Like many people, I just finished watching “Waco” on Netflix. The series gets some details wrong, but it’s a generally good depiction of what happened at the Branch Davidian complex in the early 1990s.
I’d say the show’s only big inaccuracies are that David Koresh was not the founder of the cult and the cult’s complex is not in the city of Waco proper.
The cult was actually founded in the late 1950s, and Koresh took over as leader three decades later. The early leaders believed that Jesus was not the real Christian messiah, who was yet to come. When Koresh took over, he painted himself as the real messiah, and claimed that he was chosen by God to take many wives (some underage and some already married) to father 24 children who would have a special role in end times according to prophesy.
Contrary to the show, the Branch Davidian complex was not in the city of Waco – which is a good-sized college town, home to Baylor University, the Baptist version of Notre Dame – but truly out in the middle of nowhere. Also, it should be noted that “the middle of nowhere” in Texas is much more in the middle of nowhere than it would be in other states, because Texas is enormous. Waco was simply the closest regional airport for mainstream media personalities to fly into, and thus the town would forever be associated with Koresh – a stain they have been trying to get out for decades now. Chip and Joanna Gaines helped a lot with that, but now Koresh is back in spirit.
While watching the series, it occurred to me that many younger folks (Millennials and Generation Z) probably do not know much, if anything, about the Waco siege, or other similar events (involving the same political actors) like Ruby Ridge. They were some of the first big controversies about government overreach, the militarization of ordinary law enforcement, and political leaders mostly not giving a damn about civil liberties guaranteed in the Constitution.
And, beyond that, they were about the criminalization of “otherness” in our society – i.e. you don’t like the things I like and do not believe the things I believe, therefore you deserve anything bad that happens to you, even to the point of destroying your life and that of your children. The Clinton administration (during which Waco happened) was sort of the original “deplorables” moment in modern American politics, so it’s oddly kind of appropriate that his wife resurrected that logic in public discourse.
It’s kind of fortunate that “Waco” is suddenly trending, because in a way, we are seeing a scaled-up version of Waco unfolding across the country right now.
The interesting thing about true crime stories is that you already know how they are going to end if you follow current events. You aren’t watching it because you have this gripping sense of suspense or are personally invested in any of the characters. David Koresh was not a likable human being, even if it is possible to relate to how he converted his vulnerabilities into effective psychological coping mechanisms.
Instead, what keeps you watching is the “why?”
Why did federal law enforcement agencies ever become obsessed with a small cult in rural Texas? Did the FBI and ATF not have bigger priorities? The first World Trade Center bombing happened only a couple days before the Waco siege started. That was also the same year one of the largest cities in the country was rioting over Rodney King being assaulted by a pack of LAPD officers. Oh, and they had this guy called the Unabomber. But the government and the media were captivated by Koresh.
Why did federal agents, all the way up to the president’s cabinet, continually choose to escalate problems rather than deescalate them? They had opportunity after opportunity after opportunity to walk away, regroup, return to legal procedures, and not murder anyone. Instead they rolled in tanks.
Once the standoff started, did it not occur to federal agents after more than a month that maybe there were better ways to intervene in the cult operations? That maybe shooting and tear-gassing a building full of children was not the ideal way to protect them from a child rapist? They killed 25 children to advance the cause of protecting children.
Instead, you have it beaten into your head across six episodes that when it comes to the government upping and re-upping irrational behavior, the limit does not exist. Once the egos of government personalities have been activated, they will ride their bad decision-making as far as fate will allow, even to the point of putting a bullet in a baby’s head.
Much like what is unfolding now, the federal agents (and their masters in Washington) invited the press into their assault and generated endless propaganda to make it seem like their petty-spat-turned-personal-apocalypse was justified. When anyone questioned their motives, they resorted to character assassination. You just don’t know the facts of the situation, say the people who are lying about the facts of the situation. Gaslighting is not a new phenomenon in American politics or in the media.
What is happening to the American economy now is simply a scaled-up version of the seemingly interminable Waco siege.
We have a bunch of little Janet Renos in state and local governments who made a fundamentally irrational decision to shut down their economies and nuke their taxes bases, which means residents are eventually going to discover unrelated essential government services are going to collapse too. Like Janet Reno, they aren’t going to turn back and admit that they could have handled the situation in a smarter or more humane manner. Instead they are going to keep escalating the situation and keep escalating the situation. After 20 million people lost their jobs, unemployment claims become just another big number.
The lesson of Waco is that when egos get involved, the accompanying inertia is profound. Do not doubt for a second that some of these state and local officials will keep their behavior up until some final destruction is realized. They’ve already made the decision that your livelihood does not matter. What matters is “winning,” and like Janet Reno, they can’t even explain what winning looks like anymore. Because they are so fucking far away from winning their brains are broken.
The quarantines started off being about not overwhelming hospitals systems. “Two weeks” turned into months, and hospitals were not meaningfully overwhelmed. Ventilator hoards have been passed along. Navy ships have been sent home. Now the goal posts have shifted to “we need to shut down the economy until no one shows cold or flu symptoms ever again.” Or we need to ride out a second wave that is going to come any moment, though it’s unclear whether most of the country ever had a first wave. Or we need to be shut down until there is a vaccine for a cold virus, that has already mutated more than a couple dozen times according to the Chinese (for whatever that is worth). That, if developed, like the flu vaccines that come out every year, probably won’t be exhaustively effective and probably won’t offer durable protection like measles, etc. vaccines.
How long can political egos stay irrational? Until they start a fire so big everything falls down.