Branch Davidian Conflagration (1993)
It was on this date, April 19, 1993, that federal government forces with tanks, gas and guns invaded the Mount Carmel compound, a group home in Waco, Texas, where over 80 members of the Branch Davidian cult had sequestered themselves during a 51-day siege. Mount Carmel burnt to the ground and 76 Davidians, twenty of them children, died. Their leader, 33-year-old David Koresh, also perished.
The Branch Davidians were formed in the 1950s and Koresh — who was born Vernon Wayne Howell in 1959, in Houston, Texas — had become their leader in 1990. The media dutifully demonized this offshoot of the Seventh-Day Adventists. Davidians were variously reported to be narcotics traders, child molesters, and a suicide cult, and their leader David Koresh was portrayed as a gun-crazed prophet with delusions of Christhood. No one mentioned the Davidians' multiethnicity, their status as a new religious movement, or their victimization in the Drug War.
The confrontation between the male-dominated, gun-toting government officials and the male-dominated, gun-toting Davidians began on Sunday, 28 February 1993, but six Davidians and four Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents were killed. Agents of the BATF had missed an opportunity for a peaceful arrest, as David Koresh drove quietly one morning into town to buy and sell a few guns at a local store — such commerce being a major source of income for the sect. Instead, the BATF attempted to arrest Koresh for possession of illegal firearms and explosives at his newly christened ‘Ranch Apocalypse,’ which had enough guns, ammunition and food supplies to last for a long siege.
Or a long pogrom. Koresh preached about the apocalypse. His followers believed that Revelations spoke of a second messiah who would appear before judgment day — an ordinary man with original sin — and Koresh claimed to be this messiah. It followed that his sexual habits, especially with very young women, were a fulfillment of the theology that this messiah was required to father twenty-four children. They would then become his council in heaven. That's no more bizarre than promising Muslim men 72 virgins in paradise if they died as religious martyrs!
All this, however, was beyond the federal agents waiting outside the Branch Davidian compound in Waco. Smarting from the hit they took on the first day of the siege, and impatient for action, the feds broke negotiations with the Davidians, refusing to listen to any more "Bible babble" from Koresh. It is not at all clear that the Davidians desired to die in an auto-da-fé, or that they set the flames that immolated their own home. It is possible that the tank assault itself started the fire that killed Koresh and his followers.
Whatever caused the conflagration on that Spring day in 1993, it is just possible that the incident which has become known by the single word, Waco, was a massive breach of civil rights and an abuse of government power against a relatively harmless Christian sect. If it can happen to Christians, in this nation of churchgoers, are atheists safe?
Originally published April 2003 by Ronald Bruce Meyer.
Wrote Burns in "Epistle to Rev. John McMath," "But twenty times I rather would be // An atheist clean, // Than under gospel colours hid be // Just for a screen."