Waco: American Holocaust

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:22

    But I have to say, now, that the single most disturbing movie I've ever seen is the 1997 documentary Waco: The Rules of Engagement, in which families are burned alive not by Russian bombs or Nazi crematoria but as a result of actions instigated by U.S. law enforcement officials. Waco documents a homegrown holocaust, one for which redress and rectification are still outstanding.

    I first saw the film only a couple of weeks ago. When it had its original New York opening in June 1997 at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival (followed by a run at Cinema Village), I was commencing a summerlong stay in Iran, where people sometimes remark that Americans seem not as aware of their government's control over the media as Iranians are obliged to be of theirs. But I wouldn't say that more than two years after the fact is too late to be reviewing this film. On the contrary, there's perhaps nothing more valuable I could do in December 1999 than to urge anyone who hasn't seen Waco: The Rules of Engagement to do so. It is out on video; you can even get it at Blockbuster. Easily the most important American documentary of the past decade, it has a timeliness that only increases as the case it chronicles continues to unfurl in the media, the legal system and public awareness.

    Writing about the film now also provides occasion to reflect that any film is a lot more than just its contents. It is also its career in the public sphere, its impact on the minds of people who see it and on the culture surrounding it. In these senses, the significance of Waco is extraordinary?and ongoing. The film devastatingly probes the U.S. government's responsibility for the deaths of some 80 members of the Branch Davidian community outside of Waco on April 19, 1993, and the coverup that followed. But more than that, it has done its work at a time when the major U.S. media has largely been content to let the government's obfuscating myths about the Waco disaster stand unchallenged. Funded and distributed privately, the films unveils truths that others have been unwilling to show or to see; in doing so, it has encountered few competitors and no rivals in the difficult, crucial task of focusing public attention on the most lethal use of police muscle in U.S. history.

    What was "Waco" all about? If you'd asked me a month ago, I would've answered the way that most Americans probably still would. Roughly: David Koresh was the diabolically charismatic leader of a backwoods, personality-based religious cult involved in shady activities (gun running? drugs?). When the law came knocking, the group opened fire and gunned down several officers in cold blood. Resisting arrest, the heavily armed cultists then barricaded themselves in their rural compound and spent two months bluffing for delays until the federal authorities, concerned for the kids inside, finally pumped tear gas into the compound to force Koresh's followers to come out. Instead, the cornered fanatics committed group suicide with guns and by setting their home ablaze. The FBI et al., who never fired a shot and acted with maximum restraint throughout, were as shocked as anyone at the self-annihilation.

    Waco uses a vast array of source materials?along with very little narration and no dramatic recreations or the like?to paint a strikingly different picture. The initial Feb. 28 raid on the Davidians, a Seventh-Day Adventist offshoot that had been around for decades and that regarded Koresh as an inspired Bible interpreter and leader, was aimed at securing favorable publicity for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, which had performed disastrously in the recent Ruby Ridge debacle and was only a week away from a crucial appropriations hearing in Congress. After alerting the media (thereby compromising its own security), the ATF, which could easily have arrested Koresh jogging, mounted a showily dramatic SWAT-style strike employing 80 agents in full combat gear?along with a stunning paucity of common sense, communications equipment, contingency medical plans and legal justification (their warrant cited Koresh for child abuse, which is not under ATF jurisdiction). The result, not surprisingly, was a bloody disaster.

    The film provides compelling evidence that the ATF cowboys fired first, and were sent into fumbling disarray when the Davidians shot back in self-defense, as allowed by a Texas law that proscribes the use of excessive force in arrests. The gun battle lasted 50 minutes; at the end four ATF officers and six Davidians were dead. Enter next the FBI for a 51-day standoff-cum-media circus during which the feds blared horrid tapes (rabbits being slaughtered, obnoxious music, etc.) and blinding lights at the Davidians, mooned and made obscene gestures at them, while keeping up a round of spurious "negotiations" in which Koresh seems to have spoken in consistent good faith while the FBI prevaricated wildly (the tapes we hear are appalling).

