Twenty-five years ago, on an isolated hill in the middle of nowhere, U.S.A., an armed conflict broke out that changed the face of the country. Millions of Americans watched as the largest military force ever deployed in the country set out to confront a civilian population: tanks and helicopters against men, women and children. It was the beginning of a 51-day siege in Texas, which ended with a mysterious fire that was broadcast live. The structure in which members of the Branch Davidian community had fortified themselves was burned to the ground. Seventy-six of those inside, among them 23 children and the cult’s leader, David Koresh, perished. To this day, no one can explain precisely how the incident lurched out of control.
The city of Waco, not too far from the place where those events played out, has since become synonymous with madness, above all the madness of Koresh. But many Americans, particularly devout Christians, Southerners and right-wing militiamen, will say that the madness was that of the federal government, which sought to demonstrate its power at the expense of a small religious group that wasn’t bothering anyone. For these people, Waco was a watershed that prompted many to lose confidence in public institutions and some to arm themselves while awaiting Judgment Day. So it’s not surprising that television’s “true crime” era has engendered two new series – “Waco,” a six-part dramatic miniseries from the Paramount Network, and the documentary series “Waco: Madman or Messiah” (A&E Network) – both in conjunction with the 25th anniversary of the deadly siege.
While there’s hardly a fact concerning the whole affair that isn’t the subject of debate and controversy, a few things are clear. The beginning of the end of the story took place on February 28, 1993. At the time, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, a unit of the Department of Justice, faced budget cuts and was looking for a way to demonstrate its necessity. “Domestic terror” was a relatively new and ominous term in public discourse at the time, and ATF found a perfect target to exemplify it: the Mount Carmel Center, some 13 miles east of Waco, the compound where a small, heavily armed cult had its base.
The Davidians – whose name came from their belief that they were the descendants of the biblical House of David – earned extra cash by upgrading semi-automatic rifles to fully automatic and reselling them – a federal offense – but had no intention of shooting anyone before the coming of the messiah. From the perspective of the federal authorities, the combination of Texas, weapons and messianic believers seemed tailor-made for the raid they were looking to stage. The ATF alerted the media in advance of its plans, and this information leaked to the cult.
The armed community – an offshoot of the Davidian Seventh-day Adventist Church, which was in turn a breakoff from the original Seventh-day Adventists – saw the federal government as the Babylon of our era, and its members were genuinely fearful that forces of evil were coming to destroy them. The federal agents, for their part, were genuinely fearful that they were dealing with a group of unpredictable lunatics. It is still not clear who fired the first shot on that February 28, but the second and third shots, and the subsequent volley, were fired from all directions. Within two hours, four agents and five cult members were killed.
The death of the federal agents shifted responsibility to the shoulders of the FBI, which now took the reins in what became the siege of Mount Carmel. The new media era, in which news was broadcast around the clock, made their leader, Koresh, a global celeb. The gaze of the TV cameras heightened the pressure on Bill Clinton’s administration, which had been installed just a month earlier. Armored military vehicles were sent to encircle Mount Carmel.
Throughout the siege, professional negotiators tried to persuade Koresh to surrender. Surviving recordings, which are heard in the documentary series (aired in two parts last month), indicate that 247 conversations were held with the Davidians. Some of them led to the release of several children. When the negotiations bogged down, the FBI tried psychological warfare: projector lights were focused on the cult’s residence at night to prevent them from sleeping, and loudspeakers blared shrieks of rabbits being killed and songs by Nancy Sinatra. But they seem to have failed to internalize the group’s power of resistance. Far from capitulating, the Davidians only dug in deeper. Koresh did not hold his followers by force or with threats; they chose to stay.
In the end, it was the FBI’s patience that ran out. At the order of Attorney General Janet Reno and with the authorization of President Clinton, the building was shelled with tear gas. A fire broke out, though what caused it is not known to this day. The prevalent theory is that the Davidians themselves torched the compound to avoid arrest and to hasten redemption by means of mass suicide. Some of the survivors maintain that the blaze erupted accidentally due to the FBI attack.
However, there is no argument about the final result, which unfolded live on TV newscasts around the world. Over the next hour, large numbers of agents and other federal personnel, reporters and curious onlookers watched as fire ravaged the compound. The entrenched group apparently had time to escape, but the expectation that they would actually take that course was soon shattered. Ultimately, only nine people chose to escape, as an agent at the scene recalled; no one rescued even a single child. (One member of the community, the agent said, preferred to rescue a dog.)
