Thirty years ago, FBI tanks smashed into the ramshackle home of the Branch Davidians outside Waco, Texas. After the FBI collapsed much of the building atop the residents, a fire erupted and 76 corpses were dug out of the rubble. Unfortunately, the American political system and media have never honestly portrayed the federal abuses and political deceit that led to that carnage.
What lessons can today’s Americans draw from the FBI showdown on the Texas plains 30 years ago?
Purported Good Intentions Absolve Real Deadly Force
Janet Reno, the nation’s first female attorney general, approved the FBI’s assault on the Davidians. Previously, she had zealously prosecuted child abuse cases in Dade County, Florida, though many of her high-profile convictions were later overturned because of gross violations of due process. Reno approved the FBI assault after being told “babies were being beaten.” It is not known who told her about the false claims of child abuse; Reno claimed she couldn’t remember. Her sterling reputation helped the government avoid any apparent culpability for the deaths of 27 children on April 19, 1993. After Reno publicly promised to take responsibility for the outcome at Waco, the media conferred instant sainthood upon her. At a press conference the day after the fire, President Bill Clinton declared, “I was frankly—surprised would be a mild word—to say that anyone that would suggest that the Attorney General should resign because some religious fanatics murdered themselves.” According to a Federal News Service transcript, the White House press corps applauded Clinton’s comment on Reno.
It Is Not an Atrocity If the U.S. Government Does It
Shortly before the Waco showdown, U.S. government officials signed an international Chemical Weapons Convention Treaty pledging never to use nerve agents, mustard gas, and other compounds (including tear gas) against enemy soldiers. But the treaty contained a loophole permitting governments to gas their own people. On April 19, 1993, the FBI pumped CS gas and methyl chloride, a potentially lethal, flammable combination, into the Davidians’ residence for six hours, disregarding explicit warnings that CS gas should not be used indoors. Benjamin Garrett, executive director the Chemical and Biological Arms Control Institute in Alexandria, Virginia, observed that the CS gas “would have panicked the children. Their eyes would have involuntarily shut. Their skin would have been burning. They would have been gasping for air and coughing wildly. Eventually, they would have been overcome with vomiting in a final hell.” A 1975 U.S. Army publication on the effects of CS gas noted, “Generally, persons reacting to CS are incapable of executing organized and concerted actions and excessive exposure to CS may make them incapable of vacating the area.”
Rep. Steven Schiff (R-NM) declared that “the deaths of dozens of men, women and children can be directly and indirectly attributable to the use of this gas in the way it was injected by the FBI.” Chemistry professor George Uhlig testified to Congress in 1995 that the FBI gas attack probably “suffocated the children early on” and may have converted their poorly ventilated bunker into an area “similar to one of the gas chambers used by the Nazis at Auschwitz.” But during those 1995 hearings, congressional Democrats portrayed the CS gas as innocuous as a Flintstone vitamin.
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