayne La Pierre called the ATF "jack booted thugs" before the NRA became the "our heroes" fellators they are today?

  • Redmanfms||

    There was also a backlash against all of that. Remember when the Wayne La Pierre called the ATF "jack booted thugs" before the NRA became the "our heroes" fellators they are today?

    It's worth noting that they became the "our heroes fellators" they are today because of the backlash against La Pierre's JBT comments. NRA actually lost membership over that.

    The overwhelming majority of the gun-owning community is cop fellating. Nearly every major gun discussion board has a (usually private) forum specifically for "law enforcement discussions." Threads that might be at all critical of the police or paint them in a bad light are heavily moderated or outright disallowed.

  • Paul.||

    This is how negotiations are supposed to work: tit for tat. But what proposal could have been more offensive and perplexing to a Branch Davidian? The bureau wanted to separate children from their parents and extract them from the community

    Tut tut tut... it takes a village and all that. Whose children again?

  • Paul.||

    Again, Kathy S. reacts angrily, and the negotiator gives up. He thinks the problem is that he's saddled with someone who just isn't reasonable.

    Have you ever talked to a cop? It's an exercise in them asking you questions and then them interrupting you when you try to answer.

    Clinton should have accepted Reno's resignation.

  • CE||

    Clinton should have had Reno arrested, indicted, tried and imprisoned. Then he should have resigned in disgrace with a public apology.

  • The Last American Hero||

    Waco was also a classic "do something" moment. Clinton and Reno were fed up with having America turn on the TV and find out there is no change in Waco, which makes them look powerless. So they made a show of power.

  • Hash Brown||

    "Learning Lessons from Waco"—one of the very best of the Mount Carmel retrospectives

    The very best book on the seige is No More Wacos, by Dave Kopel and Paul Blackman.

  • Hash Brown||

    s/b "siege"

  • Virginian||

    One of the great ironies of history is that Lexington and Concord, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and the Waco Massacre all fall on the same day.

    Government is particularly violence prone on April 19th it would seem.

  • Tony||

    So are right-wing extremists.

  • mplspolitics||

    Die in a fire shithead. "Extremists" is also from LAST months OFA 3x5's. Keep up mouth breather.

  • Tony||

    How would you classify Tim McVeigh? Freedom fighter perhaps?

  • ||

    McVeigh? I expected the reference was to Lexington and Concord.

    Anybody else suspect the reason leftards like Tony go apeshit over McVeigh is just petty jealousy over his success in their field?

  • Redmanfms||

    How would you classify Tim McVeigh?

    Too bad for you McVeigh wasn't a "right-wing extremist," eh Tony???

  • jmomls||

    One has to love that government media, errrr, Time cover for its riduculous sensationlism. It would have been perfect had the person in the center been Janet Reno.

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