“What in the hell is going on here?” a police officer yelled at the man who would become David Koresh. “What in the goddamn hell is this? This kind of shit don’t happen in America!”
It was 1987, Stephan Talty recounts in Koresh: The True Story of David Koresh and the Tragedy at Waco, and Vernon Wayne Howell was on the ground, being bitten by ants, after a raid on the Mount Carmel compound of the Branch Davidian religious sect, in Waco, Texas. Howell had been the one doing the raiding, on this occasion, leading seven members of his own splinter group of Davidians—fortified by eating garlic cloves and armed with .223 Ruger semi-automatic rifles, .22 rifles, and a pair of shotguns—out of exile in Palestine, Texas, and into a shootout with George Roden, the black-hatted, Uzi-toting rival prophet who’d taken charge of Mount Carmel.
With apologies to the cop, that kind of shit very much did happen in America. Kevin Cook, describing the same incident in Waco Rising: David Koresh, the FBI, and the Birth of America’s Modern Militias, notes that when the gunfire started, Roden’s wife, “in the kitchen of the Roden’s double-wide,” said she kept heating beans: “The way I figured, if anybody lived, they’d probably be hungry.”
Howell’s trial for attempted murder ended in a hung jury—with nine white jurors voting to acquit him and three Black jurors voting to convict—and, helped by his followers’ paying off the back taxes, he soon got Mount Carmel out from under George Roden. He settled into the compound, under a handmade flag depicting a serpent and a Star of David–like symbol, as David Koresh, the undisputed leader of the Branch Davidians.
Six years after that initial intra-Davidian shootout, and 30 years before now, the federal government got into a standoff with the heavily armed preacher and his followers at Mount Carmel, and no one could get out of it. It was a test of official judgment against Koresh’s judgment, in both the lowercase secular sense and the capital-J biblical sense, and the feds got it wrong on both counts. Scores of people, including 20 children, ended up burned or suffocated or stabbed or shot to death because the authorities didn’t understand, or care to understand, what sort of person they were dealing with.
“This kind of shit don’t happen in America!”
In time for the anniversary, Talty and Cook have both returned to the scene of the lethal showdown, to try to explain what went wrong in Waco and what it meant, and still means, for the rest of the country.
The events at Mount Carmel were so thoroughly documented—through F.B.I. recordings, weeks of round-the-clock media coverage, and after-the-fact investigations and reporting—that the authors’ accounts inevitably converge and overlap. But even within one book, there’s no single way to tell the story. The fatal events come across as simultaneously preventable and inevitable: a chronicle of confusion, misfortune, and human failure, and a study in the relentless, rote brutality of the American system.
The central human element in it all is Howell. Cook, speeding the story toward Waco, sketches his background quickly and sharply: the child of 14-year-old eighth-grader Bonnie Clark and “a high school senior, a good kisser with a pickup truck”; a stutterer with dyslexia, beaten by his “mean drunk” of a stepfather; a ninth-grade dropout whose general incompetence was partly offset by gifts for mechanical work, distance running, playing guitar, and memorizing the Bible—and “a God-given knack for shooting guns.”
Talty, trying to grasp Howell’s nature from cradle to grave, lingers more on the details: “All the women in Vernon’s life—his grandmothers, Bonnie, her friends—fell in love with Vernon the first time they saw him.... But the men in Vernon’s life took one look at Vernon and wanted nothing to do with him.” He tells of the young Vernon desperately pedaling his bicycle after his grandmother’s car, hoping she’ll take him away with her, and of the young Vernon putting a bunch of chicks into “a little hollow underneath a board” and stomping them to death.
Through its close attention to Koresh’s life, Talty’s account ends up being in some respects the less sympathetic one. Where Cook quotes Howell’s legal petition to change his name to David Koresh, in which he calls himself “an entertainer” using the name “for publicity purposes,” Talty delves into how one Davidian made up the name as an exegetical joke about how the messiah should be named after King Cyrus, or “Koresh”—only to have Howell miss the point and embrace the gag name as his own identity.
It was a test of official judgment against Koresh’s judgment, in both the lowercase secular sense and the capital-J biblical sense, and the feds got it wrong on both counts.
