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The Ashes of Waco: An Investigation.

That a mostly innocent group of people died in Waco, Texas on April 19, 1993 at the government's hand is the thesis of The Ashes of Waco, an excellent new book by Dick J. Reavis. The Waco assault was among the strangest acts the American government has ever engaged in, worse (by proportion and death toll) than the Philadelphia city government's 1985 bombing of the MOVE house, in which 13 people died.

Yet, as Reavis points out, big media outlets generally embraced the notion that the attack on the Branch Davidian compound was inevitable, even implying that those inside deserved to die. Most journalists accepted Justice Department blandishments about the "need" to attack the compound--which was isolated and surrounded by armed squads. "The job of finding out what had happened at Mount Camiel ultimately fell to people outside the media's salaried circles, to scholars, defense attorneys, survivors and self-financed independent researchers," Reavis writes.

Reavis, a journalist affiliated for years with Texas Monthly, spends considerable time explicating the evolution of the Branch Davidian belief. His strongest point is that, however odd, this set of convictions--particularly its longing for a cataclysmic confrontation between the believers and some generic enemy--did constitute an opening for negotiation. The feds should have brought in biblical scholars to convince David Koresh that the Book of Revelation offered another path. At least they should have made an effort to understand his views. But they didn't. And this, Reavis shows, increased the odds that the standoff would end in violent confrontation.

The Ashes of Waco contains original contributions to the understanding of this event, more information about which is now being provided by congressional hearings. Not only was the first raid apparently illegal-alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) agents entered with a military thrust even though they did not have a "no knock warrant" (and even though local police had driven up to the Waco compound and walked in peacefully)--its tactics were shockingly belligerent.

According to Reavis, the ladder teams trying to enter the compound's second floor were under orders to break in and start lobbing concussion "flash bang" grenades, which can maim at close range and always generate an end-of-the-world noise. They were ordered to do this regardless of how the raid developed. Had Koresh opened the door and said, "Come in. I surrender!" the grenades would have been Iobbed regardless. The ladder agents had no communication links to call them off if everything went smoothly. This tactic seems specifically calculated to initiate a gunfight.

Reavis further asserts that the ATF essentially faked warrant evidence, claiming there was drug manufacturing at the compound, in order to activate a legal clause that allows the military to participate in a domestic police action. Why pull in the National Guard? According to Reavis, ATF officials wanted to fly over the site during the raid in military helicopters, which are much zoomier and neater-looking than police helicopters.

But the military helicopters--complete with mounted machine guns--gave the ATF no tactical advantage and thus were needlessly provocative. Given that the ATF knew that Koresh's inner circle was obsessed with weaponry, it would not be a wild guess that the sight of approaching military aircraft would have freaked out the Davidians but good. Indeed, some evidence suggests that the firing started when the helicopters appeared. When it was just ATF agents approaching on foot, Koresh stood in the compound doorway unarmed and seemingly unconcerned.

As for the second assault, Reavis suggests that Justice knew the "tear gas" (a misnomer, since the primary effect of this substance is to cause choking) was in fact dangerous. Though there is a valid dispute regarding whether Washington officials, especially Attorney General Janet Reno, should have known that tear gas can cause fire, they have no excuse for not knowing that putting it into confined spaces is dangerous--especially to children, whose lungs are highly sensitive. The plan to flush the Davidians out by blasting in huge quantities of tear gas (the gassing had been going on nearly six hours when the fire began) was not a benign exercise.

Given that there was an obvious, nonlethal approach to getting people out of the compound--to have just kept waiting--the decision to use large volumes of an intensely toxic substance in an area where 25 children were housed no longer seems a mere misjudgment. It seems vindictive, intended at least to cause suffering in order to avenge four dead agents. That the children inside the compound (and probably many of the adults) bore no responsibility for the agents' deaths seems not to have mattered.

The Ashes of Waco is a chilling, commanding book, but not a great exercise in writing. Reavis's prose is often average. At times he errs by depicting Koresh as little more than a misunderstood kid. Koresh was a criminal. He was, at least in some part, responsible for the deaths of four federal agents. He did not just have an unusual religious belief; he also employed it to inflict crimes upon others (for example, the rape of a ten-year-old girl reported at the recent Waco hearings). And, without question, he was criminally negligent in persuading others to remain with him in tbe compound to face their deaths. Koresh may also have triggered the final fire with the intent of killing both federal agents and his followers, which is plain murder. Reavis falters on this point somewhat, coming perilously close to absolving Koresh.

After finishing this book, I found myself haunted by a taped conversation between FBI negotiators and Juliette Martinez, one of the Davidians. One negotiator was attempting to persuade the woman to come out with her children. Martinez wanted to talk religion, and the agent refused. The agent tried to convince Martinez that if she left she could keep custody of her children, when Martinez clearly knew this was a lie. Another agent tried to tell Martinez she would not be shot as she left the compound because, in the agent's words, "the whole world media is watching." Martinez replied, "The media is not really watching. [The media] only sees what the FBI wants [it] to see."

Finally an FBI negotiator asked Martinez just what it was the people inside Mount Carmel wanted. She answered, "For God to come and deliver us from all our enemies."

If there was any doubt before, the approach on April 19 of military helicopters and men in black masks would convince the Davidians that the government was the enemy. What happened that day was the lowest point for the American government since the 1989 invasion of Panama: another strange event in which many innocents died needless deaths, and about which the media, including me, was oddly quiescent.

Gregg Easterbrook is the author of A Moment on the Earth and a contributing editor of The Atlantic Monthly and The Washington Monthly.
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Author:Easterbrook, Gregg
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1995
Words:1138
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