David Koresh and the FBI's Religious Intolerance

Excerpt from Why Waco? Cults and the Battle for Religious Freedom in America

By James D. Tabor and Eugene V. Gallagher

Appeared in Harper's Magazine, July 1995

The FBI operation at the Branch Davidian compound outside Waco, Texas, turned out to be one of the most massive and tragic in the history of United States law enforcement. On April 19, 1993, a final assault on the Mount Carmel center by the FBI led to a fire that killed seventy-four Branch Davidians, including twenty-one children. Despite subsequent claims by the government that the outcome was unavoidable, the entire matter could have been handled differently and resolved peacefully. The FBI chose to ignore David Koresh's pronouncements about the religious significance of the events in Waco, statements that contained the only feasible solution to the crisis. The agents called to Mount Carmel could hardly have been expected to pack their Bibles, but in retrospect it would not have been such a bad idea.

On the evening following the February 28 raid by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, Koresh spoke to reporters several times by live telephone hookup, on Dallas radio station KRLD and on CNN. In these interviews, Koresh provided the keys to the Branch Davidians' belief system; he explained, and would continue to reiterate throughout the negotiations, the connections he saw between the Mount Carmel raid and his reading of apocalyptic passages in the Bible. Unfortunately, neither the FBI agents in charge nor the myriad advisers upon whom they relied were able to comprehend his perspective. Had they simply made an effort to understand the Branch Davidians' beliefs, they might have avoided the tragedy of April 19 altogether.

The Waco standoff lacked many of the elements that define a hostage situation, yet from the very first day of the siege, the government treated it as a "Hostage/Barricade rescue," and called in hostage negotiators, counter terrorist units, and SWAT teams. The FBI maintained this approach throughout the fifty-one-day siege, despite the fact that, as the FBI itself later noted, "Koresh had made no threats, set no deadlines, and made no demands."

Listening carefully to Koresh's first interviews, someone familiar with biblical texts would have perceived the situation in wholly different terms than the government did. To the Branch Davidians, the only "rescue" they needed was from the government itself. In their view, the federal agents represented the evil power, referred to in the book of Revelation as "Babylon." The idea of "surrendering to proper authority," as the government demanded throughout the next seven weeks, was absolutely out of the question for these believers unless they were convinced that it was what God willed.

The FBI's unwillingness to engage in a discussion of the Scriptures crippled its negotiations with Koresh. Transcripts of these conversations show that much of the time the FBI either talked down to him or failed to grasp his message. The FBI report notes that his delivery of "religious rhetoric was so strong that [the negotiators] could hardly interrupt him to discuss possible surrender." The report constantly laments that Koresh "refused to discuss any matters of substance" and merely insisted on "preaching" to negotiators. What the authorities apparently never recognized is that Koresh's preaching was to him and his followers the only matter of substance, and that a "surrender" could be worked out only through dialogue within the biblical framework in which the Branch Davidians lived. In the middle of March, Jeff Jamar, the FBI agent in charge, told the negotiators not to allow any more "Bible babble" from Koresh. This order deprived Koresh of the only means of communication he valued, effectively dooming the negotiations.

Throughout the fifty-one days, Koresh talked almost incessantly about the Seven Seals of the book of Revelation, starting on the day of the BATF raid, when he announced during a radio interview that "We are now in the Fifth Seal." (One of the FBI negotiators admitted that some of them initially thought that the Seven Seals to which Koresh referred were animals.)

The Fifth Seal in the book of Revelation takes place shortly before the cosmic judgment of God; it is the last major event leading to the end of human history. The text speaks of some of the faithful being slain, followed by a waiting period before the rest are killed. Based on the Branch Davidian interpretation of events, the killing had begun with the BATF assault on February 28. In keeping with the text, the group believed that it was supposed to wait for a "little season" until those remaining inside Mount Carmel were slain as well. Their martyrdom would lead to the Sixth Seal, which would bring about the judgment of God on the world.

