Waco: The Rules of Engagement (1997)

“Somebody had better buy some fire insurance.”

In Waco, Texas, April 19 1993, 76 members of the Branch Davidians were killed inside their city-block sized compound. The Branch Davidians were a religious group led by David Koresh, and they had been established in the area since the 30s. Koresh was raised as a Davidian and took over the leadership position some years before. Koresh was polygamous, and there were also rumours that he maintained relationships with underage girls, but it was the idea that Koresh and his followers (and the group were licensed gun dealers) had illegal weapons that brought them to the attention of the authorities. The thought-provoking DVD Waco: the Rules of Engagement is the story of what happened in 1993.

On February 28th, 1993, rumours that the Branch Davidians were stockpiling weapons led to more than 70 ATF agents storming the Branch Davidian camp–known as Mount Carmel. Although the plan was to storm the compound in a surprise attack and seize the weapons, the presence of the press (who had been alerted by the ATF) meant the Branch Davidians had a good idea that something was about to happen. Both sides claim the other side fired first, but at the end of the day, 4 ATF agents were dead (and 6 Davidians), and many more wounded. The FBI took over from the ATF and laid siege to the compound for 51 days. The siege finally came to a fiery apocalyptic end that captured the headlines.

The documentary goes back and forth blending senate investigation hearings with footage taken during the siege. Apparently, at one point the FBI gave the Davidians a camera during the siege period, so many Davidians who were killed in the fire appear on snippets of videotape. Various experts, a handful of survivors, and law officers are also interviewed, and parts of the audio taped negotiations are included in the film.

So what happened? How did this situation become SO bad? For that answer, you will have to watch the DVD yourself. But I will say that I came to this film a bit curious and with a pre-conceived notion about the event I saw in the news over a decade ago. My impression was that the Davidians were a bunch of rabid loonies holed up and armed to the teeth. After watching the DVD, I have many, many questions about the event–were the rumours about Koresh’s involvement with underage girls ever investigated? The film includes snippets of one teenage girl’s testimony in the senate hearings, and the evidence seems quite impressive. If these rumours had been investigated, then the police or social workers would have knocked on the Branch Davidian doors instead of an ATF raid taking place. It’s all a matter of jurisdiction.

The ATF raid was a poorly conceived idea, and after the deaths of the ATF officers, it led to the inevitable standoff with the FBI. One has to ask, were the conditions during the siege conducive to the Davidians surrender? Unfortunately, the answer is an overwhelming ‘NO’. Recorded tapes of animal slaughter, Davidians being mooned, endless playing of Nancy Sinatra songs are just some of the juvenile tactics used during the siege that were judged to be conducive to surrender.

This brings me to the events of April 19th, and the senate hearings that were ostensibly held to investigate the incident. Frankly, I was shocked both by the incidents that took place in Waco, Texas, and also by the senate hearings themselves. All the grandstanding, all the outraged senators, all the testimony….everything comes down to the fact that the truth doesn’t matter.

Would the Branch Davidians, who claimed to be peaceful people, simply have given up if approached differently? We will never know the answer to that question. If you are at all curious (as I was), then watch this excellent DVD. It’s chilling.

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Filed under Documentary, Political/social films

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