By Allen, John L., Jr.
National Catholic Reporter , Vol. 34, No. 1
"Culture," Lionel Trilling once wrote, "is a prison." He meant that the assumptions and values of a culture circumscribe the perceptions of those steeped in it. We see reality a certain way, make judgments about what is right and true as we do, in part because of cues we pick up from the culture that surrounds us.
A new documentary now playing in select theaters "Waco: The Rules of Engage meet" is a terrifying indictment of our inability to break out of these prisons. On one level, the film documents the conflict in Waco, Texas, between two hostile, opposing cultures -- the Biblical apocalypticism of the Branch Davidians and the macho militarism of federal law enforcement. The Davidians and government agents consistently misinterpreted one another's intentions and desires. The producers reserve their harshest judgment for the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms and the FBI, who provoked the conflict and determined to end it by any means necessary.
On another level, the film puts all of us in the dock, who looked on at Waco, interpreting events through the ready-made categories spun out by the media: the Davidians were a "cult," their home a "compound," their guns an "arsenal," and so on. Few Americans asked tougher questions about the government's actions -- in effect ceding criticism of what happened to far-right militia groups.
The film suggests that the people who were shot, burned and gassed in Waco died not because they posed a threat to anyone, but because their millenarian view of the world clashed -- in frustratingly predictable fashion -- with the soldierly ethos of law enforcement. The logic of escalation took over, with the inevitable climax of an all-out military assault.
To say it as simply as possible: people didn't have to die. Consider the following points, made in the documentary.
* While federal law enforcement consistently called the Davidians a "cult," they were in fact an offshoot of the Seventh Day Adventists. They had a strong commitment to a literal interpretation of the Book of Revelation, but religious studies scholars who had interviewed the Davidians saw nothing "cultish" in their outlook or behavior.
* Far from being tied to the Mount Carmel property by the force of David Koresh's personality, some members of the group had been there for over 40 years, well before Koresh arrived. Some had been born and had grown up there. They were united by their apocalyptic theology, not the charisma of Koresh.
* That theology was almost comically misunderstood by law enforcement agents. When scholar Jim Tabor offered help, the ATF agent in charge admitted that his men had been flipping through Gideon Bibles in hotel rooms trying to figure out what Koresh was talking about.
* Months prior to the standoff, David Koresh had invited ATF agents out to inspect his guns. They never responded. Instead, the morning of the February raid, the ATF erected a media center to publicize what it expected to be a successful operation -- but had no system in place for contacting emergency services if something went wrong.
* When the siege was finally brought to an end on the morning of April 19, FBI tanks injected the Davidian buildings with a mixture of CS gas and methylene chloride that, in enclosed spaces, can cause suffocation -- and, when it burns, forms hydrogen cyanide, the same gas used in prison gas chambers. …