Waco Offers New Insights From ATF Agents
Waco: David Koresh, the Branch Davidians, and a Legacy of Rage, by Jeff Guinn, Simon & Schuster, 400 pages, $29.99
Jeff Guinn is a good popular historian. That is not intended as faint praise: He takes interesting topics of real cultural importance—Jonestown, Bonnie and Clyde, Charles Manson—and writes credible and well-researched accounts of them. His new, very readable book on the Waco affair of 1993 is no exception.
As we mark the siege’s 30th anniversary, Waco: David Koresh, the Branch Davidians, and a Legacy of Rage is an essential addition to any collection of books addressing that incident, and it is particularly good on the workings of federal law enforcement. That still leaves room to debate whether Guinn situates the whole affair properly in the context of the time.
The basic story is well known, although virtually every word in any summary would be contested by at least some commentators. In February 1993, agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) launched a massive raid on the “compound” of an apocalyptic-minded sect called the Branch Davidians, who were based at the Mount Carmel Center near Waco, Texas. The Davidians resisted the assault and effectively drove off the federal agents, who were promptly replaced by the FBI. A siege lasted until April 19, when the FBI stormed the Davidian residence. A fire broke out in the building. It is heavily disputed whether those flames arose from a Davidian desire for mass suicide or from the unintentional effects of the gas canisters used by the federal agents.
In all, 82 Davidians, mainly women and children, died during the whole encounter, as did four ATF agents. Depending on one’s perspective, this was an appalling case of mass cult suicide, a hideous massacre of a peaceful minority religious sect, or a screaming example of bureaucratic incompetence and miscommunication on an epic scale.
Adding to the long-familiar account, Guinn offers some significant new material, especially from ATF personnel involved in the disastrous first assault on Mount Carmel. That ATF side of the story constitutes about a third of the finished book. This is important because most accounts pass rapidly over the initial ATF fiasco before focusing on a day-by-day narrative of the lengthy FBI involvement.
Guinn gives the reader an excellent sense of what it must have felt like being in the ATF ranks during this operation, and we observe the evolving mess in something like real time. We witness the decision making process, with all its flaws. We come to understand that the ATF had a vital political agenda in generating dramatic media coverage of a heroic assault on a cult/terrorist/gunrunning/drug making fortress of evil (fe
Article from Reason.com