Books In Review

Roundup of Books on Waco

Copyright (c) 1996 First Things 60 (February 1996): 68-70.

The Davidian Massacre: Disturbing Questions About Waco Which Must Be Answered. By Carol Moore. Gun Owners of America & Legacy Communications. 488 pp. $8.

The Ashes of Waco: An Investigation. By Dick J. Reavis. Simon & Schuster. 304 pp. $24.

Why Waco? Cults and the Battle for Religious Freedom in America. By James D. Tabor and Eugene V. Gallagher. University of California Press. 242 pp. $24.95.

Armageddon in Waco: Critical Perspectives on the Branch Davidian Conflict. Edited by Stuart A. Wright. University of Chicago Press. 387 pp. $49.95 cloth, $15.95 paper.

Reviewed by Dean M. Kelley

When you have a sore tooth, your tongue just won't leave it alone. For some of us, the tragedy at Waco in 1993 is like that-an unhealed wound in the body politic. Four books have appeared in the past several months that probe the Waco trauma and offer insights into what went wrong and what should be set right.

Carol Moore's mass paperback is the most recent offering and the only one to include reflections on the recent inconclusive and turbulent House hearings last fall, which brought on some knowledgeable witnesses who had not hitherto been heard, but drowned their evidence in partisan bickering by committee members who did not know what questions to ask or what had already been answered in the criminal trial last year but wanted maximum TV exposure. Much was made of the CS gas that was injected into Mt. Carmel by some four hundred "ferret rounds," for example, but little note was taken of forty times as much of the same gas sprayed by tanks. The soluent of the ferret rounds was methylene chloride-a hazardous material as toxic as CS-but what was the soluent of the tanks' spray? Ethanol was found in the bodies at autopsy, suggesting a highly flammable soluent. That question was not explored.

Carol Moore has written a polemic against the government worthy of the organization to which she has devoted more than two years of work-the Committee for Waco Justice, which has staged demonstrations in Washington to protest what they view as crimes by the federal agencies. Her book is copublished by Gun Owners of America and highlights issues of interest to opponents of gun control and of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, but it is not untrustworthy because of that.

Of the four works reviewed here, it is the most thickly packed with details, complete with emotive characterizations and imputation of sinister motives to government agents. But the author is not just a polemicist. She rejects some allegations as unlikely, such as the claim (made in the civil suit brought by Ramsey Clark on behalf of Mt. Carmel's heirs and survivors) that the FBI planted an explosive on top of the concrete vault where the women and children had taken refuge, blowing a hole in the ceiling and killing all within. Moore inclines to the view that the tanks had already skewed the frame building on its foundations so that stairways were shattered: the Davidians could not escape from the second floor, and the FBI agents could not ascend to plant a thermite bomb. (But the large hole still is unexplained; how did it get there?) If one reads this volume with a critical eye, one can learn a lot from it that is not available elsewhere (such as information from the 1993 Congressional hearings, which Carol Moore attended).

Journalist Dick Reavis left his job in Dallas to spend a couple of years researching the Waco incident because he was distressed to discover that no other journalist was probing beneath the FBI's handouts. As part of his research-perhaps the hardest part-he steeped himself for six months in the Bible and in the theological lore of the Adventist movement, which had been going on for a century and a half before David Koresh came along. He read tracts and listened to tapes of Koresh, and the result is that more than a sixth of the book's pages are devoted to explaining the conceptual world in which the Davidians lived-which the Feds and their "expert" advisers never did penetrate.

Reavis also interviewed surviving Davidians, read the 7,500 pages of trial transcript (it turns out that the copy I got when in Waco was from his set) and the 18,000 classified pages of transcripts of negotiations from the fifty-one day siege. (Reavis won't reveal how he got them, except to insist he did nothing illegal.) His book is rich in detail, though perhaps not so rich as Moore's. He simply relates the narrative in a straightforward, factual way without much interpretive "spin." This is probably the best book of the four if one wants a single survey of the situation from a nongovernmental perspective.

