On Feb. 23, 1993, a heavily armed team from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms surrounded Mount Carmel, the rickety compound of the Branch Davidians, near Waco, Texas. An offshoot of an offshoot of Seventh-day Adventists, the Branch Davidians were alleged to be stockpiling weapons and abusing children. They certainly had weapons: The raid quickly devolved into a two-hour gun battle that left four ATF agents and six Branch Davidians dead.
The FBI took command. Negotiations did bring about the release of twenty-one children, but the stand-off continued. The FBI blasted floodlights at the compound day and night and devised a kind of sonic torture comprised of bugle calls and the horrifying screeches of rabbits in mid-slaughter. They also blasted Nancy Sinatra, which seems needlessly cruel.
Finally, on April 19—51 days after the ATF appeared—an armored vehicle rammed through an exterior wall and pumped in tear gas. The idea was to force the Branch Davidians to flee the compound. But somehow a fire started, the cause of which is still in dispute. Nine Branch Davidians escaped the conflagration. Seventy-six died, including 25 children. The besieged died from smoke inhalation, or by gunshot, or from skull injuries when a wall collapsed. A three-year-old died from a stab wound.
This debacle became synonymous with the town of Waco. It is also the broad outline of Waco, a six-part miniseries now airing on the newly rebranded Paramount network (formerly the male-centric Spike network). Waco is 25 years in the past, but it seems like now is an appropriate time to revisit the disastrous siege. Many Americans will need reminding about this grim episode, with still many others needing to learn about it, period. And 25 years later, Americans are still arguing about the same things—guns, federal overreach, and religious extremism.
Waco begins dramatically, with an ATF convoy speeding toward the compound. Then it jumps backward to the months preceding the raid. (Paramount made only the first three episodes available to critics.) In an attempt at fairness, we see the (mostly bad) decisions that led to the siege, both inside the compound and in the halls of federal law enforcement. It’s in the name of fairness, I’m guessing, that the creators of Waco—John Erick Dowdle and Drew Dowdle, best known for serviceable thrillers like No Escape and Quarantine—are entirely too easy on the most recognizable Branch Davidian, the mullet-and-aviator-specs-wearing David Koresh, played by Taylor Kitsch of Friday Night Lights fame.
Here we need a bit of context. In the mid-1930s, Victor Houteff, a disaffected Seventh-day Adventist, started a congregation known as the Davidians; they moved to the Waco environs to await the apocalypse. After Houteff’s death, Ben Roden gained control of the compound and the group was from then on known as the Branch Davidians. In the late 1980s, his son George, a gun enthusiast with messianic pretentions, was embroiled in a bitter power struggle with a charismatic young Bible-teacher-slash-rock-musician named Vernon Howell. In 1987, Howell and his followers staged a commando-style raid on the Mount Carmel compound, in which Roden was wounded. Howell and his men were acquitted of attempted murder, and Howell wrested control of the compound by more peaceful means: He paid the back taxes.
Firmly in control, Howell changed his name to David Koresh—“David” for its messianic lineage, and “Koresh” as it is the Hebrew version of Cyrus, the ancient king who destroyed the enemies of Israel—and, with his followers, sold guns to raise cash, and awaited the apocalypse.
All of this is to say that Koresh took command of a sect with a tradition of apocalyptic isolationism, and a significant, if more recent, predilection for guns. He added a more intense strain of asceticism, insisting upon abstinence from meat, tobacco, drugs, liquor and sex—that is, sex for everyone other than himself. Koresh claimed that after the apocalypse the world would be repopulated by his own progeny. After the Waco siege ended, it was found that Koresh fathered thirteen children by seven mothers, one of whom was fourteen when she married Koresh.
And yet as Kitsch portrays him, Koresh is at times more schlemiel than Svengali—charismatic, only mildly manipulative, and ludicrously trusting. Before there’s any hint of Koresh’s own sins, we see him as a warm guy, parenting, preaching, and playing a decent cover of “My Sharona” with his band. (Despite his asceticism, Koresh was not above taking gigs in the local bar scene.) He’s an avuncular figure to a wandering young drummer, David Thibodeau (Rory Culkin). If there’s anything fishy going on with the gun sales, Koresh’s devoted lieutenants—former theology graduate student Steve Schneider (Paul Sparks) and Harvard Law grad Wayne Martin (Demore Barnes)—are shielding him from it. In the first half of the show, nobody seems that concerned about Koresh’s predilection for underage “wives”; more tension arises from Koresh taking Schneider’s wife for his own, and impregnating her.