    Finally, when someone in Washington decided to pull the plug despite evidence that Koresh was close to surrender, the FBI attacked the group's complex with tanks that injected potentially lethal doses of CS gas while also ramming the building in ways that left gaping holes, giving the structure the ventilated updraft of a potbelly stove. The subsequent fire that rapidly ravaged the Mt. Carmel complex, killing most of its remaining residents, including 53 women and children, was effectively inevitable.

    Did the FBI intend to exterminate the Davidians in Mt. Carmel? There's still a lot of dispute over whether the fires were started accidentally or deliberately, and whether the cause came from outside or inside the complex. (The FBI claimed for six years that it shot no incendiary grenades into the building; then, in September, the retrieval of a grenade shell casing found inside the ruins caused Janet Reno to reverse that denial and order a new investigation.) But the crux of Waco comes in the section where a set of Forward-Looking Infrared Radar (FLIR) videotapes taken by a surveillance plane are examined by an expert. He points out what our eyes seem to confirm: clear signs of gunfire aimed at the complex from the outside rear, the side hidden from the long lenses of the national media's kept-at-a-distance cameras.

    If government shooters were gunning down Davidians as they attempted to flee, the feds' murderous intent is irrefutable. Still, while my scrutiny tells me what I'm seeing is gunfire, the FLIR images are bit like that famous scene in Blow-Up or the Zapruder film: tantalizing proof of the final ambiguity of mechanical images. Lacking corroboration, such pictures will always admit different readings. But what of it, ultimately? What the government meant to do may remain open to argument. What it did is bad enough: single out a group for what was essentially a religious persecution; deny them due process and their civil rights; bombard children with lethal doses of gas in order to make their parents surrender (this in the name of "protecting" the kids); bungle, lie and cover up at every turn; ignore the opportunities for a peaceful resolution; and elaborately create the conditions for that cataclysmic inferno. Given all this, it hardly seems crucial who tossed the first match.

    Above I've just sketched in the largest features of the film's argument, which is at once complex, powerful and remarkably careful. I say "argument" deliberately. Waco doesn't try to be "balanced" in the point-counterpoint, phony-neutral way of bland tv news shows. Rather, it is a balance?a vital counterweight to the official propaganda that America has been deluged with since 1993.

    All the same, watching the film several times over has left me with tremendous respect not only for the skill of its telling, which weaves an epic's worth of material into a little over two hours, but also for its efforts to provide conventional balance within its corrective. Toward the end, in the testimony before Congress of an FBI man who professes his own religious faith and belief in core American ideals, the film gives us one of Waco's most tragic aspects: that even the bad guys thought they were doing good.

    Nor does the film whitewash David Koresh. Since he bedded a number of the females in his flock, some as young as 12 (with the sanction of their parents), supposedly in order to father the 24 "elders" who would lead the postmillennial Davidians, the film lets us know that he was almost surely guilty of statutory rape (although, again, the ATF had no jurisdiction in this area). But what Waco does, in striking contrast to the news reports of 1993 that uniformly demonized him as, in the words of one newspaper headline, the "Sinful Messiah," is to give us Koresh in context.

    Born Vernon Howell, he took his name from King David and from Cyrus ("Koresh" being the Hebrew version thereof), the Persian king who overthrew Babylon and released the Jews from their captivity. Like many of his flock he was schooled in the Seventh-Day Adventist creed, with its intense, peculiarly American focus on the books of Daniel and Revelation and belief in the approach of the End Times. While the Davidians had been around since the 1930s, the group Koresh assumed leadership of in the 80s was no loony, inbred cracker sect. It was international, multicultural and interracial. A number of black Britons relocated to Waco after hearing Koresh expound on the Bible in England. One of his black American followers, Wayne Martin, was a Harvard-educated lawyer.

    There's a fascinating new book, A Place Called Waco, by David Thibodeau, one of the nine people who survived the Mt. Carmel holocaust (Public Affairs Press). Thibodeau was a rarity among the Davidians in that he wasn't brought up religious. He was a rock drummer who met Koresh in a Los Angeles guitar shop and gradually was drawn to the man and his teachings. He shows us Koresh as a guitar player and songwriter who drank beer, worked on cars, joked around and hung out like many another Texas-born rock 'n' roll band guy. He was not charismatic, the kind who hypnotizes you with his intent stare and droning voice, Thibodeau says, agreeing with everyone in Waco. Though Koresh was runty and dyslexic, the one thing that set him part, according to admirers and detractors alike, was a native genius at interpreting Scripture, especially those mysterious books that deal with the world's end. In his followers' eyes, he was a prophet of the Final Days who would lead them through the Apocalypse and millennium.

