Rambo and Revelation

Malise Ruthven

  • Fire and Blood: The True Story of David Koresh and the Waco Siege by David Leppard
    Fourth Estate, 182 pp, £5.99, June 1993, ISBN 1 85702 166 5
  • Preacher of Death: The Shocking Inside Story of David Koresh and the Waco Siege by Martin King and Marc Breault
    Signet, 375 pp, £4.99, May 1993, ISBN 0 451 18000 3

Eighty-six people died in the Waco siege in April, including the ‘prophet’ David Koresh and 17 children fathered by him. David Leppard, a crime reporter with the Sunday Times Insight team who covered the Waco story, describes well and knowledgeably the appalling build-up of weapons in the compound of the Branch Davidians’ ranch and the information and assumptions that led the two law enforcement agencies involved – the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) and the FBI – to make a series of disastrous errors. Fire and Blood, however, does not properly explain the religious background to the tragedy and therefore fails to account for Koresh’s hold over his followers. Preacher of Death has the advantage of Marc Breault’s contribution. Breault, a senior member of the Branch Davidians who defected in 1989, was the prime instigator of the legal moves that culminated in the ATF raid last February. Martin King, an Australian television reporter who interviewed Koresh before the siege, has in-corporated into his narrative parts of Breault’s original diary, as well as extensive interviews with him.

The Jonestown massacre in Guyana in 1978, in which the leader of the People’s Temple, the Reverend Jim Jones, persuaded nine hundred of his followers to join him in suicide by drinking Cool-Aid laced with cyanide, is a constant reminder of the dangers to which the charismatic leaders of cults – or New Religious Movements, to use the more neutral term – can expose their followers and their followers’ children. The Texan authorities, the ATF and the FBI were given repeated warnings that Koresh might respond to an attack by bringing about the collective suicide of his followers. Breault began his campaign to alert the authorities immediately after he left the Mount Carmel ranch in 1989. In Texas he got almost nowhere: the Sheriff’s Department in Waco dismissed his warnings as ‘sour grapes’, the local media were indifferent, and it was only after he’d contacted the father of one of the children in the compound that he began to make any headway in the United States. David Jewell, who was fighting a custody suit with his ex-wife Sherri (one of Koresh’s ‘wives’), warned at least two Congressmen in March 1992 that Koresh had plans for mass suicide and this information seems to have been passed to the FBI. Yet Breault was not contacted by the Bureau until March this year, after the siege began. He made better progress in Australia, receiving co-operation from the media and from the official Seventh-Day Adventist Church: Koresh had recruited members of the Church in Australia as well as Britain. The US Embassy in Australia wired the State Department that mass suicide at the ranch was imminent and that Koresh would kill anyone who tried to arrest him.

The siege itself was prompted by the killing of four ATF agents and the wounding of 16 others when the Agency tried to attack the ranch, which contained a massive stockpile of weapons. The raid, carried out by scantily armed ATF agents, was ill-judged from the start. The ranch’s arsenal included fully automatic rifles, grenades and a grenade-launcher, mortars, a 50-caliber machine-gun and over a million rounds of ammunition. In Texas, 17 million people own 68 million guns and many of the weapons on the ranch were acquired perfectly legally from mail-order companies, though modifications to make the rifles fully automatic were illegal. After the ATF fiasco, the FBI were brought in, along with the Bureau’s Hostage Rescue Team (HRT). As Leppard suggests, the tactic of using the HRT was highly questionable: the ‘team had been trained to rescue hostages, defined as innocent civilians held by criminals against their will. The unique problem that the Bureau faced at Waco was that nearly all those inside the compound wanted to remain there. From the outset there were no guarantees that any wanted to escape – even if the HRT gave them the chance.’

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