On Wednesday, April 19, 1775, British Major Pitcairn told about a hundred American colonists: “Disperse, you villains! Lay down your arms!” When the colonists refused, the first battle of the American War for Independence began.
April 19 is also the anniversary of Paul Revere’s ride to warn townsfolk that the British were coming.
It is also the date of at least two other major incidents in our country’s collective history: the siege at Waco and the Oklahoma City bombing.
As I consider the 10 and 12-year anniversaries of the death and destruction that occurred at the Branch Davidian compound at Waco, Tex., and the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Okla., I’m reminded of a bumper sticker I saw on a pickup truck shortly after the conflagration at Waco. It said, “I love my country, it’s the government I’m afraid of.”
Waco plus 12
Most of us do not think of Waco as the home of the Texas Ranger Museum, but as the location of the fatal confrontation between agents of the federal government and a group of heavily-armed Americans. It ended with the government using armored vehicles to insert CS gas into a large, poorly-constructed wooden building that was subsequently set afire by its very occupants, resulting in the death of almost all of the members of this doomsday cult, sect, group, or extended family.
I stood there watching as that black, emotionless fire roared across and ultimately consumed the Branch Davidian compound that fateful day. As the flames grew higher and higher in the Texas sky, I silently prayed that the secret tunnels we had been told existed (they supposedly led out of the Davidian’s large, warehouse-like group home) were somehow filled with children and adults who had fled the fire. It was fire that had been ordered set by their 33-year-old leader, David Wayne Howell, aka Vernon Howell, aka David Koresh.
But the tunnels were not real and my prayers would go unanswered that morning on that windy hilltop.
My encounters with Koresh
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, but the negotiations team that I led suggested Koresh and I speak, and so we did. We talked about many things for the next 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 prepubescent girls and the other female members of his clan.
When we talked 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 and 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, (i.e., The Gospel according to David). 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 just didn’t get it. The key to Koresh was meeting him on a Biblical level, and I was told "never again"…
And so it went. There were 850 individual conversations between negotiators and the Davidian members, all to no avail. We made many concessions that went unanswered by the Davidians. (The negotiators also banged heads with the FBI tactical team, but that’s another story.)
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.
If history could be changed
The initial confrontation between the Davidians and the ATF had cost lives on both sides, including four ATF Agents and six Branch Davidians. ATF went into the Davidian compound to make arrests concerning alleged federal firearms violations and wound up burying four brave federal agents, while the Davidians were left to grieve their own losses. No one was going to back down after these losses - that's probably the same way wars between nations begin. The 51-day standoff would eventually end in the deaths of 74 of the Davidian children and adults, more horrible losses that should never have happened in America.
When asked how this should have ended, I say that it should never have started in the first place. I would have loved to have had the chance to turn the clock back to before the ATF raid and I would have liked to have joined with McLennan County Sheriff Jack Harwell (a saint of a man) to sit on Koresh’s front porch, and drink ice tea from a mason jar while discussing the problems that we shared jointly— i.e., the possible federal firearms violations and the rumors of inappropriate contact between Davidian members and children. We would then ask Koresh and his in-house legal counsel how we might jointly resolve these issues. Even if he had told us to “go to hell,” we would have been able to tell the public that we tried to solve the situation non-violently before we went to guns. But I wasn’t there when it started, and I surely don’t have divine wisdom and insight — only a state college education, a negotiator's and a profiler’s perspective on such confrontations, as well as a belief that it should never happen like this.
Negotiators and profilers had suggested the great potential for loss should the government continue its aggressive actions toward the Davidian members, but federal agents had been killed and no one was going to simply walk away from this situation. Still, the government continued its plan to maximize pressure in an attempt to break the emotional glue that held this strange band together, an action that instead compressed them together and compounded the problem of how to peacefully resolve the conflict.
A week or two before April 19, 1993, a psychiatrist and I wrote to FBI headquarters and indicated our belief that Koresh was likely to be a functional psychotic, but that he knew 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, were read by unseeing eyes and unbelieving officials. The die was cast.
I watched that fateful morning as the CS gas was inserted into the building, and as the Davidians began firing their weapons at our agents. Their building caught fire in a 25-mile-an-hour wind and quickly burned to the ground. Dozens would die that morning, including all of the young children that I’d gotten to know by face and name. I’d never had a lower point in my entire life. The destruction was total, like something out of some Third World banana republic, but it was in America and I was part of it.
As I walked around the former compound with the fire still smoldering and the charred ashes representing both the former wooden structure and the dozens of human bodies that were its inhabitants, I knew it wouldn’t end there. This was a small, dusty, wide spot in the road in rural Texas, not Tiananmen Square some four years prior, but there were still some subtle parallels—like tanks confronting citizens.
What an absolute classic tragedy. What a total indictment of mankind’s inability to communicate and relate. The FBI and the American public learned a lot through this confrontation; hopefully one lesson was to talk first and save the shooting until later. But I felt that a war had been unintentionally declared and that there would be others who would pick up where the Davidians left off, where they died.