On the other side we have the government, here represented by the FBI Hostage Rescue Team Commander Richard Rogers (Shea Whigham), who in the show consistently prefers violence over negotiations, and the hapless ATF commander Ed Wiggins (Christopher Stanley). The conscience of federal law enforcement is represented by undercover ATF agent Robert Rodriguez, played by a subdued John Leguizamo, with a Texas accent that arrives and passes like a tumbleweed. And the requisite lone-voice-of-reason is the reliably grim and credible Michael Shannon as FBI hostage negotiator Gary Noesner, who expresses reservations about the militarization of law enforcement: “If you put more guns in peoples’ hands, they’re gonna use them.”
All these characters are based on real people, and the miniseries itself is based on two of their books: Noesner’s Stalling for Time and Thibodeau’s A Place Called Waco. The show seems largely to stick to their versions of the events, and it’s a good idea to base the miniseries on these opposing positions. The storytelling is brisk; Waco moves credibly between inside and outside the compound. The third episode, which depicts the ATF’s botched raid, is extremely well done, frightening and gripping and appropriately violent.
The acting, however, is a little stiff, with too many scenes ending in a reaction shot to convey how the audience is supposed to feel. Too often the dialogue telegraphs what we’re supposed to think: “I feel like we’ve gotta call 911,” Thibodeau says during the siege. “But who do you call when it’s your own government attacking?” Granted, it’s a sentiment expressed in Thibodeau’s book, but not so neatly.
I have deeper reservations about Waco. One thing the Monday-morning academics got right after the real Waco was that by dismissing the Branch Davidians as a “cult,” the ATF and the FBI released themselves from any attempt to understand their point of view, with disastrous consequences. Thus, it is refreshing to see a nontraditional religious sect portrayed as actual humans as opposed to gun-toting End Times fanatics. But in some ways, the Branch Davidians were indeed gun-toting End Times fanatics.
Dr. Bruce Perry is a psychiatrist who studies the effects of trauma on children. At the time of the siege, Perry was based in Houston, and set up a recovery center for the released children. In his book, The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog: And Other Stories from a Child Psychiatrist’s Notebook, Perry writes of a four-year-old girl who lived on the compound. In the recovery center’s playroom, she picked up a toy rifle, checked the bolt action, and then put it down in disgust, saying, “It isn’t even real.”
Let’s stay with the children for a moment. Perry writes that the children of the Branch Davidians “had essentially been marinated in fear.” Punishment involved overnight isolation, or a diet of potatoes and bread, or “being beaten bloody with a wooden panel called ‘the helper.’” According to Dr. Perry, the children of Mt. Carmel endured “military drills, interrupted sleep and one-on-one fighting.” He writes, “If the children didn’t want to participate or weren’t vicious enough in battle training, they were humiliated and sometimes beaten.”
Perhaps the subsequent episodes of Waco deal more directly with this dark material. But in the first three episodes, there is only one scene that hints at this abuse, when Koresh brandishes a switch after his own son Cyrus is caught sneaking a little ice cream. Instead of doling out a beating, Koresh treats this as a teachable moment about sharing, giving out tasty spoonfuls to everyone in the community.
In Waco, we see a group whose interpersonal relations run smoothly—bizarrely so, considering their leader’s predilection for underage girls, multiple wives, and his insistence upon everyone’s sexual abstinence but his own. “I’ve taken on the burden of sexuality for all of us,” Koresh says. Clearly, it was a burden he could bear.
None of this is to say that any Branch Davidian deserved a violent death. My question instead is if Waco’s creators believe that a more honest portrayal of the Branch Davidians’ many shortcomings would make them come off as deserving a violent death to a television audience. I think they can give us a little more credit.
The issues transcend aesthetic mediocrity. The Waco siege became a rallying cry for the extreme right. It was one of the reasons that Timothy McVeigh cited for the Oklahoma City bombing. So you have to wonder, especially in our current atmosphere of anti-government paranoia, where even the president repeatedly expresses his distrust of the FBI, why Waco portrays Koresh and his followers as a largely innocent group of folks just trying to live their own lives.
In the aftermath of the siege, as I recall, the lessons of Waco, as with so many episodes of American violence, depended on your political outlook. The left saw it as tragic, but ascribed much of the blame to the Branch Davidians and their leader David Koresh. The right saw Waco as a prime example of a federal government desperate to curb the liberty of its own citizens. But maybe they were both right. Waco is passable as television, but it’s a missed opportunity to spark a deeper discussion, and as history, it’s irresponsible.
Gordon Haber writes about religion and culture. His debut short story collection, Uggs for Gaza, is available from Dutch Kills Press.