Stuart A. Wright, Editor
Armageddon in Waco: Critical Perspectives on the Branch Davidian Conflict
University of Chicago Press, 1995
394 pages, pb.
Reviewed by Gary McGath
This review Copyright 1995 by Gary McGath

This collection of academic articles on the events around Mt. Carmel in 1993 provides a variety of information and analyses, and helps to build the case against the government. Only a few of the articles, unfortunately, deal with the really difficult issues concerning those events.

A number of the articles cover the history of the Branch Davidians and the state of the current anticult movement. This information certainly helps to round out the reader's understanding of the events, but it isn't the central issue. It's a lot easier for a professor or graduate student to write about what the Seventh-Day Adventist Church did in the nineteenth century or what the Cult Awareness Network is telling the public today than it is to find out what the FBI and BATF did in 1993, and this doubtless influences the subject matter. It's also a lot safer to write about history; while all of the articles are critical of the government to varying degrees, all are cautious. E. M. Gaffney, Jr., spends pages justifying his "second-guessing" the government, as if expressing doubts about the government's actions were considered in bad taste. Only one of the articles (Dean M. Kelley's "The Implosion of Mt. Carmel and its Aftermath") even hints that federal officers should be prosecuted for their actions. Perhaps the spectre of government funders looking over their shoulders made the authors a bit less forthright than they might otherwise have been.

Still, this cautious approach gives a sense of trustworthiness to the information provided. While stolid, academic writing isn't a guarantee of accuracy by any means, it at least avoids the dangers of emotionalism. Except for the article "Cops, News Copy, and Public Opinion," which discredits itself from the start by declaring that "news, like all social reality, is socially constructed," the approach of the writers shows a basic respect for facts. The quality of the analyses is variable, and the reader will have to judge each one on its own merits.

The book does provide information which will add to most readers' understanding of the events. It's been noted before that when Joyce Sparks of Children's Protective Services (a state agency) allegedly heard David Koresh say on April 6, 1992, that (quoting the affidavit supporting the BATF warrant) "when he 'reveals' himself the riots in Los Angeles would pale in comparison to what was going to happen in Waco, Texas," those riots had not yet happened. But the book tells us that the Treasury Department's report "explains" this by reporting that the affidavit had just forgotten to mention that Sparks had another meeting with Koresh on April 30, after the riots, and that it was at this meeting, not the one discussed in the affidavit, that Koresh made this prediction. An article in the book also charges Sparks with "freely circulating anecdotal evidence about sexual abuse and unsubstantiated rumors about physical abuse," and states that child abuse claims supported only by Sparks's word were used in the affidavit.

Kelley's above-mentioned "Implosion" article also cites the actions of the FBI once the fire broke out:

According to a nurse interviewed on the Waco radio station, someone from the FBI dropped by the local hospital at 5:00 on the morning of April 19 to find out if it was equipped to handle burn victims... Yet the FBI did not arrange for fire-fighting equipment to be at hand. When the fire broke out, fire trucks were not summoned from Waco for ten minutes. They seemed to be waiting to go -- to judge by a 911 call recorded by the sheriff's office -- but were in no rush to get there. When they finally approached Mt. Carmel, they were held at the checkpoint by the FBI for another sixteen minutes, while the flames, driven by thirty-mile-an-hour winds, reduced the flimsy frame buildings to charred rubble...

In spite of this statement, Kelley does not believe the FBI deliberately killed the Davidians.

It would require greater purposiveness, secretiveness, meticulousness, and internal coordination than the federal agencies displayed in other aspects of this ill-fated enterprise.

Another interesting revelation, given by James Tabor (co-author of Why Waco?) is that

On April 19, the day of the fire, Jeffrey Jamar, the FBI agent in charge at Waco, emphatically stated on CNN's Larry King Show and ABC's Nightline that the FBI had incontrovertible evidence, based on classified government surveillance techniques, that Koresh had not begun his manuscript on the Seven Seals and had no plans to do so.

This claim was proven false when one of the survivors escaped the fire with a floppy disk containing Koresh's partially completed discourse on the Seven Seals. This is significant because Koresh had stated that he would come out when he finished this work, and the FBI dismissed his promise as a delaying tactic. The assumption which Jamar supported was crucial to the decision to attack. Whether Jamar was lying, or whether the evidence gathered by surveillance led him to an error, is something we may never know.

Several of the writers put the Waco attack in the context of other cases of arbitrary government force, such as the Philadelphia police's firebombing a city block to get rid of MOVE in 1985 and the Los Angeles police's use of "an armored vehicle with battering rams to crash into crack houses." Volumes could be said on this subject; Waco was simply the most egregious of many abuses of governmental power in recent years, and resulted in mass death because the targets were foolish enough to fight back.

Rhys H. Williams, in "Breaching the 'Wall of Separation,'" approaches the issue primarily as one of religious liberty. This is somewhat disturbing, since it suggests that similar actions against secular groups would be more excusable. The article states that the FBI and BATF need to improve their knowledge of religion and its dynamics." But religion as such is not the issue; what the FBI and BATF need to improve is their respect for the rights of citizens, whether they are engaging in religious activities or not. The government got away with, if not murder, at least outrageous violations of human rights which led to the deaths of innocent people. This is a fact which should deeply disturb all of us, whether we are religious or not.

Armageddon in Waco is not the first book that a reader should go to in studying the event (Reavis's The Ashes of Waco serves that purpose much better), but it does add information for the serious student of the battle between the government and the Branch Davidians.

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