David Koresh was born Vernon Wayne Howell in 1958. His mother was 14 years old; he never knew his father. He was raised by his grandmother. His undiagnosed dyslexia, because of which he was placed in special education, left him with an inferiority complex, as he later acknowledged. According to members of the Branch Davidians, he may also have been sexually abused in his childhood. He dropped out of high school to look for his path in life, tried to make it as a guitarist in California and did odd jobs, until he ostensibly experienced religious enlightenment at the age of 22 and wound up at Mount Carmel, in Texas.
Though Howell was born in Houston in 1958, “David Koresh” was born in Jerusalem in 1985. Like many believers before and after him, he underwent an ecstatic religious experience during a pilgrimage to the Holy City, which in some Christian-American circles is known as being “born again.” If he fell prey to the Jerusalem Syndrome – developing obsessive religious ideas or delusions due to a visit to that city – it was never formally diagnosed, though in his sermons he related how God had been revealed to him on the city’s Mount Zion. The revelation was that he was the last prophet and that it was incumbent on him to restore the glory of the biblical Kingdom of David. At the Mount Carmel Center, he discovered a messianic community with a history of prophets. Their center had been founded in 1935 by Victor Houteff, after whose death the group had proceeded from prophet to prophet, and disappointment to disappointment.
Like Houteff, Koresh was a former Adventist, a member of a denomination that also had a history of messianic disappointment, dating to the mid-19th century. That era was the most religiously fervent period in the history of America, when would-be prophets and messiahs founded churches on every corner, from Jehovah’s Witnesses to the Mormons. One of them was William Miller, who converted prophecy into simple arithmetic. With the aid of a Karaite calendar and the Book of Daniel, he calculated the date of Jesus’ return and generated great enthusiasm. The uneventful passing of the specified date, October 22, 1844, was subsequently known as the “Great Disappointment,” and from it sprang a large number of new messianic communities. One was the Seventh-day Adventists, whose offshoots have replicated the pattern of prophecy and disappointment with a succession of prophets.
Koresh, though he was in a way a modern incarnation of a 150-year-old messianic phenomenon, differed from his predecessors because of his tragic demise. Another difference lies in a significant addition to his religious world view: polygamy. After assuming control of the Mount Carmel community, he told the Branch Davidians, the successors to Houteff’s group, about a prophecy that had instructed him to bring 24 apostles into the world from his seed. To that end, he declared that all the women in the community, including minors, must marry him, whereas all the other men in the community must abstain from sex. Some members of the group, men and women alike, chose to leave, and Koresh did not stop them. The rest believed the prophecy and carried out its precepts. Entire families were dismantled, the men began living together and the women married Koresh. The Mount Carmel center continued under the new social structure.
History of prophecy
An Israeli cult leader who has returned recently to public consciousness is Goel Ratzon, who is the model for the main protagonist of a new Hebrew television series called “Harem.” The group that developed around Ratzon – a polygamist who was convicted in 2014 at the age of 64 of rape and other sex offenses against six women and girls, and is now serving a 30-year prison term – exemplifies the nebulousness of the term “cult.” Ratzon invoked religious imagery in his dealings with others, but in his hands it was little more than merely a weapon for exercising control and wielding fear. His book of rules, which was exposed by the daily Maariv in 2009, consisted of innumerable prohibitions and punishments that endowed him with power over every aspect of his wives’ lives: from when they were allowed to use the toilet, to the size of the fine that would be levied on any of them if she called him from an unidentified phone number. Ratzon demanded control over their every activity, and threatened them with magical powers that he attributed to himself. He also demanded absolute secrecy from in his community, so that the cult would not attract attention.
It’s easy to view Koresh as being in the same category as Ratzon: Both ascribed their powers to God, and both oversaw a series of polygamous relationships. But Koresh, in contrast to Ratzon, sought to spread his message far and wide. That may sound trivial, but it’s key to understanding the difference between the two. Whereas Ratzon posed as a therapist and cajoled women into joining his household, which in time evolved into a personality cult – Koresh joined an existing religious community with a long history of prophecy and messianic devotion. He may have been seen as a prophet, but his control was not absolute. It was the Davidians who allowed him to lead them, as arises from the FBI recordings and from the two new TV series about him.
