Burning Questions


The federal government is beginning to sound like Billy Joel. "We didn't start the fire," it keeps saying, every time the subject of Waco comes up.

That was the refrain to which the FBI returned when it recently admitted, after six years of denial, that it used "pyrotechnic" tear gas canisters against the Branch Davidians on the day flames swept through their residence. But the origin of the fire–after which 80 people, including 25 children, were found dead–is not the only important question about what happened at Mount Carmel in 1993.

Even if the government didn't start the fire, it created a situation where mass suicide was entirely predictable. Through a gratuitous, military-style raid by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, a 51-day siege during which the FBI used a variety of harassment techniques to unnerve the Davidians, and a final onslaught in which tanks rammed into the group's home while loudspeakers incongruously announced, "This is not an assault," the government seemingly did everything in its power to convince an apocalyptic sect that the end was indeed nigh.

Despite fears that the confrontation would end in flames, the FBI did not have firefighting equipment nearby. And by knocking into the flimsy building with tanks, it closed off escape routes and created vents that made the fire spread more quickly.

In The Ashes of Waco (Simon & Schuster), investigative journalist Dick Reavis reports that the tanks "demolished the stairways connecting the building's first and second floors, and also pushed debris over a trapdoor leading to a buried school bus, whose exit opened to the fresh air outside. The bodies of six women were found within feet of the trapdoor, dead of smoke inhalation."

Six other women and children were killed by falling chunks of concrete knocked loose during the attack. Meanwhile, the tanks pumped in an aerosol consisting of CS powder, a chemical warfare agent that causes tearing, temporary blindness, nausea, and vomiting–symptoms that may have incapacitated Davidians who otherwise could have escaped–and methylene chloride, a toxic and volatile carrier that forms flammable mixtures when exposed to the air.

In light of these details, it is sickening to recall President Clinton's summary of the disaster: "Some religious fanatics murdered themselves." Or Attorney General Janet Reno's assertion that the FBI had to bring the siege to a swift end because "babies were being beaten"–a claim that turned out to be a fabrication.

It is still hard to believe that the justification for the initial BATF raid that set the stage for this debacle was the suspicion that residents of Mount Carmel had illegally converted semiautomatic weapons into machine guns. For this victimless crime by a few of their members, scores of Davidians ultimately died.

It is interesting to compare the Davidians' fate with Japan's treatment of Aum Shinrikyo, another group described as a "doomsday cult." The New York Times recently reported that local governments are refusing to grant followers of the sect residency permits, without which they cannot legally work or obtain driver's licenses, passports, or public services. Children of Aum members have been turned away from public schools and parks.

"Most Japanese seem untroubled by the campaign and its draconian tactics," the Times reported, although a few civil libertarians have spoken out. "It's not right to restrict or regulate people just because they have dangerous thoughts and believe in dangerous religions," said one.

Aum Shinrikyo is considered dangerous for an understandable reason: Four years ago, members of the sect carried out a nerve gas attack in the Tokyo subway that killed a dozen people and sickened thousands. By contrast, the Davidians had not harmed or threatened anyone prior to the BATF raid.

Then, too, what has happened to Aum members so far, unjust though it is, pales in comparison with what happened to the Davidians. Yet I suspect that many Americans who shake their heads at Japan's intolerance still believe that the Davidians basically got what they deserved.

During the siege, the residents of Mount Carmel were depicted as mindless drones under David Koresh's spell, while the FBI prevented any communication or press coverage that might have cast them in a more sympathetic light. To this day, people tend to imagine a sinister collective when they think of the Davidians, instead of individual human beings who asked for nothing but to be left alone.