James Tabor and Eugene Gallagher are professors of religious studies at the University of North Carolina and Connecticut College, respectively. They have written a more scholarly treatment of the subject that focuses less on the details of the events at Waco and more on the dynamics of what brought them about.

Their chief subject is the role and influence of the anticult movement, not so much on the ATF and FBI in their actions of early 1993, but in the formation of a pervasive anticult animus and stereotype that has become endemic over the past two decades in the American public's thinking-or rather nonthinking-about new or "oddball" religious groups, and that naturally affects federal agents, juries, judges, and reporters. Tabor and Gallagher trace the coverage of the Waco events by mass media, quickie books, TV talk shows, and "documentaries"-almost all of which purveyed a hostile misunderstanding of the situation. For more than a year the public was getting only one side of the story, since those who could have supplied "the other side" were incommunicado-under siege, in jail, disregarded, or dead.

This volume understandably highlights the effort by Tabor and Philip Arnold of the Reunion Institute in Houston to reach David Ko-resh during the siege through his own sphere of discourse and to suggest a slightly different scenario for the Seven Seals that would not involve a violent confrontation. As a result of their efforts, Koresh began to write his exposition of the Seven Seals and sent out a letter on April 14 promising to surrender when he finished. (Tabor and Arnold estimate that at the rate he was working, he should have completed work in a week or two.) The FBI brushed off their efforts on the grounds that this was just another delaying tactic by Koresh. He completed an introduction and the First Seal on Sunday night, April 18, but the gas attack began the next morning. His secretary, Ruth Riddle, barely escaped the fire and brought out on a computer disk what he had done. It was later recovered and transcribed and is appended to the Tabor-Gallagher volume.

The unfinished essay by Koresh proves the FBI was wrong about Koresh's promise, but they didn't know that at the time. They had only the experience of the preceding weeks, which looked like shifty stalling to them because they never understood what motivated the people they were confronting. The government has produced some forty plastic-wrapped charred firearms allegedly found in the ruins of Mt. Carmel (but won't let independent firearms experts examine them), and those are supposed to prove that the search and arrest warrants-and the raid to serve them- were justified. But ex post facto evidence does not prove anything about justification of decisions made before such evidence was known-in either case.

The fourth book is a collection of essays by academic and other observers, each of which focuses on a particular aspect of the Waco tragedy. Stuart Wright, professor of sociology at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas, has done a good job in recruiting and coordinating these analyses of the perplexing melange that is Waco. Anson Shupe and Jeffrey Hadden analyze the five narratives competing for the attention of the public, and James Richardson dissects the cross-pressures on the reporters trying to interpret the unfolding events with constant demands from their editors for copy and with a paucity of data available beyond the daily press briefings staged by the FBI. Robert Fogarty relates the little-known stories of the tragic ends of other religious innovators of recent centuries. Bill Pitts of Baylor explains the lineage of Seventh- day Adventist offshoots that became Davidians, and then Branch Davidians, and then "Students of the Seven Seals" under Koresh. David Bromley and Edward Silver describe the evolution of the Mt. Carmel community from "patronal clan" to "prophetic movement." John R. Hall suggests how the anticult-fostered image of Jones-town was persistently projected on Mt. Carmel through the atrocity-anticipation of "mass suicide." Ed Gaffney reviews the legal and constitutional considerations, concluding that the warrants were not stale or insufficient (which only shows how the concept of "probable cause" has deteriorated), but that the method used to serve them was excessive.

These four works are labors of concern for which we should be grateful to their devoted authors, who will not grow rich on the proceeds. They provide needed balance to the two years of government stonewalling that reached new heights at the House hearings. The prevailing view in government circles has been that the law enforcement actions at Waco- aside from a few missteps in execution-were necessary, justified, and right. These four volumes and their various authors have one thing in common: they contend that what happened there was unnecessary, unjustified, and wrong. Which version will prevail only history will tell.

Dean M. Kelley, Counselor on Religious Liberty for the National Council of Churches, wrote "Waco: A Massacre and Its Aftermath" (First Things, May 1995).