Essay on books about Waco standoff


In July 2021, police arrested a Virginia man, who was charged with breaching the Capitol during the Jan. 6 insurrection. According to the Justice Department, the man, Fi Duong, continued to stake out the Capitol in the weeks and months after the riot and discussed plans for building and testing bombs. (Duong has pleaded not guilty.) He had stockpiled “multiple firearms and boxes of ammunition,” the government asserts, and at one point told an undercover informant that he was worried about new gun-control regulations that might be imposed by President Biden’s nominee to head the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. If police came to take his guns, Duong told the informant, his home might become “Waco 2.0.”

Duong’s reported comment was a reference to the 1993 standoff between federal agents and a small religious group, the Branch Davidians, just outside Waco, Tex. — a debacle that ended with 86 people dead. Almost as soon as the siege ended, “Waco” became a watchword for libertarian and far-right groups and a call to arms for those, like Duong, anxious about perceived government tyranny.

February will mark the 30th anniversary of the beginning of the standoff. The 25th anniversary, in 2018, saw a slew of documentaries and news coverage, including a scripted miniseries airing on Paramount Plus. But five years further on, the memory of Waco has particular resonance in the wake of Jan. 6. The 1993 siege helped spark the American militia movement, a trend toward far-right paramilitary organizing that received new prominence when groups like the Oath Keepers marched into the Capitol that day in 2021. And the fumes of conspiracy and paranoia that swirled around Waco feel all too familiar in a contemporary political environment haunted by lies about the “deep state” and a stolen election that led thousands of people to attack the U.S. Congress.

Anniversaries can lend themselves to strained or hackneyed efforts to connect the commemorated event to more recent developments. But in the case of Waco, unfortunately, no such strain is necessary. In 1995, in an act of terrorism inspired by rage over the government’s handling of Waco, Timothy McVeigh bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people. The Justice Department official who oversaw the investigation of that bombing, Merrick Garland, is now presiding over the Jan. 6 investigation in his role as attorney general. Paramilitary groups like the Oath Keepers and the Three Percenters, whose members have been charged in connection with their roles in the attack on the Capitol, originated in a surge of far-right distrust of the federal government after Waco. In the two years since the insurrection, a number of militia groups present that day have splintered, but their ideologies persist.

Two new books, “Waco Rising: David Koresh, the FBI, and the Birth of America’s Modern Militias by Kevin Cook and “Waco: David Koresh, the Branch Davidians, and a Legacy of Rage” by Jeff Guinn, look back on the 1993 catastrophe from the standpoint of 2023. As the titles suggest, Cook’s and Guinn’s projects are more similar than not: Both authors seek to recapture the drama of Waco for contemporary readers, focusing the bulk of their chapters on tense re-creations of the 51-day siege. Cook’s more slender volume is a fast, taut read. Guinn lingers longer on the botched mechanics of the federal government’s handling of the siege, along with the origins of the Branch Davidians and their leader, David Koresh — a self-declared prophet who groomed young girls in the community to become his “wives.”

Under the guidance of Koresh, the religious community had begun to illegally stockpile semiautomatic and automatic weapons to prepare for a potential confrontation with a secular “Babylon.” The ATF, which investigates the illegal ownership and sale of firearms, soon started to investigate and in February 1993 secured a warrant for Koresh’s arrest. The agency saw the Waco case as an opportunity to redeem itself following a wave of bad press over the previous year’s bloodshed at Ruby Ridge. There, in rural Idaho, federal law enforcement had bungled a standoff with white separatist Randy Weaver, killing his wife and teenage son in an incident that galvanized the American far right. Tragically, though, Waco would soon spiral into an even worse disaster.

With a sense of mounting dread, Cook and Guinn describe the cascading errors made by ATF in planning its raid on the Branch Davidian compound. Instead of bowing to ATF’s show of force as the agency had hoped, the Branch Davidians engaged law enforcement in a gun battle that left four agents dead. The FBI, a more high-profile and prestigious agency, swept in to clean up. But disagreements between trained negotiators and officials pushing for a shock-and-awe approach resulted in a drawn-out siege that came to an ugly end when the FBI, with the approval of Attorney General Janet Reno, shot the compound full of tear gas. In the midst of the FBI’s assault, the Branch Davidians’ home went up in flames; Koresh died along with 75 of his followers, among them 25 children.

