‘Waco’ author Jeff Guinn discusses the demagoguery of David Koresh : NPR

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The Texas and ATF flags fly at half-staff on April 23, 1993, on the only structure left standing after a fire destroyed the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas in the April 19th.

J. David Ake/AFP via Getty Images


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J. David Ake/AFP via Getty Images

The Texas and ATF flags fly at half-staff on April 23, 1993, on the only structure left standing after a fire destroyed the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas in the April 19th.

J. David Ake/AFP via Getty Images

In the winter and spring of 1993, more than 80 people, including four federal agents and at least 20 children, died in two violent confrontations between federal law enforcement and the Branch Davidian Christian sect near Waco, Texas. Since then, extremist groups have cited the attacks as evidence for conspiracy theories against the government.

In his new book, Waco: David Koresh, The Branch Davidians and Legacy of Rageauthor Jeff Guinn describes the group’s leader, David Koresh, as a religious demagogue who took several teenage brides and preached that he and his followers would bring about an apocalyptic conflict in their lifetime.

“David Koresh wanted to make sure that when the final battle took place, his followers would be able to fight the way the Book of Revelation said they should,” Guinn says. “It was to be a full battle. His people were going to die, but, of course, they had to be ready to kill Babylon’s agents.”

Government agents began to investigate the Branch Davidians on accusations that children in the compound were being abused and that the group was storing weapons. On the morning of February 28, 1993, 76 agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) arrived at the compound, called Mount Carmel, expecting to surprise the group.

“[The agents] they were not given any information about what the Branch Davidians believe, what their religious faith means,” says Guinn. “They thought from their sources that all the weapons were kept in a locked room at Mount Carmel, a room which could only be opened with Koresh’s. permission.”

In fact, Koresh had passed the weapons in the compound, so most of the members of the group were stocked with firearms and ammunition. Furthermore, the Branch Davidians knew that the ATF was coming. A three-hour standoff ensued, during which five Branch Davidians and four federal agents were killed.

“Nearly a third of the ATF agents are carried away, bleeding or dead from this fight,” says Guinn. “Before noon on this day, the ATF is dragging itself away like a defeated army.”

A 51-day standoff followed, during which the FBI took over from the ATF. The hostage negotiators tried to convince Koresh to surrender. Meanwhile, tactical experts planned for a second raid relying on CS gas (a type of tear gas) to drive out the members of the group.

“In small doses, [the gas] it wasn’t supposed to catch fire, and it wasn’t supposed to really be too physically affecting beyond the irritation to the eyes and skin,” says Guinn. “It would be enough, if phased in, for the Branch Davidians to come out.”

On April 19, 1993, the FBI moved forward with its plan, but something went terribly wrong. A fire broke out in the compound, engulfing Mount Carmel in flames and killing all but nine of the people inside. Later, each side would claim that the other was responsible for the conflagration, but Guinn points out that of the three entities involved, only one wanted it to be resolved in death.

“The ATF and the FBI both went in, not just with hope, but with the actual determination that no lives would be lost. ATF and FBI officials made terrible mistakes that led to loss of life, and that’s horrible. But it wasn’t the original intention,” he says. “Only the Branch Davidian agenda required people to die.”

Interview highlights

Waco: David Koresh, The Branch Davidians, and a Legacy of Rage, by Jeff Guinn
Waco: David Koresh, The Branch Davidians, and a Legacy of Rage, by Jeff Guinn

About how the teaching of Cyrus was beneficial

What David Koresh used to do for his followers on Mount Carmel is sometimes announcing that God had sent him a “new light”, a new message. The initial messages were basically ways that everyone could work better, love the Lord more, and basically make yourself worthy to be saved when the end times came. But gradually, some of these “new lights” benefited David Koresh and others. This is not unique among religious demagogues who claim a special relationship with God.

The first thing he claimed – even though he already had a wife, a 14-year-old daughter, pushing the legal limits in Texas, but she had her parents’ permission and therefore the marriage was legal – he announced that God now he wanted to have wives. , multiple wives. He pointed out some scriptural passages which he said supported this, and claimed that he needed multiple wives because it was his job to beget 24 children who would become elders and help lead after the kingdom of God is re-established, in the end times. He then goes on to announce that among all the women of Karmnu, every woman of childbearing age – and who is, say, over 12 – was now his wife and could have sex with him only for procreation purposes. The husbands of these women were forbidden to have sex at all anymore. And Koresh said that this was a blessing for them because now they could focus their energies to study the Bible more and become more worthy of the Lord. So it was sex. They were everyone’s wives. And he even decided that God wanted him to have the only air conditioning unit in Mount Carmel.

