The Waco Diaries

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Today commemorates the twentieth anniversary of the Waco firestorm of 1993, and no doubt we will hear a good deal about religious fanaticism, and over-reach by law enforcement. In order to understand the disaster, though, we have to recall another context only tangentially connected with religious matters.

The Waco siege was an accidental blowback from an American terrorist crisis that has now largely faded into oblivion.

At first sight, terrorism may seem to have little to do with the Waco story. The group involved, the Branch Davidians, originated in the 1920s as a breakaway from the Seventh Day Adventist tradition. They settled at Mount Carmel, near Waco, where they developed distinctive views about the apocalypse and the End Times. From the late 1980s, they were under the command of a charismatic figure named Vernon Howell, who adopted the messianic title of David Koresh. Whatever his other flaws, Koresh showed little concern with political activism, and his group was strictly color-blind, with many Black and Caribbean members.

But Mount Carmel would suffer terribly from a quite unwitting (and unjust) association with racist violence. During the 1970s and 1980s, America developed a sizable and highly active network of ultra-Right and neo-Nazi militants, drawing variously on such existing movements as the Ku Klux Klan, American Nazis, Minutemen, and anti-tax militants. They shared a common fascination with William Pierce's fantasy novel The Turner Diaries, a harrowing blueprint for the overthrow of the U.S. government by an imaginary Nazi militia called the Order. (Spoiler alert: the book climaxes with a suicide air attack against the Pentagon).

The different groups increasingly adopted the religious rhetoric of the anti-Jewish Christian Identity movement. They rooted their operations in the compounds of small sects and religious movements, which provided a wonderful infrastructure for paramilitary training, and for organizing terrorist campaigns. They also pioneered the use of electronic media for militant organization via Usenet, the precursor of the Internet.

In 1984, some of those far-Right militants actually tried to put the dreams of the Turner Diaries into action, and formed a terrorist movement called the Order. Under leaders like Robert Jay Matthews, the extremists planned an underground war of assassinations and bombings, robberies and counterfeiting. These outrages were intended to overthrow America's Zionist Occupation Government, the ZOG. Some militants sought access to the tools of biological warfare.

These efforts provoked a stern official reaction. By 1985, the Order was disrupted and Matthews killed in a firefight, and in 1988 federal authorities levied draconian sedition charges against a broad range of far Right leaders. Desultory campaigns against other terror movements continued into the early 1990s -- the Covenant Sword and Arm of the Lord, the Aryan Republican Army, and various self-styled successors to the Order. Because of the emphasis on tracing illegal weapons, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) found itself on the front-line of the anti-terrorist campaign. Right up until September 2001, federal law enforcement agencies remained far more concerned about the continuing threat from the paramilitary far Right than it did about Islamist dangers.

Unconsciously, the Davidians acted in a way that precisely fitted the emerging stereotype of the anti-government terrorist militia. Although the group had nothing to do with the racist Right, its theology made it essential to prepare for the armed conflicts that would ensue in the imminent apocalypse, and that meant stockpiling weapons. Koresh's followers also lived in a culture where trading guns was an acceptable way of generating income to support themselves. What federal agents called an arsenal, they thought of as inventory.

For federal agencies, though, Mount Carmel was a fortified compound, and potentially a base for armed violence, close to some crucial metropolitan areas. Coincidentally, one of the extended set piece descriptions in Turner Diaries involves the Order's activities in Texas, as its violent actions paralyzed Houston. Moreover, ATF believed it had evidence that the Branch Davidians were going beyond merely assembling an arsenal, and were actively converting their arms into illegal fully automatic weapons -- in other words, they were manufacturing machine guns.

In the context of the early 1990s, then, the ATF and the Justice Department believed they had excellent reasons for acting against Mount Carmel. Although the Clinton administration later claimed that it was forced to act because of systematic child abuse by Koresh and his followers, that justification was offered only after the fact. The initial story was all about weapons.

In itself, religious dissidence would not have provoked the government to strike at the Branch Davidians, and federal officials overseeing the siege showed not the slightest comprehension of the group's apocalyptic views. What concerned them was the nightmare vision of the machine guns, and the prospect that Mount Carmel might serve as the nucleus for a renewed Order campaign. Federal agencies then interpreted all new intelligence, wrongly, as confirming their initial assumptions and stereotypes.

In its origins, then, the Waco siege belongs to the history of terrorism fears rather than religious persecution. Ironically though, that siege in turn contributed to the history of authentic terrorism, by inspiring the Oklahoma City bombing attack of 1995. This atrocity, which also took place on April 19, two years to the day after the Waco conflagration, was widely seen as an act of revenge against the federal government. Appropriately enough in the context, the bombing followed a pattern outlined fairly precisely in the early pages of the Turner Diaries.

Ever since 9/11, Americans have naturally identified terrorism in terms of Islamist and Middle Eastern causes. It's not easy to remember a time not too long ago when the deadliest enemies on the rosters of wanted terrorists were all white, and thoroughly American.

Philip Jenkins is a Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University.

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