David Koresh, in either telling, is a squalid and cruel figure, and Mount Carmel a miserable place. He manipulates and abuses his followers, separating husbands from wives to take the wives as his own, then taking their pubescent daughters for sexual abuse as well. After vowing to lead the Branch Davidians through the end times in the Holy Land, Talty writes, he is shooed out of Israel as one more loon with “Jerusalem syndrome” and stranded back in Waco. Madonna, he realizes, is never going to become one of his wives.
And then the end times find him anyway, in the form of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. In 1992, the A.T.F. began investigating the Branch Davidians’ bulk purchases of semi-automatic assault rifles and of equipment capable of turning them into illegal machine guns. They set up a surveillance post in a house opposite Mount Carmel and began planning a raid.
Rather than simply scooping up Koresh while he was out jogging, or on one of his frequent trips into town, the agents fixated on the mistaken belief that he was immovably dug in at Mount Carmel, and only an assault on the compound could bring him in. The A.T.F. settled on a plan for an all-out raid on February 28, 1993—including National Guard helicopters, brought in on the false premise that the Davidians were involved with drugs—and pressed ahead with it even after learning, at the last minute, that Koresh knew they were coming. Who shot first remains an open dispute, but when the A.T.F. task force retreated, under a barrage of automatic weapons fire, four federal officers and six Davidians were dead.
For seven weeks, while F.B.I. negotiators spent hours each day on the phone trying to talk Koresh into surrendering, the rest of the authorities on the scene did everything they could to antagonize the Branch Davidians: cutting their power, driving tanks over their parked vehicles, menacing and mooning them from fortified positions. Taking a page from Operation Nifty Package, the capture of Manuel Noriega, in Panama, they blasted Mount Carmel with deafening music and recordings of animal slaughter. (Koresh, Cook writes, countered with his own band, playing through generator-powered loudspeakers.)
The spectacle drew people from all over the country—among them “a twenty-four-year-old Army veteran and ex-Ku Klux Klan member, Timothy McVeigh,” as Talty describes him, selling anti-government bumper stickers out of his car. The American right, Talty writes, saw the siege as “an escalation of Ruby Ridge,” the Idaho standoff the year before, where agents had killed the wife and teenage son of the white nationalist Randy Weaver. Other people showed up in the throes of religious delusions, hoping to join the Davidians: where Koresh had been a victim of Jerusalem syndrome, he was now Jerusalem.
Was there a way out of the apocalypse? Both authors describe how the F.B.I. consistently treated Koresh as an unreachable madman when he might have been reasonable, and as a rational actor when his madness and religiosity were in command.
On the morning of April 19, as loudspeakers blared “This is not an assault,” the task force, determined to end the siege, drove armored military vehicles right up to Mount Carmel, punched holes in the walls, and began pumping tear gas inside. At some point, as the ostensible effort to get the Davidians out of their compound drove them deeper into it, Mount Carmel began to burn. The two authors agree that, despite the fact that the government turned out to have launched pyrotechnic rounds into the building, and to have then lied about it and covered it up, the timing and recordings from inside the compound make it more likely that the Davidians started the fires themselves. In either case, they were left with no way out.
The spectacle drew people from all over the country—among them “a twenty-four-year-old Army veteran and ex-Ku Klux Klan member, Timothy McVeigh.”
Fire trucks were held back, for fear they might be shot at, even as the Branch Davidians turned their guns on themselves. Koresh died of a bullet to the head, most likely administered by a loyal follower, and by the time the fire was out, Cook writes, he “measured three and a half feet from shattered skull to charred leg bones.”
Although there is surely a straight line, as Cook draws it, from Waco to McVeigh’s Oklahoma City bombing, to the mobs of January 6, it’s hard not to see the story branching out in other directions: Uvalde, Nisour Square, Ferguson. If it pointed back to Ruby Ridge, it also pointed back to the MOVE bombing, in Philadelphia. Babylon is bigger, and worse, than the right-wing imagination can contain.
After the fire trucks finally approached the scene, Cook writes, “ATF agents celebrated, cutting down the Davidian flag and hoisting the blue and gold ATF flag in its place.”
Tom Scocca is the former politics editor of Slate and the editor of Popula