Of all the propaganda projects the National Rifle Association has undertaken, the most successful might be their portrayal of violent far-right wing extremists David Koresh and Randy Weaver as patriots and heroes oppressed by an evil federal government.
In 1995, immediately after Timothy McVeigh bombed the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City (killing 168 innocent people and injuring hundreds), three-quarters of Americans said they approved of federal law enforcement’s actions during the Waco siege. But just three months later, that figure had shrank to 50%. During this period, the NRA and right-wing politicians were engaged in an aggressive campaign libeling federal agents as “jack-booted thugs” with “Nazi bucket helmets” who had the “go-ahead to harass, intimidate, even murder law-abiding citizens.” This narrative served the NRA’s interests, of course, by further weakening the ATF (the agency charged with enforcing federal gun laws) and scaring NRA members into giving more of their hard-earned money to the organization.
It’s remarkable how long this fraudulent narrative has persisted, even among Americans in the political mainstream. I was reminded of this fact recently while watching the popular Paramount+ miniseries “Waco.”
The 6-part “Waco” series goes out of its way to glorify Branch Davidian cult leader David Koresh and demonize the federal government under Democratic President Bill Clinton. The writers and directors of “Waco,” brothers John Erick and Drew Dowdle, clearly want us to believe the FBI and ATF were entirely responsible for the deaths of 76 Branch Davidians (including 25 children) on April 19, 1993. They depict Koresh as a selfless, modern-day American pioneer seeking to build a loving community under the auspices of his God- and government-given rights.
The truth is far different. While it would be impossible to catalog all the distortions in the “Waco” miniseries, here are some especially worth highlighting:
1) All neo-Nazi Randy Weaver had to do was go to court.
“Waco” begins with a look at FBI negotiator Gary Noesner’s role in an 11-day siege at the Idaho home of White Separatist Randy Weaver in 1992. The Dowdle brothers focus on the action and do little to make it clear why the Ruby Ridge siege began in the first place. Weaver was a member of the Christian Identity sect — which believes Jews and blacks are evil and must be separated from whites. An informant reported that Weaver was plotting to overthrow America’s “Zionist Organized Government.” The federal government took this seriously and investigated. In 1990, Weaver was indicted by a federal grand jury on firearm charges for manufacturing and owning illegal, sawed-off shotguns.
Weaver was innocent until proven guilty (particularly as a white man in a Red state), but deemed himself above the law and refused to appear in court, forcing a judge to issue a bench warrant for his arrest as a fugitive from justice. When U.S. marshals arrived at Weaver’s cabin to serve the warrant, he refused to come out and made it clear that his heavily-armed family (and friend Kevin Harris) would defend the home with violence. As six marshals scouted the property on August 21, 1992 for a place to safely arrest Weaver, a firefight broke out in which Weaver’s 14 year-old son Sammy and marshal Bill Degan were killed (all parties were armed and fired multiple rounds). It was only at this point the FBI became involved, with their Hostage Rescue Team taking over at the site. The arrest was eventually resolved peacefully.
In July 1993, Weaver was acquitted of all charges except missing his original court date and violating bail conditions. He served less than 16 months in jail. All the violence and death of August 21, 1992 would have been avoided had Weaver simply appeared in court as ordered.
“If given a chance, the American justice system can work,” the neo-Nazi told his attorney after the verdict, apparently without irony.
2) David Koresh was a vicious, serial pedophile.
The “Waco” series goes to great lengths to whitewash the cult leader’s rape of children. An early scene between Koresh (Taylor Kitsch) and new follower David Thibodeau (Rory Culkin) sets the stage, with Koresh explaining that he has taken on the “burden” of having sex with the girls and women in the compound (while swearing their partners and the group’s single men to vows of celibacy). Thibodeau takes this at face value without so much as smirking. Later, in the only scene depicting sex in the miniseries, Koresh is shown recoiling in shame from one of his adult wives for enjoying the act of intercourse.
The cult leader had as many as 20 wives when the siege ended. The only scene that even hints at Koresh’s pedophilia is one in which the cult leader is seen walking into a room with 14-year-old wife Michelle Jones. In reality, she already had a child with Koresh by this age — he started raping her when she was 12. In “Waco,” Thibodeau is depicted as calmly submitting to Jones’ rape, the first act of pedophilia he has witnessed since arriving at the compound.
Kiri Jewell, a Waco survior, testified before Congress on July 19, 1995. She told a House Judiciary subcommittee that she and her mother Sherri were two of Koresh’s wives on the compound. Kiri became Koresh’s youngest “bride” when she was just 10 years old. She testified that she “stared at the ceiling” as Koresh molested her in a local hotel, then “stayed in the shower for maybe an hour.” Jewell also reported that Koresh taught her how to use a gun, so she could kill herself when the time came.
Finally, Koresh “routinely discussed sex openly with even the youngest girls in Bible lessons.”
“It’s sick and it’s perverted and yeah, it’s one of the things about David Koresh that probably bothers me the most,” said former Branch Davidian David Bunds. “My position now is that David Koresh was a pedophile. I wish I would have done something. I don’t know what I would have done but I wish I had done something.”
3) Children were also being physically abused in the compound.
The “Waco” miniseries suggests the government’s claims of child abuse by the Branch Davidians were concocted out of thin air. In truth, in addition to the rape of minors by Koresh, children in the compound were regularly beaten and emotionally abused by adults.
The children were beat with a paddle the Davidians called “The Helper.” Joann Vaega, who was 6 years old when she left the compound, remembers being hit regularly. “As a kid, being disciplined was like a 24/7 thing,” she said. “There’s nothing that you could do right, is how I felt as a kid, that fear, that nothing you can do is going to be good enough. You’re raised with just fear. Everywhere is fear.”
