Image: Davidian compound
Susan Weems  /  AP
Flames engulf the Branch Davidian compound in this April 19, 1993 file photo in Waco, Texas. Eighty-one Davidians, including leader David Koresh, perished as federal agents tried to drive them out of the compound.
By Clint Van Zandt
msnbc.com
updated 4/18/2008 2:29:40 PM ET 2008-04-18T18:29:40
COMMENTARY

April 19th is a dark day in American history with the siege at Waco and the bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal Building both taking place respectively on that day.

It has now been 15 years since the terrible conflagration that occurred at the Branch Davidian compound at Waco, Texas, and 13 years since the attack on the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Okla., with our country suffering wounds and losses that even exceed those who died and were injured in these two horrific incidents. I can still remember a bumper sticker I saw on a pickup truck shortly after the destruction at Waco. It said, "I love my country, it's the government I'm afraid of."

Many people associate the name “Waco” with the nearby fatal confrontation between agents of the federal government and a group of heavily-armed private citizens that occurred in the spring of 1993. The standoff ended when the government used armored vehicles to insert CS gas into a large, poorly-constructed wooden building that was both the home and last stand for almost every member of this doomsday cult. It was subsequently set afire by its very occupants as ordered by their 33-year-old leader David Wayne (Vernon), a.k.a. David Koresh, and resulted in the death of almost all of the members of this cult.

David Koresh was born to a 15-year-old girl and he never knew his father. He had a challenged childhood because of his looks and his dyslexia; he was relentlessly teased by his peers causing him to eventually drop out of school. Koresh then took on the task of studying the Bible in depth, and associated himself with a breakaway apocalyptic segment of the 7th Day Adventist Church.

He eventually became the leader of the group that was called the Branch Davidians, one that under his leadership would separate itself from the world outside of their large wooden group home outside of Waco. Koresh would preach to his followers for hours at a time, eventually convincing them he was the Messiah and that the men in his group needed to give up their wives and older female children to David alone, which they did.

Some will remember the initial confrontation between ATF agents and the Davidians involving illegal weapons believed to be possessed by the cult and allegations of child abuse. 

I had the chance to speak directly with David Koresh on multiple occasions during the many weeks that I spent at Waco as an FBI hostage negotiator. I remember one particular night when Koresh asked to speak to a Christian FBI agent. I was one of many, and the negotiations team that I led suggested Koresh and I speak, and so we did. We talked about many things for a few hours, but mostly we discussed the Bible, or Koresh’s interpretation of it. We’d race from book to book and chapter to chapter with Koresh trying to use scripture to justify his actions, including his sexual contact with the young girls and the adult women members of his clan.

'I'm the Christ'
When we talked late one night, David said, “Brother Clint” (as he called me), “do you know who I am? I’m the Christ.”

“David,” I said, “We may agree or disagree on a number of things, but your actions do not appear to agree with those of Christ... In John 10, for example, it says, ‘I am the good Shepherd; the good Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep.’ You’re talking about taking the lives of your entire flock, not saving them.”

Koresh was not accustomed to being challenged on his interpretation of the scriptures, as his small congregation was said to accept whatever David said. He rebuffed our efforts to bring negotiations to his level though, passing us off as people who obviously didn’t understand the book of Revelation and the seven seals. By his own definition, he was the only one who really understood and who could unlock the seals as described in that complicated book of the Bible. The next morning I was told by the on-scene commander’s representative, “No more Bible babble.” They (the FBI) just didn’t seem to get it. I felt the key to Koresh was meeting him on a Biblical level, and I was told “never again…”

No progress with negotiations
And so it went. There were 850 individual conversations between negotiators and the Davidian members, all to no avail and we made many concessions that went unanswered by the Davidians.

We tried to convince Koresh to end the confrontation peacefully, even through “off-channel contacts.”  I met with a local right-wing radio talk show host on some lonely, wind-swept dirt crossroad just outside of town to discuss the ongoing standoff. Despite the host’s disgust for the government, he believed that the FBI wanted to end the siege peacefully. In a later radio broadcast he asked Koresh to listen to us, again to no avail.

The initial confrontation between the Davidians and the ATF had cost lives on both sides, including four ATF Agents and six Branch Davidians. No one was going to back down after these losses and the 51-day standoff would eventually end in the deaths of 76 of the Davidian children and adults, many by believed self-inflicted or group-inflicted gunshots to their heads, more horrible losses that should never have happened in America.

It is of little consequence to know that days before the final faceoff between the government and the Davidians that I helped to write an analysis suggesting Koresh was a functional psychotic who knew exactly what he was doing. Some of us felt that his master plan was to force the FBI to confront his group in one final showdown in which they’d kill as many FBI agents as they could and then they would all die in a fire and explosion of their own origin. Our memo to this effect, as well as that of others, was read by unseeing eyes and unbelieving officials.

The effect of the Oklahoma City bombing
As I walked into the FBI Academy’s Behavioral Science Unit on the morning of April 19, 1995, I turned on the news from Oklahoma City and felt an overwhelming sense of dread and déjà vu at the extent of damage sustained by the Oklahoma City Federal Building.

As the telephones began to ring throughout our unit, I got a call from FBI headquarters. “Clint,” the headquarters supervisor said, “You’re a profiler. Who would do such a thing?”

“That’s not too hard,” I replied. Today’s date, April 19th, the two-year anniversary of Waco; that would be the key to the bombing, to the deaths. I felt the bomber would be a white male, either acting alone or perhaps with one other person. He’d be in his mid-20s with military experience, and would likely be a fringe-like member of some militia group. But the key to this crime would be the date. The bomber will be angry at the government for what happen at Waco and probably Ruby Ridge, and he will have told others so. He’ll be a homebred, full-blooded American terrorist.”

Timothy McVeigh fled the site of the worst act of home-grown terrorism in modern U.S. history, but thankfully an Oklahoma state trooper stopped him. McVeigh, single, mid-20s, U.S. Army Gulf War veteran, attended some militia meetings and put together the bombing with his old buddy Terry Nichols. He said he did it because of Waco, striking out in anger and rage at the government agencies housed in the federal building, as well as the children in the first floor day care center.  McVeigh would call the 168 dead “collateral damage.”

Hopefully both our government and our citizens have learned a mutually beneficial lesson from the events of April 19, 1993 and 1995, and hopefully these lessons will not be lost or forgotten by future generations.

I hope we will someday see future bumper stickers that read, “I love my country and respect your right to believe as you wish,” with the accompanying fine print reading, “and if you don’t like the law, vote to change it.”  Perhaps the upcoming national election will allow us to do just that, but we should never forget the mistakes of Waco and the hatred that spawned the Oklahoma City bombing.  Otherwise we will be condemned to repeat our mistakes and live with the consequences.

Clint Van Zandt is a former FBI agent, behavioral profiler and hostage negotiator as well as an MSNBC analyst. His Web site, www.LiveSecure.org, provides readers with security-related information.

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