Twenty years ago today, the federal government conducted a military-style raid on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. This set up a standoff that lasted nearly two months, and the horrific conclusion to that standoff is much more famous. But the initial raid should not be forgotten as we look forward to the twentieth anniversary of the April 19 massacre where the federal government used military force against American citizens on American soil.
The Branch Davidians were a doomsday cult that was expecting a violent confrontation with the government. When you send heavily-armed federal agents to storm the compound through the second-floor windows, what did you think was going to happen? The federal government wanted to search for illegal weapons, but why could that not be done without using the paramilitary tactics that we saw on February 28, 1993? Would this have gone down differently had the feds opted for a peaceful rather than confrontational approach?
David Limbaugh reports in his book Absolute Power that “(David) Koresh was seen many times off the Mount Carmel premises, jogging, shopping, and frequenting restaurants in town.” If the federal government wanted him specifically, why did they not seek to take him in peacefully away from his cult, instead of storming the compound and provoking an unnecessary confrontation? Given the mentality of who they were dealing with, was a more gentle approach not a much wiser course of action than a cowboy raid?
I do not necessarily subscribe to the conspiracy theory that the federal government wanted a confrontation – I think this is simply an example of the militarization of law enforcement that Radley Balko has done such an exemplary job exposing over the last several years. Creating a “soldier” mentality in law enforcement is dangerous and has resulted in unnecessary loss of life and threats to our civil liberties.
What makes the raid even more nonsensical is that the federal agents had been tipped off when Koresh told an undercover agent he knew the raid was coming – it went ahead anyway. Once the firefight had happened, a tragedy may have been inevitable. After all, many of the Branch Davidians could have been charged with murder or other felonies that would put them in prison for decades.
The siege of the compound did not help calm frayed nerves, and it would end in disaster 50 days later.