Lessons from Waco, 19 years later

Nineteen years ago today, federal agents used military force (including tanks) against American citizens on American soil when they stormed the compound of the Branch Davidian cult. During the raid, a fire started, resulting in a spectacular explosion when the flames reached the cult’s weapons cache. When it was all over, 76 people had been killed. The dead included 21 children and 2 pregnant women.

The stage was set for the massacre in February, when a paramilitary ATF unit raided the compound, climbing onto the roof and entering through the windows. Faced with this force, the Branch Davidians fought back and drove the federal agents away from the compound. Many questions have been raised in the years since about this raid, which to this day is a shining example of foolish excessive force by law enforcement. The Branch Davidians were a doomsday cult expecting armed conflict with the government, so what did the ATF think was going to happen when agents wielding assault weapons and wearing body armor entered through the windows?

Before we even get to the April 19 massacre itself, we should be very concerned about the increasing use of paramilitary force by law enforcement. We have seen far too many tragedies, including the death of 7-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones during a SWAT raid in Detroit and the killing of 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston in Atlanta. Stanley-Jones was sleeping on a couch when she was killed and Johnston was shot to death by police when she opened fire to defend herself against what she believed to be criminals engaged in a home invasion. Corey Maye spent a decade in prison for shooting a police officer during a SWAT raid on his home, thinking he was also defending himself against criminals.

There are many more examples of excessive force by police, and the frightening use of paramilitary force in even small and non-violent crimes. Radley Balko has done amazing work documenting this phenomenon. You can see a tiny sample of the mountain of work Balko has done on this topic in articles from December 5, 2011, July 6, 2011, February 17, 2010 and April 15, 2010 as well has his groundbreaking report for the CATO Institute.

But as bad as the SWAT raids are, it pales in comparison to the massacre at Waco 19 years ago today. We actually had the federal government using tanks on American citizens to break a standoff. It may be that there was no peaceful way to resolve the standoff. (Which we should not forget was created due to the paramilitary raid in February of that year.) It is commonly accepted that the Branch Davidians started the fire themselves in a depraved mass suicide. But that simply does not excuse the use of military force against American citizens.

As is the case with any event like this, there are wacko conspiracy theories floating about – but one does not need to be a conspiracy theorist to be horrified at what happened 19 years ago today. One does not need to be a conspiracy theorist or an anti-government extremist to recognize that Waco serves as an example of how the federal government can be very dangerous to our civil liberties and why federal power must be checked by the states.

With the Tea Party movement having brought libertarian philosophy to the national stage and concerns about excessive force used against the “Occupy” movement, the 2012 Presidential race would be an excellent time to have a national conversation about civil liberties and the use of force. There is not a lot the President can do about the actions of local police, but one thing the President can do is pledge that no more military equipment will be given to law enforcement. But will either Mitt Romney or Barack Obama be willing to make this an issue? Sadly, I doubt it.

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