Friday, April 19, 2013

The Ashes of Waco

It was 20 years ago today that the Branch Davidians' compound in Waco, Texas, burned to the ground when federal agents stormed the compound after a seven–week standoff.

In the aftermath of the bombing at the finish line of the Boston Marathon this week, it was natural for people to wonder if there was some connection between the two. When one considers the events of the last few hours, though, it is natural to wonder if there is a connection.

The focus of the investigation and manhunt was two brothers reported to be from Chechnya, but they are now said to have left Chechnya while children. At this writing, their allegiances/motivations are uncertain. About all that is certain is that one of the brothers is dead and the other is on the loose.

I suppose such questions will be answered at some point and in one way or another.

If the perpetrator(s) turns out to be domestic, there may be a pretty good chance that the explosions were planned to coincide (almost) with the anniversary of Waco. It was, after all, the inspiration for the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City two years later.

I remember exactly where I was on this day in 1993. I was in Columbia, Mo., with a group of my journalism students from the University of Oklahoma. We were attending a weekend seminar on the University of Missouri campus.

April 19, 1993 was a Monday, the last day of the conference. When things wrapped up around midday, we were planning to hit the road for Norman. I remember waking up in my motel room that morning and switching on the TV. As I got dressed for the day, I kept track of the start of the fatal siege.

It began early that day when the feds tried to use armored vehicles to puncture the walls of the compound — through which, the plan went, tear gas would be tossed in an attempt to flush the occupants out.

But somehow the compound went up in flames instead — some say the Davidians set the fire(s) themselves — and, when it was all said and done, more than 70 people, including their leader, the charismatic David Koresh (born Vernon Howell), were dead.

I've never been sure of the sequence of events. The students and I were busy until around 12:30 or so, but we learned, just before the seminar adjourned, that a fire — well, several fires — broke out shortly after noon. As the host of the seminar concluded the activities, he advised that "all hell has broken loose in Waco."

(I'm not alone in that uncertainty about the event sequence, by the way. Even among those who were at the scene and participated in the siege, there has been and continues to be disagreement about what happened when and who was responsible.)

The students and I didn't see footage of the burning compound until we got back to Norman, but we heard reports on the radio all the way.

That night, when I was back in my apartment, I stayed up late watching news accounts, marveling at what we had missed and at the irony that a bunch of journalism students and professors had missed what was probably the greatest news story of the year because they were attending a seminar about how to present the news more effectively.

I had no idea that, two years later to the day, a bomb would go off in Oklahoma City, less than 30 miles from where I lived, and the timing would be connected to the anniversary of the assault on the Branch Davidians' compound in Texas.

(That was an even bigger news story, one in which I would find myself involved indirectly — as teacher and unofficial adviser to the students who staffed the OU campus newspaper, who produced all their own copy and photos and graphics, unlike nearly all newspapers, professional and collegiate, who depended upon the Associated Press.

(Frankly, I will never be able to say adequately — or often enough — how proud I was and am of the work those young people did on a story that undoubtedly was intensely personal for them. Many had grown up in Oklahoma City or nearby communities; one student even lost her father.)

But no one knew there was a link until later.

Somehow, that seems appropriate. Like other charismatic figures who led their followers to their destruction, Koresh was a mysterious individual. Judging from what I have read of Koresh — and the video clips I have seen of him preaching to his followers — virtually no one (perhaps not even Koresh himself) could have foreseen the fiery end of the Waco compound.

In many ways, Koresh and the Davidians remain shrouded in mystery.

Two decades later, Koresh still casts a mystifying spell.

"His legacy," writes Allan Turner in the Beaumont (Texas) Enterprise, "is one of righteousness, duplicity and showmanship."

A survivor of the inferno told Tim Madigan of the Fort Worth Star–Telegram that he still believes Koresh was who he claimed to be — in spite of the many questions that swirled around the standoff and final siege at the time.

There are many questions about those events that remain unanswered.

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