April 19: A Day to Write Lazy Certainties About Waco and Oklahoma City


April 19 is one of those days known for a whole string of notable events, mostly bloody, which include the 1775 battle of Lexington and Concord which began the American Revolution, the first day of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943, and of course, in 1993, (AKA cable news-recent memory) the final day of the FBI's siege of the Branch Davidian sect's home outside Waco which ended in the deaths of 76 people there, including 20 children. And that injustice in turn led to another one two years later, namely Timothy McVeigh seeking revenge for Waco by punishing the people of Oklahoma City.

What lingers today, though, with Waco and general knowledge, is that the incident has become less about its self and more about it being a sign for what kind of supposed right-wing, anti-government extremist we are discussing. When talking about Timothy McVeigh, as writer Michael Isikoff does in The Daily Beast, it is seemingly uninteresting to people to delve into just why McVeigh was so angry, and barring personal sympathy and interest in Waco, in general, when people blow up a building, I am curious as to why they did so. But McVeigh, according to Isikoff:

Timothy McVeigh was a product of this far-right subculture, a brooding sociopath who, as an army gunner, relished mowing down surrendering Iraqi soldiers during Operation Desert Storm.

Brooding sociopath sounds more detailed than , say "thug," but it's impressively meaningless and a descriptor. Isikoff goes on to mention that McVeigh was very keen on that ridiculously racist novel The Turner Diaries and used to sell it at gun shows. Though there's plenty of evidence that McVeigh was a fan of the book, it's also much less convenient to the narrative that McVeigh always claimed he was helped on his bloody path towards terrorism by being a soldier and by realizing that he was killing men who were very similar to himself during Desert Storm. And of course, the undeniable wrongness of Waco and Ruby Ridge. Most of this can be found in the excellent and disturbing authorized biography of McVeigh, American Terrorist. The Daily Beast article focuses on a new book which once again trots out that old conspiracy theory about "John Doe Number 2" and McVeigh not having acted alone. Which is all fine (McVeigh's old defense attorney even believes this theory as well.) But the predictability of Isikoff's description of the meaning of anti-government extremism is exhausting. After all, history isn't enough, you have to tie the threat to the present and so:

In the years since Oklahoma City and especially after Barack Obama's election, the radical race hatred and anti-government paranoia that infused McVeigh continues to thrive—on Internet chat rooms, in militia hideouts, and at obscure rural compounds like the one that was at Elohim City. Three years ago, a Homeland Security intelligence analyst wrote a scary report warning that right-wing extremist groups were making a comeback and needed to be more closely tracked.

Conservative critics in Congress were outraged, accusing Homeland Security of preparing to monitor American citizens exercising their constitutional rights. Homeland Security scrapped the report and the analyst, Daryl Johnson, soon left his job, only to pop up in the news again last year when a demented anti-Muslim fanatic in Norway blew up government buildings and shot scores of children at a Labor Party youth camp. It was the worst act of terrorism in a Western country in recent years. Such killings "could easily happen here," Johnson told reporters.

Read a few of the casual "years ago" mentions popping about the Internet today and it gets worse. The Anniston Star manages to tritely and inanely memorialize the victims of Oklahoma City, Waco, and Columbine (which is tomorrow, it doesn't even fit the pattern!) and make clunky, politicized parallels to today. At Waco:

more than 80 members of the Branch Davidian cult under the sway of messianic madman David Koresh lost their lives in a fire that ended an 81-day [sic] siege at the hands of law enforcement.


The Branch Davidian tragedy was brought on by a cult leader stubbornly refusing to peaceably comply with legal authorities, who — it must be acknowledged — botched the initial raid on the central Texas compound. The extremists who plotted the OKC bombing sought to wound what they saw as a tyrannical federal government, language that can still be heard today on conservative hate radio and the Internet. The high school students at Columbine showed how easy it is for disturbed teens to get their hands on deadly firearms.

Sadly, this pattern of school shootings has not slowed since 1999, as victims at Virginia Tech, suburban Cleveland and Oakland, to cite three other high-profile examples, can attest.

Today we pause and recall the lives of the innocents cut short in these events: the Branch Davidians who were powerless to exit the clutches of a cult leader (as well as the four ATF agents who died in the late-February 1993 raid), the scores of people in a federal building going about their business on a Wednesday morning, and the high school students attending classes in a supposedly safe Colorado suburb.

And the Emporia Gazette is very certain about how still-questioned incidents went down 19 years ago. Emphasis added so that the complete lack of uncertain qualifiers is extra clear:

After the 51-day standoff, the FBI raided the facility using gas on the inhabitants. Nine fled the building and were arrested, others either perished from self-inflicted gun shot wounds or from fires the cult members set inside the facility. The day ended with the facility of the Branch Davidians in flames and destroyed.

The standoff began Feb. 28, 1993, when Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents attempted to execute arrest warrants on Koresh and the Branch Davidians when they were met by gunfire. Four agents were killed and 16 others injured.

This evasive certainty over events which occurred less than 20 year ago but are still up for debate is bizarre. Why is so difficult to say Ruby Ridge was wrong, Waco was wrong, and we just don't know how that fire began, nor do we know who fired first, the Davidians or the ATF agents? It's just so much easier to make these politically-loaded deaths into something more akin to sign points that say yes, we're talking about anti-government extremists now; anti-government paranoia, militia-types.

And you don't have to open the can of worms of asking or answering how tyrannical the government is, but in those moments, with one family at Ruby Ridge, and one cult or church or whatever it was at Waco, and what happened to them, what else to call it but tyrannical?

For a more decisively pessimistic look at the meaning of Waco, check out the excellent Anthony Gregory on "We're All Branch Davidians Now." A sampling:

Dozens of people of color died at the hands of the federal government, and the official Civil Rights movement hardly spoke up. Dozens of people were targeted for their religion, and it hardly bothered many of the very conservatives who allege a war on religion waged by DC. The largest federal-military killing of civilians on U.S. soil in a century has now become one more notch on the progressive left's timeline of major events in anti-government extremism, as opposed to a principal example of government extremism where a tiny minority community was virtually exterminated.

(Please do) read the rest here.

Reason on Waco, Oklahoma City, and Ruby Ridge. And Jesse Walker, our resident expert on paranoia over the paranoid.