Oklahoma City, 10 years later
On April 19, 1994, the one-year anniversary of the end of the Waco conflict was uneventful. I still believed that we would hear a response from some militant who was personally overwhelmed by the losses at Waco and even Ruby Ridge in 1992. I didn’t have long to wait.
As I walked into the FBI Academy’s Behavioral Science Unit (BSU) 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. I knew that many lives would be counted as lost before that day had ended.
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. “The date, April 19, the two-year anniversary of Waco, that’s the key. You’re going to have a white male, acting alone or maybe with one other person. He’ll be in his mid-20s with military experience, and he’ll be a fringe member of some militia group. But the key is the anniversary date. He’s angry at the government for what happen at Waco and probably Ruby Ridge and he would have told others so. He’ll be a homebred, full-blooded American terrorist.”
“Hmmm; we don’t think so,” he said. “When you look at the damage to the building we think it resembles bombings that have been committed by Third World terrorists; that’s who we think did it.”
Well, thank God for that Oklahoma state trooper who bagged Timothy McVeigh as he fled the site of the worst act of home-grown terrorism in modern U.S. history. McVeigh, single, mid-20s, U.S. Army Gulf War veteran, attended some militia meetings and was responsible for the bombing with his old buddy Terry Nichols. 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. This is what McVeigh called the 168 dead — “collateral damage.”
Shock waves still
We still feel the shock waves from the bombing today, at least the emotional ones. Within the last few weeks we learned that explosives had been found buried in the basement of the former home of Terry Nichols, suggesting that either FBI agents simply “missed” the cache of explosives when they first searched the residence almost 10 years ago, or else this is a reverse conspiracy theory perpetrated by those who would seek to embarrass the FBI.
I’m betting that somebody just didn’t go the extra mile and dig up the basement when they searched the residence; i.e., they missed the explosives because they just didn’t do a complete search that should (with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight) have included bomb sniffing dogs and ground penetrating radar. And there are the continuing rumors that McVeigh and Nichols were somehow sponsored by Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaida, something that is either one more wild conspiracy theory or an unbelievable fact that has yet to be proved.
Waco may have started the war, but Oklahoma City was a turning point. Militia groups and others who loved to hate the government for the deaths at Ruby Ridge and Waco — the Alamo and Pearl Harbor for such groups — had to witness the “collateral damage” that took so many innocent lives because of a strong-willed but misguided man with a truck full of explosives and a hate as big as his bomb. Some conspiracy theorists were to later suggest that they “knew” it was an Air Force F-16 that in reality bombed the federal building, this to give the government a reason to wage open war against the militia groups.
Focusing the war against terror
The weeks following the bombing could have been a tough time for militia groups but for a meeting we had shortly after the bombing with then-FBI Director (1993-2001) Louis J. Freeh. Director Freeh, himself a former FBI agent who took command of the FBI after Waco, wanted some insight from the profilers in the BSU concerning the bombing and those who committed it. A small group from my unit met with him on a Saturday morning. As the spokesperson for our unit, I suggested that the militia groups would expect that we’d seek new and more intrusive powers to go after them and their guns. I instead suggested that we have an FBI agent with a prior military background get together with the local sheriff (as a publicly elected official, a county sheriff was someone such groups would believe or at least listen to) and ask to meet with every militia group across the country. We’d need to identify ourselves as citizens, in reality patriots like those with whom we’d meet, who believed in America as much as they did. We should say that we didn’t believe that McVeigh represented their rank-and-file membership, and that if anyone like him showed up at their meetings that we’d appreciate a call. And so it was.
I think the events of 9/11 put at least a temporary end to any militia group activities that were counter to government in this country. Most militia members saw themselves as citizen patriots, and most were quick to recognize a greater enemy than they believed the ATF or the FBI to be, namely, international terrorism.
My prayer is that both our government and our citizens have learned a mutually beneficial lesson from the events of April 19, 1993 and 1995, and that these lessons will not be lost or forgotten by future generations.
We next saw the successful application of "the talking cure" applied during the 1996 confrontation between the Montana Freemen and the FBI, one in which both sides exhibited the understanding of patience as learned from Waco. It was a standoff that was eventually resolved in a courtroom battle, not a gun battle.
I hope we have all learned to apply "the talking cure" first, and that the government and our citizenry have learned patience.
I hope future bumper stickers will now 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.”
Email Clint at CVZ@msnbc.com
Clint Van Zandt is an MSNBC analyst. He is the founder and president of Van Zandt Associates Inc. Van Zandt and his associates also developed LiveSecure.org, a Website dedicated "to develop, evaluate, and disseminate information to help prepare and inform individuals concerning personal and family security issues." During his 25-year career in the FBI, Van Zandt was a supervisor in the FBI's internationally renowned Behavioral Science Unit at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia. He was also the FBI's Chief Hostage Negotiator and was the leader of the analytical team tasked with identifying the "Unabomber."