Professors explore three conflicting siege narratives in BU conference

By Madison Ferril and Josh Day

On April 19, 1993, the world watched as the Branch Davidian complex burned to the ground.

The Institute for Studies of Religion held a day-long conference Thursday to commemorate the disaster.

The series, called “Reflection on an American Tragedy: The Branch Davidians 20 Years Later,” featured seven speakers who focused on different perspectives of the event.

According to Dr. J. Gordon Melton, professor of American religious history, three narratives tend to emerge when thinking about the Waco siege.

“What we do know to start with is that the primary stories we’ve told each other over the last 20 years about what happened at Mt. Carmel quickly fall apart with the least bit of examination,” Melton said.

The first two blame the Branch Davidians: the destructive cult story, in which they were a small religious group with evil intentions, or the deluded psychopath story, in which an unstable religious fanatic led his followers to their deaths.

“In both of those stories, the folks at Mt. Carmel got their just results, more or less,” Melton said.

The third narrative puts the federal agencies at fault, highlighting a government seeking to oppress religious groups.

“Those stories just don’t work for very long once you start looking at the evidence,” Melton said.

Melton suggested instead the narrative should not see the groups in terms of heroes and villains, but as people who were fallible and misinformed.

Phillip Arnold, executive director of Reunion Institute in Houston and founder of the Religious Crisis Task Force, asked the audience to place themselves in the shoes of the Branch Davidians to understand why David Koresh believed he was a prophet.

“He thought he had received a revelation about the seven seals of Revelation,” Arnold said.

Arnold said Koresh and the Branch Davidians originally planned on surrendering, but Koresh felt he needed to complete his writings before he went to jail. When the FBI broke into the compound, Koresh interpreted the attack as a rejection of his revelation from God.

Dr. Catherine Wessinger, a professor of religious studies at Loyola University, interviewed four survivors about their lives and experiences. She said when people refer to religious groups as “cults,” they dehumanize the people involved with the group.

At the end of her speech, Wessinger brought Sheila Martin and Clive Doyle, two survivors of the siege, to answer questions. Martin lost her four eldest children and her husband in the siege. Doyle escaped when the compound caught on fire and was put on trial with other survivors.

When asked about the trial after the siege, Doyle said he felt those involved in the trial, including the defense, discriminated against the surviving Branch Davidians.

“The defense felt they didn’t have to prove us innocent,” Doyle said. “They just needed to cast doubt on the evidence.”

Gary Noesner, a retired chief of the FBI Crisis Negotiation Unit, began the second half of the series with a speech focusing on the challenges of negotiation in the Waco siege.
For the first half of the Waco siege, Noesner led a team of negotiators whose mission was, according to Noesner, “to de-escalate the violence.”

The major challenges to his team’s goal came from both David Koresh and from the FBI itself.

“I would say the latter was the harder of the two negotiations,” Noesner said.

Throughout his speech, he did not excuse the actions of the FBI and ATF during the Waco siege, but argued their actions were not part of a broader, nefarious plan.

“We are not jack-booted thugs who are trying to deprive Americans of their rights and liberties or deny them of their religious freedom,” Noesner said. “That being said, that does not mean that the FBI is not fallible.”

He said the situation collapsed due to a combination of David Koresh’s ambivalence to lead his followers from the house and the FBI commander’s needlessly aggressive strategy against the Branch Davidians.

Noesner said he believes Koresh decided to stay in the compound instead of surrendering because he was afraid to face the consequences of his actions.

“He knew what he was facing in terms of criminal prosecution,” Koresh said.

Koresh’s slow progress to end the stand-off combined with the increased attention of the news media caused Noesner’s commander to lose his self-control.

“When I reported to the on-scene commander, he about had a heart attack,” Noesner said.

The commander began issuing orders to cut off the Branch Davidians’ power, to blare loud music, and to move tanks closer to Mt. Carmel. According to Noesner, the strategy sent a conflicting message from the FBI that hurt their relations with the Branch Davidians and cost the FBI chances to end the siege peacefully.

After four weeks and the release of a few children from the compound, Noesner was replaced by another negotiator and sent to another assignment. When he arrived back in the U.S., he was told that the FBI would be breaching Mt. Carmel the next day.

“I saw the fire, I was disgusted and I walked out without asking for permission,” Noesner said.

Professor of Sociology Stuart Wright from Lamar University spoke on the role of governmental militarization in the Waco standoff, saying that the initial ATF raid on Mt. Carmel was both deliberate and misguided.

“One of the most confounding questions surrounding Mt. Carmel is why a relatively small, benign religious sect would invoke such an aggressive and sustained military-like response from the authorities,” Wright said.

Citing statements from the U.S. government’s report on the ATF, Wright said that the ATF’s decision to assault the Branch Davidian compound was made more than two months before any surveillance efforts had begun.

“It appears that ATF officials were determined to conduct a paramilitary array, irrespective of intelligence operations that showed that Koresh could be apprehended away from Mt. Carmel or that the element of surprise was lost only minutes before the incursion,” Wright said.

The Waco siege, said Wright, stands as a symbol of excessive force from governmental agencies.

“The impact of Waco on American culture has been substantial and far reaching,” said Wright. “Waco has become a symbol of government overreach and excessive force. It served to galvanize the militia and patriot movements in the nineties and the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in 1995 by Timothy McVeigh and his associates was made in retaliation for Waco.”

Baylor’s distinguished Professor of History, Philip Jenkins, ended the series with his speech concerning a broad variety of topics concerning the effects of the Waco siege in politics and popular culture, including it’s effects on how America views terrorism.

“As odd as this may sound, there is a road that runs from Waco to 9-11,” said Jenkins.

In his speech, Jenkins traced the media coverage of the Waco siege and its depiction to in books, movies and TV shows.

Over time, the Waco siege in combination with the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, created the idea in politics and popular culture that the terrorist to be feared was the one next door.

“Everyone knew in those years that the great danger was people like Timothy McVey and David Koresh,” Jenkins said. “Waco reshaped ideas about terrorism and brought it home.”

According to Jenkins, it was the popular concept that terrorism was a primarily domestic problem that was to be fought domestically that caused America to ignore the international threats that led to the Sep. 11 attacks.

“The agencies that should be fighting terrorism were fighting the wrong kind of terrorism,” Jenkins said.