Review: “Waco: A Survivor’s Story” by David Thibodeau

When Bill Hicks, stand-up comedian and philosopher, witnessed FBI’s and other authorities’ siege of the compound of the “Davidians” in Waco, Texas, he decided to go there himself. While there, he saw murderous gas being jolted into a building, along with numerous shots from several different high-calibre weapons, not to forget how tanks drove into the compound itself. Most of the persons inside of the building had either died from FBI’s (and other American law-enforcement authorities) bullets, fires that had started because of the extremely volatile gas, or from having the building collapse on them due to tanks entering the building.

Hicks later added the following to his stand-up routine:

“If the FBI’s motivating factor for busting down the Koresh compound was child abuse, how come we never see Bradley tanks smashing into Catholic churches?”

There’s quite a lot of truth in his words about this, as you will note when reading this book, originally penned by compound survivor David Thibodeau in the 1990s and now revamped for the TV mini-series about “Waco”, due to be released in January of 2018.

I first started reading this book wary of it; I’ve read a multitude of pop-culture books, studies, monographs, research, and criminological forensics to be very tired of these kinds of tomes; most have a kind of “HE WAS A MONSTER” feeling that surrounds them, mainly as a) the culprit(s) are mainly male and b) shock tactics are used in a kind of tabloid fashion.

However, I was very glad to note that Thibodeau (who is bolstered by the skills of his co-author, Leon Whiteson) has produced a book which is not only an easy read, but skips the entire fire-and-brimstone thing that often, sadly, envelops sensationalistic happenings such as the mass-murder of civilians in Waco, Texas.

He starts off with a highly sensoric paragraph on what the end of the Waco siege was about:

It is hell. Day and night booming speakers blast us with wild sounds—blaring sirens, shrieking seagulls, howling coyotes, wailing bagpipes, crying babies, the screams of strangled rabbits, crowing roosters, buzzing dental drills, off-the-hook telephone signals. The cacophony of speeding trains and hovering helicopters alternates with amplified recordings of Christmas carols, Islamic prayer calls, Buddhist chants, and repeated renderings of whiny Alice Cooper and Nancy Sinatra’s pounding, clunky lyric, “These Boots Were Made for Walking.” Through the night the glare of brilliant stadium lights turns our property into a giant fishbowl. The young children and babies in our care, most under eight years old, are terrified. The dismal racket and the blinding lights are tortures invented by the small army of law enforcement officers armed with tanks, armored vehicles, and automatic weapons who’ve surrounded the complex we call Mount Carmel for the past seven weeks. These torments are intended to sap our wills and compel us to surrender to an authority that refuses to accept that we are a valid religious community with deeply held beliefs. All our attempts to explain our commitment to what we believe have been dismissed as mere “Bible babble.” As the days drift by, we’ve begun to fear that, in their disregard for our faith and their frustration at our refusal to submit to naked force, the seven hundred or so agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF), plus the officers of several state and local police forces besieging us, may be edging toward an action that will end up wiping our small community right off the map.

Jon Ronson, an English author, noted in his famous book “The Men Who Stare At Goats” that the US government has since long been experimenting with audio as psychological warfare, actually interviewing American generals and others who attest to these experiments becoming life during the Waco siege.

After the shattering introduction of the book, Thibodeau quickly describes his adolescence, always wanting to travel and experience things, not knowing where he stood until he found music. He became an adept drummer, left home for music school where drumming was everything, and subsequently happened to meet David Koresh, who played the guitar.

Koresh is described as charismatic, with an intense knowledge of the Bible. As Thibodeau was not Christian, he was still drawn to Koresh who – according to Thibodeau – used a very non-violent way to get Thibodeau into his way of thinking; never preachy, always speaking fluently, they discussed the Bible, which Koresh interpreted via adventism, which bases a belief that armageddon is neigh.

So, Thibodeau moved to Texas, where Koresh had forged a tight-knit community of followers. After a while, Thibodeau started believing Koresh’s flavour of God.

Sometimes he’d deliberately provoke us, to jar us out of a trance. “You know, I hate black people,” he said once, out of the blue. I cringed reflexively. The crowd, which was around one-third black, was shocked. You could cut the hush with an axe. “And I hate yellow people,” David went on after a pause. “And I hate white people. The people I value are people of light.”

