On this day in 1993, the FBI assaulted the fortress of an apocalyptic Adventist sect near Waco, Texas, and a fire broke out that killed at least 80 children and adults. Two years later, an American militia sympathizer exacted what he saw as revenge by bombing the federal building in Oklahoma City and killing 168 people, including children in the day care center.
The Waco confrontation had been building for months. The leader of the cult inside the fortress, David Koresh, was preparing for the end times by stockpiling illegal weapons, which were delivered by UPS trucks. One day, a package broke open, and the UPS driver called the feds. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms planned a raid on the compound in February, but word leaked out to Koresh’s followers, known as the Branch Davidians. When the ATF charged the fortress, the Davidians met them with a hail of gunfire. Four ATF agents and two Davidians died in the shootout. The Davidians then shot and killed three of their own.
The FBI responded to the murder of their fellow federal officers with hundreds of agents, tanks, helicopters, searchlights, and stereo speakers intended to blast the Davidians out of the compound with unbearably loud music. After fifty-one days of tense negotiations, Attorney General Janet Reno, convinced that the Davidians were abusing the children in the fort, decided to force them out. Armored tanks poked holes in the compound walls and began pumping in tear gas. Several hours later, the fortress exploded in flames. At least 80 adults and children died in the ensuing inferno, which was broadcast live on television.
A special investigation by former senator John C. Danforth criticized the FBI for trying to hide evidence that some of the tear gas was flammable, but concluded that the Davidians had started the fire themselves. Right-wing conspiracists, however, alleged that the FBI set the fire, and then shot the victims as they tried to run from the flames. The “tyrannical regime” of the Clinton administration had targeted the Davidians because of their unorthodox religious views and their refusal to submit to arbitrary gun laws. In the conspiracists’ view, their government was willing to do anything to control Christians and their guns – even burn them alive.
Gulf War veteran and militia sympathizer Timothy McVeigh had distrusted the federal government before Waco, but the siege of the Branch Davidians pushed him to the outer fringes of conspiracist paranoia. Convinced that federal agents had gassed, incinerated, and shot the Davidians because of their defense of their Second Amendment rights, he vowed to seek revenge. “ATF, all you tyrannical mother fuckers will swing in the wind one day, for your treasonous actions against the Constitution of the United States,” he wrote in a letter he hoped federal agents would find later. During the siege, he made a pilgrimage to Waco, where a student journalist photographed him sitting on a car and selling anti-government bumper stickers (“WHEN GUNS ARE OUTLAWED, I WILL BECOME AN OUTLAW”). Shortly afterward, McVeigh visited Area 51 in Nevada, where he believed the government had stashed alien bodies and technology.
It is deeply disturbing to watch the films of the ATF agents storming the fortress, or the US tanks attacking it. It is even more disturbing to look at the pictures of the dead children of Oklahoma City. After the bombing, President Bill Clinton gave one of his best speeches. “If you say that government is in a conspiracy to take your freedom away,” he explained, “you are just plain wrong.”