Paramount TV’s Waco ended its six-episode run this week, and you don’t have to watch the show to know what happened. Seventy-six people died on April 19, 1993, including the leader of the Branch Davidians, David Koresh. But that’s hardly the story. I was too young to understand what happened in Waco in 1993. The news reports, to the best of my recollection, suggested that the FBI advanced on the compound and the Branch Davidians set fire to it in a mass suicide.
I don’t think that’s what happened, although I’m basing my assumptions on a television miniseries. However, it’s probably the best account we will ever have of what happened on April 19th and the 51 days leading up to it. It’s based on books by people on both sides: David Thibodeau (Rory Culkin), a survivor who escaped during the fire, and Gary W. Noesner (Michael Shannon), a hostage negotiator who had tried desperately to negotiate a safe exit for the Branch Davidians.
Noesner didn’t so much fail as the FBI pulled the plug on him too soon. David Koresh (Taylor Kitsch) kept making promises about when he would leave, and the FBI ran out of patience when Koresh didn’t live up to those promises in time. The FBI crashed into the compound with tanks, unleashed tear gas, and the compound caught on fire. Seventy-six people, including 17 children, choked to death on tear gas and smoke before they were consumed by flames.
Their deaths were brutal and completely unnecessary. Koresh was definitely a bad dude (he slept with underage women, after all), and probably a mentally disturbed one: He started his own religious sect, and he had many wives and many children, while the other men in his congregation were not even allowed to have sex. Maybe Koresh believed what he preached; maybe he didn’t. The people inside certainly did believe it, and as misguided as they may have been, they didn’t deserve to die because of it.
But they weren’t hurting anyone. Yes, they had guns — a lot of them — but they didn’t use them until the FBI advanced on them and began shooting. But a cease-fire was called, and those guns were never picked up again. Not for 51 days. Whatever emotional damage the children inside might have been suffering could’ve waited a few more days, until the standoff came to a more natural conclusion, until Koresh and everyone inside walked out peacefully.
But the FBI, as it so often does — as it did in Ruby Ridge — lost patience, and assumed that force was the only way to conclude the stand-off. They resorted to a tactic that had failed them many, many times before, and in Waco, the result was the same: Tear gas, fire, death.
It’s devastating in the context of this miniseries because we got to know a lot of those Branch Davidians through the eyes of one of those survivors, David Thibodeau. And they weren’t bad people. They were just misguided. They had the audacity, and misfortune, of believing in something, in someone.
And we, the public, allowed the FBI, Janet Reno, Bill Clinton, et. al, to convince us of a mass suicide, that they were the bad guys, that Koresh was the villain, when there was no indication that anyone inside wanted to die. In fact, as both Thibodeau and Noesner tell it, they were all relieved to be surrendering. They’d struck a deal. Koresh was to finish his religious treatise, and everyone would walk out peacefully. But Koresh refused to give the FBI any pages to show that he was working on it, and the FBI simply got sick of waiting.
The last half hour of Waco’s six hours plays out like the end of the Titanic. Tear gas is delivered. Walls cave in. A fire erupts. Women and children (including Supergirl herself) trapped inside, die horrific, painful, awful deaths. It sucks, and I wouldn’t recommend watching it, except that you should: Because it is angering. Because we all need to be reminded that even before Trump came along, it was important to question the government. It’s always important to investigate further, to not accept their story at face value, and maybe it’s just as important not to readily accept the accounts of a survivor and a hostage negotiator, too. Maybe the truth lies somewhere in between, but the truth, no doubt, will include this undisputed fact: 76 people, including 17 children, died that day for no fucking reason. And that is a goddamn tragedy.