    According to James Tabor, a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte who appears in the film and co-authored the book Why Waco? (University of California Press), one key to the event's tragedy was that the authorities refused to understand the group in terms of its religious beliefs. If they had, Tabor suggests, it would have been relatively easy to find the language of conciliation and resolution. Instead, the Feds derided and mocked Koresh's "Bible babble." In this, alas, there's plenty of precedent. Harold Bloom's book The American Religion, which traces the burgeoning of homegrown American faiths (including the Seventh-Day Adventists) from the 19th century onward, reminds us of the official persecution and murder visited upon the early Mormons, whose contravention of conventional sexual morality has obvious parallels with Koresh's.

    There is something particularly late-20th-century, however, about the suspicion and derision of religion evidenced at Waco: it assumes a similar prejudice in high places, in the media and crucial segments of the public. Still, this was just one element in a scenario that seemed to combine numerous contemporary delusions and afflictions into a unique recipe for tragedy. In addition, Waco gives us evidence of: the hegemonic arrogance of the federal agencies, which ran roughshod over the authority of the Texas Rangers and local law enforcement; the ways the trumped up "wars" on drugs, guns and (cough) international terrorism have led to an unholy alliance between rubber-stamping judges, the federal authorities and the military (the ATF patently lied in charging the Davidians with drug violations in order to secure training facilities at Fort Hood); and the separate manias over "cults" and "child abuse," real concerns that reached their peaks of dizzily excessive, institutionally enforced hysteria around the time of the Mt. Carmel siege.

    All the foregoing notwithstanding, the two things that disturb me most in Waco I haven't even mentioned yet. They are: (a) the pervasive implication that the U.S. government, far from being the protector of religious difference and personal freedom that our traditions assert, may now be so far from popular control as to make a true accounting for the Waco disaster all but impossible; and (b) the sense that the major media is now so complicit with the political establishment that no story that the government doesn't want "broken"?in the big, meaningful way that Watergate, say, was?is likely to make its way into full public consciousness.

    Regarding the government, the record so far is consummately discouraging. Congress held hearings on the Mt. Carmel disaster in 1995, and we see plenty of them in Waco, but the results aren't pretty. On the phone last week, one of the film's writer-producers, Dan Gifford, summarized the hearings' dynamic for me. "The split," he said, "basically came down to this: The Democrats were protecting the new administration; the Republicans were out to get Bill Clinton, which put the Democrats on the defensive. The Democrats were also protecting their key political babies. To really get into Waco is to get into undoing the war on drugs, the war on guns, child abuse and other things that get politicians face time and that police departments get money for... You also have the other factor on the Republican side, which is that the FBI is involved. That's the closest thing we have in this country to an untouchable institution. Everyone who's in official life in DC is scared to death of that agency, because it has the dirt on everybody and can make up dirt when there is none."

    As Gifford put it, what the public saw in the congressional hearings "was political theater. Nobody wanted to really get at the facts of the case, with the exception on the House side of perhaps three or four. And as a couple of reporters pointed out to me, all of those, except I believe Bob Barr [R-GA], lost elections, because they were then open to a charge of being 'antipolice' and 'antigovernment.' You have these real nuclear strikes in politics these days." If the film has a Snidely Whiplash, it is the oily, despicable Rep. Charles Schumer (D-NY), who heaps scorn on the rare testimony that sounds remotely credible and revealing of the Feds' real actions.

    But surely the deepest malaise that Waco limns belongs to the media. Waco represents "a major failure of the press in this country," writer Dick J. Reavis aptly declares before Congress in the film. Reavis, a Texas leftist whose The Ashes of Waco: An Investigation (Syracuse University Press) provides a vivid and penetrating overview of the disaster, told me last week that he figured he'd be hailed as a hero by his journalistic brethren when his book (which The New York Times Book Review called "a damning portrait of official hubris, incompetence and deceit") came out. Instead, he couldn't find work for four years.