One can also better understand Koresh’s case if he is compared to the leader of what was at its start another messianic cult, who achieved fame during the explosive religious period in the 19th century. He was Joseph Smith, founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints – better known as the Mormon church – in 1830. Like Koresh, Smith also believed he was in exclusive possession of a divine prophecy, and like Koresh in his final days he, too, published a new holy treatise: the Book of Mormon. Nearly 200 years later, the church is established and recognized internationally, and has to some extent softened its messianic nature. Still, in its initial phase, the Mormons believed that Smith was a prophet and that the messiah would arrive in their lifetime.
Public curiosity about Ratzon, Koresh and Smith generally focuses on their polygamy. The creation of “Harem,” a series that deals largely with the willing enslavement of women, is not a chance event. But messianism is not only a matter of control and power – and it’s not exactly madness, either. In fact, it has a logic of its own. Which is why we need to turn to Smith, not Ratzon, to understand the lethal events at Waco.
Like Koresh, Smith also underwent an ecstatic religious experience. An angel, he said, had told him that all churches are corrupt and that he was to establish a new one. He, too, believed in a literal interpretation of the Bible, where polygamy is a norm and a messiah is to be born from the right seed. Smith wished to restore the marital institution of the patriarch Abraham. The women who married Mormonism’s founder, who were of a messianic persuasion as well, also wanted to live as they imagined life in biblical times.
Dialogue of the deaf
David Koresh left a great and diverse legacy in America, particularly fear of the authorities, though it’s not clear that the authorities learned the right lessons from the tragedy. He was part of an existing community of believers who waited quietly for Judgment Day and did not impose their way of life on anyone – until one day his acolytes saw armed federal agents outside the window. When that happened, they and Koresh all acted according to messianic logic, according to which blood and fire and columns of smoke are a positive sign.
Though the FBI depicted Koresh and his community as mentally ill and in need of detention and hospitalization, one Waco survivor, Kat Schroeder, believes that the agents made no effort to understand what she and her friends believed in.
“I think the FBI tried to figure out what tactic they could use against a group of people that they thought were crazy,” Schroeder says in “Waco: Madman or Messiah,” the new documentary. “They didn’t have any idea that everyone in that building had complete and utter devotion to doing God’s will over man’s will. And that meant we were not coming out.”
The only person who discerned at the time that there was a dialogue of the deaf taking place at Waco was J. Phillip Arnold, a scholar of religion who specializes in apocalyptic movements. Arnold, who appears in the documentary, knew the Branch Davidians well, and grasped that Koresh had simple read the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament through messianic lenses. In video tapes of Koresh made during the siege, and in telephone conversations with FBI agents, Arnold heard echoes of other prophets, who wished only to convey an apocalyptic message to as wide an audience as possible. According to Arnold, Koresh found in the Vision of John, in the Book of Revelation, a key to understanding everything and the idea that all kinds of catastrophic events would occur to symbolize the advent of the end of days.
In Arnold’s view, the negotiating team, led by FBI Special Agent Bob Ricks, was wrong to assume that Koresh was not rational. As Arnold relates in the series, he offered to interpret Koresh’s words for negotiators. But Ricks told him that it was all meaningless “Bible babble” and that there was nothing to understand. The FBI was convinced that Koresh was a “conman,” says Arnold.
In a press conference at the start of the siege of Mount Carmel, Ricks explained why, in his view, the first attempt to reach a compromise failed. Koresh avoided all rational discussion that could have led to a quiet end and resorted to convenient quotes from Scripture to justify his lack of action, said the FBI agent. Another negotiator, Jim McGee, is convinced to this day that Koresh was using rhetorical tricks: He lived in the compound like a king, he called himself King David, and the last thing he was going to do was surrender and enter a federal prison, because there he would no longer be a king, and that would be a totally foreign environment for him, McGee averred.
The insistence on viewing Koresh as either insane or a fraudster prevented the FBI from working to obtain his surrender, something that could have saved the lives of more than 20 children at Waco, among others. Possibly it might have been possible to neutralize the confrontation if someone had believed that Koresh wanted to publish a holy book and that his Davidian followers were there of their free will. The agents couldn’t grasp the fact that there might be an entire community that actually believed in the so-called end times and in martyrdom without the existence of a conman or a madman behind the scenes pulling the strings.
“I can’t control everybody here,” Koresh said of his followers in one of his last phone conversations with the FBI. But the agent was adamant: “I think you can.”
Fourteen years after the devastating fire at Mount Carmel, and with a new prophet named Charles Pace installed, the Branch Davidian survivors reestablished their church. They had been messianic devotees before they knew Koresh, and they remained so afterward. The community lives tranquilly. No one has pushed them into a corner. So far.