Dana Okimoto, who gave birth to Koresh’s son Sky Okimoto, said that children faced severe beatings for minor infractions like spilling a glass of milk. She recalled beating Sky until he bled. “I felt like the most evil person in the world to be beating my baby this way,” she remembered. “But this was what God wanted and needed from me.” Koresh also made the children in the compound march and drill with firearms.
A team headed by Dr. Bruce D. Perry, the chief of psychiatry at Texas Children’s Hospital, examined 19 of the 21 surviving children from the compound. Their heart rates were elevated to 140, compared with a normal rate of 70 to 90. “It took three weeks to get their heart rates under 100,” Dr. Perry reported. “These children were in a persistent state of fear.”
The children spoke frequently of a violent, apocalyptic ending. They told Dr. Perry and his team their parents were “dead” (before the final siege and fire) and said things like “everyone is going to die” and “we’re going to blow you all up.” Dr. Perry warned FBI and ATF agents about Koresh. “I thought it was highly probable that he would carry out an abstract suicide,” he recalled, “some way for everyone to die, like setting up a large-scale explosion.”
The final report issued by Dr. Perry and his team said the following about the surviving children: “[They] likely experienced physical punishment as very young children, the girls were likely exposed to inappropriate concepts of sexuality, parental ties were undermined by David, a whole variety of destructive emotional techniques were used including shame, coercion, fear, intimidation, humiliation, guilt, overt aggression and power.”
4) The Branch Davidians started the fire, not the ATF.
The Dowdle brothers make the final siege of the compound on April 19, 1993 look fast and furious, with no time or opportunity for the Branch Davidians to escape. In reality, the FBI inserted tear gas into the building over a period of six hours. Only after that did fires suddenly and simultaneously erupt in three parts of the compound. A scene in the final episode of “Waco” shows past incidents in which American law enforcement used tear gas during sieges, strongly suggesting the ATF and FBI started the fires at Mount Carmel.
An independent investigation by two experts from the University of Maryland’s Department of Fire Protection Engineering concluded “the rapid growth rates of the fires resulted from an ignition source, probably liquid fuel, deliberately placed in each of the three points of origin.” They added that the fires “could not have been caused by a [Combat Engineer Vehicle] accidentally tipping a lantern, nor by the chemical (methylene chloride) used as the dispersal agent for the CS tear gas.”
Eleven listening devices were surreptitiously placed inside the compound by the government and they picked up numerous exchanges between members of the cult while they were setting the fires, such as:
“They got some fuel around here?”
“Yeah, they even poured already.””
“Poured it already?”
“He’s got it poured already.”
“I want a fire around the back.”
“Let’s keep that fire going.”
Koresh also ordered that he and others be shot to death as the fires burned. Twenty people were murdered this way, including five children under the age of 14.
Experts from the University of Maryland’s Department of Fire Protection Engineering concluded “the compound residents had sufficient time to escape the fire, if they had so desired.” But Koresh ordered his followers to stay put and die — an apocalyptic end he had predicted long before the ATF and FBI ever confronted the cult.
5) The cult was manufacturing fully-automatic machine guns. “Waco” also suggests the Davidians weren’t breaking any gun laws. Koresh and cult members can be heard at different times in the miniseries claiming they have the necessary “permits” for their stockpile of guns, without explaining what those “permits” might be/require.
For starters, the federal government has never required a license to buy/own anything short of a machine gun in this country (nor has the state of Texas). Second, if the Dowdle brothers are trying to suggest that Koresh and his cult completed the licensing and registration process for fully-automatic firearms (machine guns) mandated by the 1934 National Firearms Act, they’re wrong. A firearms expert from the FBI testified under oath in 1994 that 48 machine guns were found in the charred ruins of the Branch Davidian compound. They had been illegally converted from semiautomatic to fully-automatic.
Surviving Davidian Donald Bunds recounted how Koresh ordered him to buy a lathe and milling machine. This equipment was used to convert 90 to 100 semiautomatic rifles to machine guns in 1992. Bunds and several other Davidians testified that Koresh issued every male cultist a fully-automatic rifle and multiple ammunition magazines weeks before the ATF raid. “He was constantly going through a scenario,” Bunds reported. “[T]he enemies or the cops or the government or the ATF, who were the last people on the list, or some other squad would come down the driveway with rifles, and [we’re] going to have to shoot back.” Several women who left the compound during the siege described the group’s plans to use (illegal) grenades in a mass suicide. At least one surviving Davidian, Graeme Craddock, was found in possession of a grenade at the conclusion of the siege.
In a country where more than 8 out of 10 people say it is unacceptable to hold white supremacist views, I can’t help but wonder how many American viewers of “Waco” realize they’ve been had. We are living under America’s first authoritarian president and seeing our democracy steadily erode. If we are going to defeat Donald Trump’s aspirations for autocracy, and rejuvenate our democratic institutions, then the way we talk about important, shared history matters.
The fact is the NRA and Republican Party could have stood with the children sexually abused and killed at Mount Carmel, and told the truth about David Koresh. Instead they opted to glorify the cult leader pedophile, lie, and use the Waco tragedy as a pretext to further weaken American gun laws — making it easier for the next Koresh to kill federal agents.
Those tempted to accept the Dowdle brothers’ far right-wing worldview should ponder how much sympathy they have for armed protesters shutting down state legislatures over essential pandemic safeguards. Ultimately, we’re looking down the same gun barrel that federal agents did at Ruby Ridge and Waco.