Speaking of light, Koresh proclaimed something he called “New Light”:

As David’s grasp of his role in the fulfillment of prophecy evolved, he had a further series of revelations. One of the most important and startling of these was his “New Light” experience during the summer of 1989, in which he foresaw the crucial role of sex and procreation in what he called the coming New World Order—a phrase later echoed by President George Bush around the time of the 1991 Gulf War. The New Light revelation was so radical it shocked some of his people and shook their faith. Simply put, it mandated celibacy for everyone except David. Single men in the community had to give up sex. Married men, such as Steve Schneider and Livingston Fagan, had to separate from their wives and cease making love altogether. Sex was a distraction, David told his people, an untamed power seducing the spirit away from its focus. Only David was given the right to procreate with any of the women, married or single, to generate the inner circle of children who would rule the coming kingdom to be established in Israel. In David’s spiritual logic, he saw himself assuming the burden of sexuality for the entire community, both male and female. The children David would have with these women, married and single, ranging in ages from fourteen to forty, would represent the most sacred core of the community. “They are our hope and our future,” he said simply.

I feel that the best and worst of Thibodeau’s writings lie in how he portrays Koresh; at one point, he is obviously sucker-punched into the whole sect mentality, not questioning the totalitarian leader’s claim to be “the Lamb from Revelation” (which he actually made) while classifying homosexual persons as “sinful”; also, women cooked, men worked on the building. Thibodeau writes of this “jarring” him, and at the same time, anybody who has ever been subjected to and fallen for peer pressure can relate to bowing down to ideas of others even though they may feel to be utterly wrong.

Whether or not Koresh raped children, even though that may not be the case according to Texan law, having sex with 14-year-old girls is pedophilia in my eyes. And yes, Koresh obviously abused his place of power much like Charles Manson, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump have, in their autocratic and totalitarian ways.

According to Thibodaeu, Koresh and others at the top of his gang did not force people to stay at their compound. Children were apparently well looked after, people were not worked to the bone, and it seems as though Koresh was mostly an OK person (apart from raping children and believing he was “the Lamb”). Apart from that, just.

Still, to me, the most interesting thing about this book apart from Thibodeau’s personal experiences with being drawn into Koresh’s being and collection of humans, is how both the FBI and the American justice system utterly perverted everything that occurred during the siege, not to mention the judicial process that followed.

To begin with, the ATF wanted to attack the compond. The basis for this deserves a full quotation:

The keystone in the ATF’s attack plan was the scripting of an affidavit as the basis for a warrant to search Mount Carmel and arrest David. A corrupt document on its face, the affidavit served as the original act that brought about the obliteration of our community. The ATF affidavit was built upon deliberate deceptions concerning charges that were legitimately under ATF jurisdiction, such as firearms violations; however, it raised issues that were not the agency’s concern, such as child abuse and drug trafficking. (We only got to see the sealed warrant during the siege, on March 19, weeks after the ATF attack. For the public, the warrant remained sealed until after the fire, too late for the media to examine it and question its validity.) The most blatant lie in the ATF affidavit was the drug charge. ATF agents told Texan officials that the community was “involved in drug trafficking.” In addition, the ATF involved IRS agents by dropping hints of drug “money laundering.” These trumped-up allegations allowed the ATF to requisition military materiel, normally forbidden to nonmilitary agencies under the 1878 Posse Commitatus Act. (The drug charge dated back to George Roden, who had allowed speed dealers to operate in Mount Carmel during the mid-1980s. But local law officers knew that when David—who hated drugs—took over Mount Carmel in 1987, he’d kicked out the dopers and called the Waco sheriff to have the methamphetamine lab removed.) A few weeks after the initial ATF assault, ATF spokesman David Troy blandly denied that there ever was any “suspicion of illegal drug activity” in Mount Carmel. Later, sources within the ATF quietly admitted to reporters that the drug-lab story was “a complete fabrication,” concocted to deflect sharp questions from Texas officials about the deceitful use of the National Guard and other state agencies. When challenged for their “dishonesty and misrepresentation” by the then-governor of Texas, Ann Richards, Troy contradicted himself with a claim that an “infrared overflight [by] a British military aircraft brought over from England” had found evidence of a meth lab in our building. According to Bill Cryer, her former spokesman, Richards “was surprised, and she was furious about the original attack. She thought it was unnecessary.” At the 1995 congressional hearings a New Hampshire Republican congressman, Bill Zeliff, commented that “ATF agents responsible for preparing the affidavits knew or should have known that many of the statements they were making were false.”