Guinn, whose reporting draws heavily on interviews with ATF agents present at Waco, is sympathetic to the agency’s rank-and-file, and both he and Cook have admiration for lead FBI negotiator Gary Noesner. But overall, the two books sketch a portrait of an operation mishandled at almost every level of government. Waco, Noesner tells Cook, was “a self-inflicted wound for the FBI”; paired with Ruby Ridge, “it contributed to a broad antigovernment sentiment that’s out there today.” Membership in far-right militia groups jumped after the incident.

Lurking in the background of both “Waco” and “Waco Rising” is McVeigh, who traveled to Texas to watch the siege in action. He would go on to plan the Oklahoma City bombing for the second anniversary of the end of the siege, hoping it would precipitate a far-right uprising against the federal government. In the short term, the opposite happened: A backlash to McVeigh’s murder of innocents sent militia membership falling, and 9/11 led many on the far right to emphasize their support for the government’s battle with enemies abroad. But then the election of Barack Obama as America’s first Black president supercharged the militia movement. Journalists such as the Oregon-based writer Leah Sottile have chronicled how the anti-government sentiment that bloomed after Waco led to standoffs in Nevada in 2014 and Oregon in 2016, which owed their largely peaceful resolutions to a reworking of FBI strategy following Waco.

In another Waco legacy, many prominent conspiracy theories and theorists owe their existence and outsize impact in part to the standoff. Look no further than “Infowars” host Alex Jones, who has now filed for bankruptcy following lawsuits by parents of children killed in the Sandy Hook school shooting, which Jones denies took place. As Cook and Guinn note, Jones, who was outside the Capitol on Jan. 6, got his big break in part because of his willingness to embrace conspiracy theories about Waco. Both authors seek to dispel persistent myths about what happened during the standoff, such as what started the fire in the Branch Davidian compound (it was not, despite what some believe, intentionally set by the FBI). But they seem conscious that, in an age when falsehoods have so saturated political discourse, these correctives will not be enough to change the minds of devoted conspiracists. Cook closes his book with a visit to the site of the compound, on which today stands a chapel run by a pastor who operates a website promoting theories tied to QAnon.

Cook and Guinn ably link 1993 to today when it comes to the rise of the far right, but I was left wishing they had pulled harder on some remaining threads. The Capitol insurrection was also a catastrophic miscalculation by federal law enforcement, though of a very different kind than Waco. Instead of over-aggression, the FBI fell into inaction, failing to identify the risk of violence from the far right on Jan. 6 and take steps to prevent it. It would be far too simplistic to peg this failure by the bureau too closely to the fallout from Waco. But Cook and Guinn describe how Republican politicians attacked the FBI and ATF in the years after Waco and Ruby Ridge; are there connections to be drawn between this criticism, the broader conspiratorial and anti-FBI turn of the Republican Party under Donald Trump, and the bureau’s unwillingness to take on far-right extremism in advance of Jan. 6?

Often lost in the story of Waco are the Branch Davidians themselves. Despite Waco’s importance among White extremists, the multiracial religious community was not itself on the far right. Cook and Guinn take care to portray Koresh’s followers with humanity and empathy while not ignoring the uglinesses of life in the community, most notably Koresh’s sexual relationships with young girls. (Another forthcoming book, “Koresh: The True Story of David Koresh and the Tragedy at Waco by Stephan Talty, provides more detail on Koresh’s sexual predations but sometimes veers into sensationalism.) Among the Branch Davidians who survived Waco, Cook describes a mix of gratitude for the support of some on the far right with confusion at how the siege has become a rallying cry for extremists. Discussing Jan. 6, Branch Davidian David Thibodeau expressed bewilderment over Capitol rioters who believed Trump to be their “savior”: “And people think we followed the wrong guy!”

Quinta Jurecic is a senior editor at Lawfare and a fellow at the Brookings Institution.

David Koresh, the FBI, and the Birth of America’s Modern Militias

David Koresh, the Branch Davidians, and a Legacy of Rage

Simon & Schuster. 383 pp. $29.99

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