    Clearly, the powers that be among the major media do not want the Waco story told, not really, not in the comprehensive, damning way it needs to be told. Individual writers may occasionally do good, responsible work, but from the time the Texas media cooperated with ATF's disastrous raid, through 60 Minutes spiking its story as too sensitive (this is the tale The Insider should have told), up to the present moment, the press' actions institutionally have only participated in and added to the disgrace. Nor was the media's complicity in the official obfuscation confined to the newsrooms. Entertainment got on board too. As the campaign to demonize Koresh gathered steam, shows like Oprah and Donahue energetically did their parts. Do you suppose they've ever recanted?

    One person has, at least. In 1993 NBC rushed into production a fictionalized tv movie titled In the Line of Duty: Ambush at Waco aimed at painting Koresh as a monster and as valorizing the heroic law enforcement teams. Though the film continues to air even now, Thibodeau's book quotes its screenwriter, Phil Penningroth, as offering this mea culpa at a 1997 memorial service for the Branch Davidians who died at Waco: "Within days of the ATF raid, the Davidians, and especially Koresh, were demonized as the Jews were in Germany before World War II. As we all know now, the government and the media painted a portrait of Koresh and Davidians that I now believe was insidious, malevolent, and ultimately destructive. To my everlasting shame and regret, I added to that distorted view. I pray that soon, very soon, other artists, other journalists, will recognize the truth of what happened here four years ago."

    Even while Mt. Carmel was under siege, it became a cause celebre for various right-wingers, gun nuts and militia types. It might well have remained their property. Reavis, an old SDSer and civil rights activist, told me than when his book came out, these people were the only ones who wanted to talk to him. A rare proof that films really can matter in the public arena, Waco: The Rules of Engagement was inarguably the single most important force in opening the Waco issue to other parts of the political spectrum. Though it's been an uphill struggle, and the filmmakers had to distribute it themselves, the film did premiere at Sundance, did get scads of great reviews from critics across the nation and went on to play on HBO, win an Emmy and get an Oscar nomination. Even when government and the major media were still playing hear-no-evil, see-no-evil, the movie was doing its slow, steady work of changing minds one at a time.

    The film's impact, though, both divides and unites viewers in ways that call into question our customary schema of left- and right-wing. Dan Gifford told me, "The reactions we've had from what I would call the politically correct left and the statist conservative right have been identical, which is that [the film] is antigovernment, antipolice propaganda." Apparently some people find Big Brother's looming presence reassuring, and don't want his excesses questioned. On the other hand, Gifford's wife Amy, one of the film's executive producers, told me with a laugh that a cinema in Portland, OR, that showed Waco was voted the city's best theater due to its "bringing together the tree-hugging left and the gun-toting right."

    The film's credits list Dan Gifford, William Gazecki and Michael McNulty as its producers and writers. Gazecki is additionally credited as its director, McNulty as its researcher and Gifford (along with Amy Sommer Gifford) as executive producer. Since the film was made, its principals reportedly have had a falling out and gone in different directions. Gazecki, I'm told, has moved on to other projects. While the Giffords have made another, non-Waco documentary, they continue to promote Waco: The Rules of Engagement and to maintain a website devoted to the issue (it's at www.waco93.com; great links to many Waco sites can be found at yahoo.com). McNulty, meanwhile, has just finished another documentary, Waco: A New Revelation, which was shown for the press and government officials last month in Washington, DC.

    After I spoke with Dick Reavis last week, he faxed me a letter of afterthoughts, which included this: "When the press failed to read, and hence, to respond to my book?the sensation of Waco having passed?I came to believe that the 'System' that we as civil rights workers saw, might still exist. It was a system of oppression, by governments and economic interests, and it oppressed everybody, black and white. The 'System' had decided to keep the Waco events a secret, I decided, and its press naturally cooperated; it was dedicated to paychecks and ratings and promotions and good restaurants, not to any truth or any justice. Mr. McNulty, to his apparent credit, never lost faith that, as the saying goes, 'the system works.' He never lost faith in what is called American democracy."

    I hope to review Waco: A New Revelation as soon as it hits New York.