Return to Mount Carmel


Although neither we nor the feds deliberately set Mount Carmel ablaze, the F.B.I. must have been aware that the toxic brew they injected into our building in such enormous quantities would create a highly flammable condition that windy day. They obviously knew, too, that since they’d cut off our power, we were down to using kerosene lamps and propane heaters that would surely be knocked over when the tanks demolished parts of our building.

So what valid reasons, apart from frustration and impatience, did the authorities, at the highest level, truly have for wiping us out? Hardly any, it seems to me – and that is horrible.

– David Thibodeau, A Place Called Waco

We will never know precisely what happened April 19, 1993, when federal agents assaulted the Mount Carmel compound near Waco and eighty people died in the subsequent fire. The official explanation remains that “the cultists” committed suicide by setting the fires when the attack began, killing not only themselves but the children the government assault was presumably intended to save. The version favored by government opponents, particularly right-wing conspiracy theorists with an inordinate enthusiasm for guns, is that the Mount Carmelites were intentionally slaughtered by federal agents determined to stamp out violently any challenge to their plans for world domination, under the sinister hegemony of the freedom-hating United Nations. The truth is probably much closer to the speculations tentatively offered by assault survivor David Thibodeau: an arrogant and heavily militarized A.T.F. and F.B.I., stuck in an embarrassing public impasse with a group of eccentric but devout religionists who had not responded to threats, harassment, intimidation, or what the government considers common sense (i.e., you do what we say), got tired of waiting and decided to destroy the village in order to save it. Agents may not have realized they could not capture the compound without deadly risks to the people within it, but they and their superiors remain criminally responsible for taking military action in a situation that demanded continuing negotiation.

Despite several investigations as well as trials (of the victims), we are not much closer to an admission of any culpability by the authorities. What has brought the case back into mainstream discussion is a combination of agency infighting and partisan politics: the F.B.I. has been forced to admit that its agents used at least some incendiary devices in the course of the assault (occasioning a face-saving outrage over at Janet Reno’s Justice Department), and Republican politicians (notably those paragons of objectivity, Bob Barr, Dan Burton, and Phil Gramm) wish to lay all the blame at Reno’s feet and call for her resignation. It’s almost enough to make you feel sorry for Reno.

But not quite. It was Reno who by her own admission was ultimately responsible for the decision to attack Mount Carmel, it was Reno who permitted internationally outlawed CS gas to be used on the people in the compound, and it was Reno who fell for wild F.B.I. allegations of “child abuse” as an excuse to launch a military attack against a building full of children. Despite the horrible outcome of the attack and continuing revelations that she was misled by her own subordinates, she has continued to defend her decision and to reject any government responsibility for the deaths. It’s useful to recall the unsensational but damning conclusions of the 1996 House committee report on its investigation of the Mount Carmel episode: “The attorney general should have known that the plan to end the standoff would endanger the lives of the Davidians inside the residence, including the children. The attorney general knew or should have known that there was little risk to the F.B.I. agents, society as a whole, or to the Davidians from continuing this standoff, and that the possibility of a peaceful resolution continued to exist…. The final assault put the children at the greatest risk.”

Any serious new investigation should come to the same conclusion. Perhaps the renewed furor will at least lead to wider knowledge of what really happened – now largely lost in the mainstream consensus of self-destructive fanaticism. But the current headline issues have more to do with interagency fingerpointing, and the revelations that the F.B.I. had apparently been concealing or at least ignoring evidence that might cast doubt on its own actions. That’s why the grandstanding call by Louis Freeh for an “independent” investigation rings more than a little hollow. If the F.B.I. were seriously interested in discovering what really happened, Freeh could have performed his own investigation long ago.

Whatever the outcome of renewed Congressional hearings or other inquiries, it remains important that the larger context not be lost in forensic minutiae about flashbang grenades and infrared photography. The outcome of the assault on Mount Carmel was not a consequence of technical or tactical decisions, but the inevitable result of an increasingly remote and militarized U.S. government which, long accustomed to murderous methods abroad, has more recently applied the same approach at home: on the border, on the police beat, in everybody’s neighborhoods. There is scarcely an urban community in the country that has not seen the deadly effects of military-style police attitudes and exaggerated firepower. The Mount Carmel disaster was an extreme version of arrogant, unthinking authority and pseudo-military bureaucracy in action, and unless these institutions are brought under truly democratic control, the pattern will be repeated.

“I will never forget Waco,” declared Janet Reno. “The ghost of Waco will be with me all my life.” May the rest of us long remember Mount Carmel as well.

-Michael King