Waco and mainstream America

April is the month when right-wing extremists seem to come out of the woodwork in America and nothing symbolizes the divide between the far-right and the establishment more potently than Waco.

As portrayed in the media, the followers of David Koresh were seen as cultists who became the victims of their own blind and misguided faith. How could people so foolishly sacrifice their own lives by becoming followers of a con man?

At the same time, no one seriously questions that anyone who hopes to become president of the United States will in the course of their campaign be expected to make some kind of plausible declaration of their faith.

Barack Obama has spoken about how “I came to know Jesus Christ for myself and embrace Him as my lord and savior,” and few Americans take this as an indication that he might be delusional.

One can express ones faith in a being unseen and even claim to receive this mysterious figure’s guidance and not be viewed as unhinged. Yet someone who places even deeper faith in a person whose actions they can actually observe has supposedly thrown rationality to the wind.

If blind faith was not so widely accepted in America, it would be easier to see why the cultists get marginalized, but given America’s mainstream religious identity, perhaps those on the hyperfaithful margins trouble their neighbors in a different way: by highlighting American religious hypocrisy.

After all, the New Testament is unambiguous in calling the faithful to give their whole lives to Jesus — not just show up on Sunday morning while devoting the rest of their time to the service of business.

In most of America, however, the pursuit of wealth and declarations of faith go hand in hand, yet one is clearly the master of the other.

Make no mistake: cults destroy lives. But in an insidious and far more pervasive way, hypocrisy is destructive too.

Tim Madigan, author of See No Evil: Blind Devotion and Bloodshed in David Koresh’s Holy War, returned to Waco 20 years after the fire.

Clive Doyle is a pleasant-looking man of 72, with wavy graying hair. Australia lingers in his accent. He wore a leather jacket on the chilly recent afternoon when we spent more than an hour together at a picnic table in a Waco park. He was soft-spoken, articulate and seemingly very sane.

Yet 20 years ago this Friday, this same man was one of only nine Branch Davidians to survive the internationally televised inferno on the Texas prairie. Killed that day near Waco were cult leader David Koresh and 73 followers, including Doyle’s 18-year-old daughter, Shari, and 20 children under 14. Before the fire and the 51-day standoff with the federal government, Doyle’s daughter had been one of many women and girls of the cult taken into Koresh’s bed. Koresh — who preached that he was the Lamb of God, drove a sports car and motorcycle, and had a rock band and an arsenal of illegal weapons — had ordered his male followers to be celibate.

Doyle has had two decades to reflect on these things, and clearly he has. So my question was obvious.

“You mean, have I woken up?” Doyle said to me with a smile.

Well, yes.

“I’ve had questions and adjusted my beliefs somewhat,” Doyle said that day in the park. “But I still believe that David was who he claimed to be. You are sitting there listening to him. You hear all these things and the Scriptures come alive. And at the time, everything seems so imminent. That’s why I believed the way I did.

“I believe he was a manifestation, yes, of God taking on flesh,” Doyle said. “God has done that more than once.”

Most of the other survivors remain similarly steadfast, Doyle said, a handful of people who still gather in Waco on Saturday mornings to pray. Thus one of the most tragic and bizarre episodes of American history remains just that. Bizarre, unexplainable.

It began on a rainy Sunday morning, Feb. 28, 1993, with an ill-fated raid by agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. The assault on what was known as Mount Carmel followed a long federal investigation into Koresh’s growing arsenal. Local social services agencies had also looked into reports that the leader was having sex with underage girls who were part of the community.

Four federal agents were killed in a bloody gunbattle with the cultists that Sunday, and 20 more were wounded. Six Branch Davidians died. By that evening, the muddy encampment called Satellite City had sprouted nearby. Hundreds of reporters from around the world loitered for the next six weeks, eating Salvation Army doughnuts, getting haircuts, practicing their golf swings, and chronicling a darkly comic cat-and-mouse game between Koresh and FBI negotiators.

Souvenir vendors sold T-shirts that said Waco was really an acronym for “We Ain’t Coming Out.” Leno, Letterman and Saturday Night Live had a fresh supply of punch lines for weeks.

“This just in,” SNL’s Kevin Nealon reported on Weekend Update. “David Koresh has admitted he’s not really Jesus but actually is a disgruntled postal employee.”

Most assumed that the nuts near Waco would eventually come marching out. Not me. [Continue reading…]

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2 thoughts on “Waco and mainstream America

  1. mark

    An entire article on Waco and Janet Reno doesn’t figure in any of it. Amazing. And the dead children? It must be the “cult’s” fault. Couldn’t possibly be the Department of Justice, or Reno or Clinton. Koresh could have been arrested the day before, in downtown Waco, by the FB I — but they chose to deploy their SWAT teams and make a big show.

    The attack in Waco need not have happened, those killed need not have died. This was one of the most intolerant and violent events in modern American history — and all because we came to assume that only gunfire could solve it.

    This is the way the US government deals with those it doesn’t agree with: they open fire on them, accuse their leader of sleeping with children — and say “it’s their fault.”

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