About the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) targeting Branch Davidians for their storage of illegal weapons

The Branch Davidians wanted to use guns to raise money initially. They would take semi-automatic weapons, buy spare parts, turn them into automatic weapons and sell them at a considerable profit. He also let them build the stocks at Mount Carmel for their final battle. They not only had guns, but also bought shells and powders. So they built illegal grenades. …

[The ATF] they heard from a couple of disgruntled Branch Davidians who had left… that Koresh was actually training his people in the use of these weapons and that eventually the Branch Davidians could effectively launch an attack from Mount Carmel on civilians around Waco, who was going. which would be some kind of mass attack or even mass suicide, like what happened some years before in Jonestown, with the Peoples Temple in Guyana.

So the ATF made the decision: They are going to Mount Carmel, they are going to raid, they are going to remove these illegal weapons and they are going to arrest whoever is responsible, that is at least David Koresh.

On the 51 day standoff between the FBI and the Branch Davidians

Inside Mount Carmel, David’s followers were waiting for something to happen. He had promised them that they would be converted in great glory. Nothing was happening. No one trusted the other side, and no one could really communicate with the other side, because if people don’t want to understand what the other person is saying, it doesn’t make any difference how hard you try negotiate, nothing will happen. At last, towards the end, [Koresh] he said that if he were allowed to write his explanation of the seven seals of the Book of Revelation and release them to the religious leaders in the country, he and his followers would go out. That was his promise. The FBI did not believe it and decided that something had to be done to end the siege.

On the fire that ruled over Mount Carmel

It was a windy and cold day. the [gas] first came canisters. The FBI claimed that there was gunfire from Mount Carmel. The Surviving Branch Davidians swear it never happened. But whatever happened, all the canisters went in and gradually swirling clouds of CS gas began to spread throughout the building. The only heat the Branch Davidians had came from Coleman oil lamps that had to have a few flames. In a few hours, somehow the gas caught on. It was inevitable that he would. There was such an accumulation of it and the building went up like a book of matches. The fire was almost instantaneous. The flames rose into the air. Of the Branch Davidians they let in, only nine escaped with their lives. No one else came out. Everyone died in a flaming inferno. It is almost indescribable how horrible it was there.

About anti-government protests in Waco

Perhaps the most vocal group, the most obvious group, were people who saw in Waco the same things they had suspected in Ruby Ridge earlier. [Idaho] about six months earlier, that the US government was systematically trying to kill, or at least repress, gun-owning, law-abiding citizens who had never done anything to hurt anyone else. There were many militants selling t-shirts and bumper stickers against the government. One of them — and we have a picture of this in the book — was a man named Timothy McVeigh, who two years later would blow up the federal building in Oklahoma City in protest of what happened in Waco. It was here that Waco became ground zero for future militancy. And Waco was made for the conspiracy minded, a great symbol of the evil of the American government.

About the FBI’s response to what happened

If we ever wanted proof that trying to cover up small things when mistakes have been made is the worst thing you can possibly do, just look at Mount Carmel in Waco. After the terrible fire, the FBI stated that they simply did what was agreed with the attorney general, gradually introduced CS gas, all of which did not ignite, and that the Attorney General [Janet] Reno had agreed with her. Lies, in that early morning, they had used some combustible military rounds to introduce the gas, as well as the non-flammable rounds they had promised the attorney general. But these military rounds were never actually fired. The fire started hours after those rounds were fired. But when the FBI was caught lying about it, then, of course, it made it easy for the conspiracists to say they’re lying about everything.

When he spoke to the surviving Branch Davidians, 30 years later

I’ve written about Charles Manson and talked to some of his followers all these years since, I’ve talked to the people who followed Jim Jones and survived Jonestown. And those people would inevitably say, “How could I believe that? What a fool I was.” But the people who survived Mount Carmel, who believed in David Koresh, believe in him to this day – what the ATF did, and then the FBI [did], perfectly fulfilled David’s prophecy that he and the others who died on Mount Carmel were translated and are waiting, and at some point, God will return them at the head of his armies, we will have this confrontation and the end of days will come. They have been sustained in this belief for 30 years. He is unshakable. And I think this shows the power, the charisma of David Koresh. How could it be otherwise?

Sam Briger and Thea Chaloner produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the web.

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