It has frequently been observed that some people are eager to believe the worst about the federal government's actions at the Mount Carmel Center outside Waco, Texas, in 1993. But critics of Waco conspiracy mongering are often just as eager to absolve the government of any culpability in the chain of events that led to the deaths of more than 80 men, women, and children.
The latter tendency was apparent in a recent New York Times headline: "A Special Counsel Finds Government Faultless at Waco." In truth, the conclusions of John C. Danforth, the former Republican senator who was appointed by Attorney General Janet Reno to look into lingering questions about Waco, were not so sweeping. Danforth interpreted his mandate narrowly, focusing on five specific issues:
1) Did federal agents start the fire that consumed Mount Carmel on April 19, 1993, at the end of a 51-day FBI siege? Danforth concluded that the fire was started deliberately by the Branch Davidians.
2) Did federal agents shoot at the Davidians on April 19? After considering conflicting interpretations of infrared video shot the day of the fire, along with an analysis of footage from a reenactment, Danforth concluded that they did not.
3) Did the government use pyrotechnic devices? Danforth found that it did, despite official denials, but that the incendiary tear gas rounds did not contribute to the fire.
4) Was the military used illegally? Danforth concluded that the military served only in appropriate advisory and support capacities.
5) Was there a cover-up? Danforth found no organized effort to suppress the truth, although he did criticize some officials for not being forthcoming enough.
These questions are important, but they do not go to the heart of what happened at Waco, which grew out of recklessness rather than deliberate wrongdoing. Indeed, Danforth emphasized that the subject of his investigation was "whether government agents engaged in bad acts, not whether they exercised bad judgment."
The "bad judgment" part has been exhaustively documented by internal investigations, congressional hearings, and the research of journalists and academics. For those interested in the details, David Kopel and Paul Blackman's No More Wacos is a handy guide.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, for example, exercised bad judgment on February 28, 1993, when it mounted a military-style assault on the home of 127 people because it suspected that one of them had manufactured illegal weapons. Despite the Davidians' history of cooperating with the police and living peacefully with their neighbors, the BATF never considered serving its search warrant simply by knocking on the door.
Which side fired first during the raid is still a matter of dispute. BATF agents shot the Davidians' dogs when they arrived, and residents may have interpreted this as an attack. Or perhaps the exchange of fire was started by a nervous BATF agent. Either way, the agency needlessly created the tense circumstances that led to the shootout, in which four agents and several Davidians were killed.
During the subsequent siege, the FBI showed bad judgment by deliberately antagonizing the Davidians through various harassment techniques, thereby undermining its negotiators' attempts to achieve a peaceful resolution. Given the Davidians' apocalyptic theology, the bureau should have known that its provocations would encourage them to believe they were confronting the forces of evil and that suicide was the only way out.
The FBI's decision to bring the siege to an abrupt end, which has never been satisfactorily explained, was another example of bad judgment, apparently precipitating the mass suicide by fire the bureau was supposedly trying to avoid. It was also bad judgment to ram the walls of Mount Carmel with tanks, which closed off escape routes and directly killed some residents by knocking loose chunks of concrete.
It bears emphasizing that most of the people who died at Mount Carmel, including more than 20 children, were not accused of any crime. They did not participate in the initial weapons violations or the subsequent violence. They did not, by any stretch of the imagination, deserve their fate.
In a sense, they are dead because of David Koresh: If it weren't for him, they would still be alive.
By the same token, however, they would still be alive if it weren't for the government's hamhandedness and negligence. Federal officials may not have been malicious at Waco, but they were a long way from "faultless."