On February 28, 1993, scores of federal agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms approached the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas. Their mission was to serve a search and arrest (to arrest Vernon Howell, aka David Koresh) warrant on weapons charges due to the large amount of weapons the Branch Davidians had accumulated. While the ATF would have preferred to arrest Koresh outside the compound, they were incorrectly told that he rarely left it. Surprise was lost when a mailman tipped off Koresh that the raid was coming. The Branch Davidians were armed and in defensive positions when the federal agents arrived around 9:45 AM. It isn’t clear whether the Branch Davidians or the federal agents fired first, it is likely an accidently discharge on one side or the other triggered the shooting on both sides. A cease-fire was arranged a couple of hours later, but by that time five Branch Davidians were dead (another was shot and killed trying to enter the compound that evening) and the ATF had suffered four dead and sixteen wounded.
The incident brought the Branch Davidians and their Seventh-day Adventist “cousins” into the international spotlight. In the course of the siege and after the its tragic conclusion on April 19, 1993, I was contacted by the BBC, CNN, ABC and NBC to answer questions about the situation. The roughest question came from a BBC reporter, “What is it about Seventh-day Adventists that breeds these kinds of people?” But the most disturbing phone call of all came in early March from a fellow Adventist, Dan Serns, at the Texas Conference. He told me that the FBI was looking for an Adventist scholar familiar with how Adventists think about the book of Revelation and the End-times to help in the negotiations with Koresh. To be honest, I wanted nothing to do with the situation, yet I felt that it would be wrong for me to ignore the request. I took the FBI number I was given and gave my contact information to Serns for them to call if they wanted to.
I called the FBI number three times but no one picked up. In retrospect I think my lack of enthusiasm for the potential assignment caused me not to try too hard to reach the federal authorities. As far as I know, the FBI never attempted to call. I wonder what would have happened had I tried a little harder. The role that I might have played was offered to James D. Tabor, a religious scholar at the University of North Carolina (Charlotte) and J. Philip Arnold, a religion scholar from Houston, Texas. From what I have seen in the media and my one meeting with Tabor six years later, they seem to have been good choices. They warned the federal officials that the harsh siege tactics they were using would only encourage the Branch Davidians to think this was a truly apocalyptic event with cosmic implications. The Davidians’ beliefs were sincerely held and they were willing to die for them. I understand that these scholars’ interpretations were convincing enough that Koresh was willing to leave the compound. But in the end, the advice to federal officials appears to have been ignored. The final assault began before the date Koresh had agreed to leave. The siege ended tragically on April 19 with the death of some 75 Branch Davidians when a fire broke out during the final assault using Bradley fighting vehicles (essentially tanks). Among the victims were 21 children.
I still wonder if I could have made a difference. Given the fact that Tabor and Arnold gave sound advice which was ignored anyway suggests it wouldn’t have mattered, but. . .
In this series I plan to compare the events at Waco with the “war on terror” and what we know about ISIS to note the similarities and differences. Many of the similarities are surprising. In the process I will draw implications for both Adventists and Muslims as they move forward into an uncertain future.