It was obvious, though, that Koresh was confused by the events that had transpired. his prophetic scenario did require fulfillment of this Fifth Seal, but Koresh had taught for years that it would happen in Jerusalem, not in Waco. Furthermore, from their calculations of the "end time," the group was expecting the final confrontation to come in 1995, not in 1993. Koresh was convinced that the attack on February 28 was somehow related to the apocalypse, but he did not know precisely how, and thus he was unclear as to what he was to do. He announced that he would wait for a "word from God," which would clarify the ambiguities and uncertainties inherent in the situation outside the compound.

This, in our view, was the key to effective negotiations at Mount Carmel. Although the apocalyptic text was fixed, like a script written in advance, the interpretation and the precise context were variable. By controlling the situation outside the compound, the government the government largely controlled the context and therefore unknowingly possessed the ability to influence Koresh in his interpretations, and thus in his actions. Unfortunately, by using the tactical maneuvers associated with complex Hostage/Rescue barricade situations-cutting off the compound's electricity, blaring loud music at all hours, shining searchlights in the buildings' windows, destroying Davidian vehicles-the FBI unwittingly played the perfect part of Babylon throughout the siege, validating in detail Koresh's interpretations of Scripture.

Throughout the standoff, both Koresh and Steve Schneider, his spokesman, asked to talk to biblical scholars. On March 7, Phillip Arnold and James Tabor, scholars on biblical apocalyptic interpretation, offered their services to the FBI. Their goal was to build upon the ambiguity that they knew Koresh felt about his situation. On March 16, after hearing radio interviews with Arnold in which he discussed the book of Revelation and the Branch Davidians' possible understanding of it, Koresh and Schneider made a formal request to discuss the Bible with Arnold. The FBI denied that request, but allowed tapes of the interviews to be sent into Mount Carmel.

And then, on April 14, following the Davidian's eight-day Passover celebration, and just four days before the FBI gas attack and resulting fire, Koresh received his long-awaited "word from God." He released a letter addressed to Dick DeGuerin, his lawyer, that would be his final communication to the outside world. In it he joyfully announced that the group would come out as soon as he finished writing his message on the Seven Seals and saw that it was delivered to Arnold and Tabor. In part the letter reads:

I am presently being permitted to document, in structured form, the decoded messages of the Seven Seals. Upon completion of this task, I will be free of my "waiting period." I hope to finish this as soon as possible and to stand before man to answer any and all questions regarding my actions...As soon as I can see that people like Jim Tabor and Phil Arnold have a copy I will come out and then you can do your thing with this beast.
For seven weeks Koresh had said, consistently and incessantly, that he would not come out until he received his word from God. Then he wrote that he had received that word and that he was coming out. The FBI immediately responded to this breakthrough with ridicule. They joked about Koresh, the high school dropout, writing a book, and labeled Koresh's "word from God" nothing more than another "delay tactic." The FBI asked Murray Miron, a professor of psycholinguistics at Syracuse University, to examine the April 14 and four other letters sent out the previous week. Miron concluded that the letters bore "all the hallmarks of rampart, morbidly virulent paranoia." The daily log in the Department of Justice report does not even mention Koresh's April 14 letter; it merely notes that "David had established a new precondition for his coming out." From the Justice report, it appears that nothing was working, that all negotiations had failed, and that the government had only one alternative-the tear-gas attack.

We now know that Koresh was indeed working on the manuscript, which he considered his divinely sanctioned task and opportunity. He worked on it as late as Sunday evening, the night before the April 19 assault, concluding his exposition of the First Seal. Those in Mount Carmel were excited and pleased by his progress, fully convinced that they would soon be able to come out peacefully. Of course, no one can ever know if Koresh would have honored his pledge to come out once the manuscript was completed. Had he been allowed to finish, though, the outcome could not have been more terrible than what actually came to pass.

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