Friday, June 12, 2015

The Ashes of Waco

The Ashes of Waco: An Investigation
© 1995 Dick Reavis
320 pages

What happened at Waco?  Dick Reavis had an itch to find out, and since no one else at his alternative newspaper was curious, he volunteered as man on the ground to investigate. Getting close wasn’t easy: during the fifty-one day siege, the ATF and FBI kept journalists at a distance, and their scissor job with the phone lines restricted communication in and out of the surrounded center.  Inside the center were nearly a hundred members of the Branch Davidians, a splinter sect of the Seventh-Day Adventists, expecting the apocalypse and living in the belief that their leader David Koresh was chosen as the next messiah, meant to  reveal God’s word to the world.   What Reavis found was a gung-ho mob of bureaucrats and gunmen, constantly getting in one another’s way and approaching a situation that demanded delicacy with all the tact of a bull in a china shop.

The Ashes of Waco is a more comprehensive text on the Waco disaster, which started off with the deaths of ten people – six civilians, four agents --  and ended in an inferno that killed eighty more, including children. Reavis covers the sect's religious background in a series of introductory chapters, covering their revolution from an Adventist group to one increasingly dominated by Koresh's interpretative of the Book of Revelation, then moves on to the ATF investigation and the bloodshed that followed.  If Reavis seems at all partial in his sharp criticism of the government which follows, this owes more to their half-cocked Rambo tactics than overt  sympathy for the Davidians.  He doesn't dwell on the child marriages, but at the time of writing Koresh was still being lynched by the media as a deranged pedophile with a private arsenal.  Reavis doesn't shy away from their kookiness, covering aspects that Tabor missed altogether, like a belief in biblical UFOs that transported people from Earth into Heaven.  In Reavis' eyes, however, a government which uses extreme force recklessly is far more dangerous than a religious group that had lived peaceably in Texas for decades.  From moment one, Waco was a catastrophe for civil, competent law enforcement. From the raid's opening, with a helicopter strafing the building, to its closing fifty-one days later with tanks used to batter down walls and shoot in tear gas grenades banned from war and known to be incendiary in enclosed situations, the operative word was Fiasco.

The Ashes of Waco is well-done, drawing on extensive interviews with Federal agents,  Waco residents (the centers' neighbors), and Davidian survivors. Reavis conveys a good sense of what life was like inside the community, including maps of the connected buildings. He also looks beyond the front lines to consider how neighbors reacted to the showdown, including one radio host who -- after realizing the center's residents were listening to his show -- had them move a dish mounted on their roof in response to questions, a la Christopher Pike in "The Menagerie", in Star Trek.   Although obviously appalled by the actions of the ATF and FBI, they are not villainized, All told, this is as even-handed and thorough an account one could hope for, written so soon after the debacle.


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