Preface to the Review of
Waco: The Rules of Engagement
by Jon Lebkowsky

This is a piece I wrote for Fringe Ware Review #8, published in May 1995. Having acknowledged that something bad happened at Waco and that the "proper authorities" certainly lied about it, I filed my memories of Waco away and got on with other stuff — which is to say, I never really got it. Today, that changed. I saw William Gazecki's documentary film "Waco: The Rules of Engagement," and got it like a jackboot in the jaw. As we left the theatre my wife Marsha, in tears, said "They were doing just what we wanted to do [recounting a 60s dream of ours to start a child-oriented communal family] — how could this have happened?"

"This" is the raid on the compound that resulted in the deaths of 76 men, women, and children who lived there, members of a Christian sect that was a little strange, but certainly not a cult. If you think that David Koresh was a whacky megalomaniac who abused children and led a mindless band of followers to commit ritual apocalyptic suicide rather than surrender to the FBI, don't feel too weird: somebody wanted you to believe that characterization. And you don't have to believe me when I tell you it was very wrong, all you have to do is see this film (if it finds general release; there's currently no distribution deal).

After you've seen the film, you'll have a better sense who Koresh was, and who the Branch Davidians were, and you'll know that you were fed a pile of complete bullshit by government and media sources — unless you were reading alternative accounts and histories, many of which were posted online, or unless you had the opportunity, as Monte McCarter and I did, to talk to survivors and assess their credibility face to face.

Even though I was the author of one of those alternate histories, and even though the piece below is somewhat better than the lazy reportage found in national press at the time, I didn't get it — it didn't hit me how bad this really was.

This is the most terrible, most disturbing film I have ever seen, all the more so because it is real. After you have seen the film, seen and heard the evidence presented there, you will find it easier to believe that David Koresh was a cool guy with a mission, that the Branch Davidians were dedicated Christians but certainly not loony. You will get the uncomfortable feeling that the FBI and the ATF lied repeatedly in explaining after the fact what happened. You will see chilling evidence that the destruction of the "compound" and the deaths — murder? — of those therein were orchestrated according to a strategy that left no chance of escape, even though they were negotiating the terms for a peaceful resolution. You'll wonder whether you can ever believe another "official" report.

If the conclusions to which the film points are true, we're back to Marsha's question: how could this have happened? Atrocities do happen: the holocaust in Nazi Germany and the My Lai massacre come to mind. However I kept thinking as we watched this film of a film and talk I saw in the late '60s. A psychologist named Philip Zimbardo was explaining an experiment he had conducted in which students were divided into two sets of roles: prisoners and guards. The impact of this role structure was disturbing: the guards became so brutal that the experiment had to be stopped before it was over.

In this there was a message about human nature, specifically about the tendency of a dominant to depersonalize a submissive. And worse: the officials at Waco had so demonized Koresh and his followers, I suggest that a pathology set in, that the ATF and FBI personnel saw the Branch Davidians as less than human, expendable. And as a challenge to their dominance: Koresh and his followers were strong; they did not give in readily, as the ATF/FBI folks had possibly assumed. The resulting escalation of the conflict tweaked role adherence to the max. The ATF guys clearly thought they were at war (they proudly flew their flag over Mt. Carmel after the conflagration).

"But David Koresh was a child abuser!" Hogwash. He had sex with girls who were under the age of consent, but with their parents' permission. The sheriff of McLennan County notes that they couldn't bring a case against Koresh because of this, and there was no evidence of abuse (just as there was no evidence of the supposed drug activity that ATF alleged to create support for the initial warrant/raid). Besides, I can't remember one other instance where even the worst kind of child abuser was taken by armed troops. The child abuse/child molestation allegations are diversions, and their very persistence is a clear signal that Something Is Awry.

The last cyberdawg mentioned Edward R. Murrow's historic challenges to Senator McCarthy and the concept of blacklisting. "Waco: The Rules of Engagement" should strike the same kind of blow, raise the same kinds of questions, and remind us that vigilance is always justified if we are to sustain a free society. If this film doesn't have that impact, you should worry.

— Jon Lebkowsky 5/7/97

Copyright © 1997 by Jon Lebkowsky

Feel free to distribute without change or abridgement.

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