The US government paid over 30 million US dollars, to keep 700 law-enforcement officers, helicopters, tanks, arms beyond belief, and the media to some extent, to deal with Koresh and his friends. The FBI committed 250, the ATF 150, including agents and support personnel. In addition, there were officers from the Texas Rangers, the Waco police, the McLennan County Sheriff’s Office, U.S. Customs, the Texas National Guard, the Texas Department of Public Safety, and the U.S. Army. Thibodeau goes into clear detail to describe what happened and when, much like Åse Seierstad in her ubiquitous account of the Utöya mass-murder by Anders Bering Breivik. Congressional hearings and other law business has clearly shown how FBI top brass lied about vital points, and evidence – for example the bullet-struck right-hand side of the compound door – has vanished from the trace of the Earth, by the way, evidence which only did the law enforcement agencies disservice.

Everyone who was allowed to see the mass-murder that was about to happen could see the obvious signs on the wall:

David’s suspicion of the FBI remained high all through the discussions about the surrender. “You are all going to kill us,” he told one negotiator during the morning. Another negotiator, trying to reassure him, said that the military vehicles circling our building were there “for tactical reasons only,” whatever that meant. “They took their guns off,” a guy named Jim argued over the phone. “It’s strictly a bullet-proof shield.” We were suspicious of this jargon—rightly so, as it turned out. And we weren’t the only ones wary of the feds. Noting the FBI’s mobilization of military equipment, former McLellan County District Attorney Vic Feazell lamented the FBI’s Storm Trooper tactics (his words) and the “vulgar display of power on the part of the feds.” Feazell told the Houston Chronicle on March 1: “The Feds are preparing to kill them. That way they can bury their mistakes and won’t have attorneys looking over what they did later.… I’d represent these boys for free if they’d surrender without bloodshed, but I’m afraid I’m going to wake up and see the headlines that say they all died.”

The media also did their bit to whitewash everything that the government did, after the fact.

A prime example of this “pernicious dualism” was displayed on the March 25 episode of Oprah. In front of millions of viewers, and while we were in the midst of the siege, the popular host linked David’s name with that of Jim Jones by inviting Jones’s former attorney as a man who “understands the cult mentality.” Oprah’s program that day was titled “Inside Waco and Other Cults.” On the show, Oprah tried to manipulate Jeannine and Robyn Bunds into admitting that we were all under David’s diabolical spell. Though Jeannine repeatedly denied this, Oprah kept pushing. “Did you, at the time, recognize that—that it was indeed a cult and that you were being brainwashed?” she persisted. “No. I didn’t feel that way at all,” Jeannine replied. “Do you believe he’s evil?” “I don’t believe that he is evil,” Robyn Bunds answered.

It’s interesting to know that the FBI called their attack plan “Jericho”. It included a process to drive tear gas into the compound over 48 hours. The FBI chose to use the so-called CS gas. In January 1993 the United States and 130 other countries had signed the Chemical Weapons Convention banning the use of CS gas in warfare; apparently there is no prohibition on its use against American citizens.

Federal Laboratories, which supplies CS to the FBI, warns in its manual: “Under no circumstances should [CS] grenades, cartridges or projectiles designed for use in riots be used in confined areas. A hazardous overdose could be created by the release of… even one full-sized grenade in a closed room.” CS is effective at a concentration of ten milligrams per cubic meter of air. Over a six-hour period on April 19, the FBI delivered 1,900 grams of CS chemical agent into our building, creating concentrations in some rooms almost sixteen times that amount, or twice the density considered life-threatening. No greater concentration of CS has ever been sprayed by government agents at U.S. civilians.

Compounding the terrors of this gas mixture is its potential for causing fire. The Dow Chemical Company’s Material Safety Data Sheet on methylene chloride states that this chemical “forms flammable vapor-air mixtures.” The warning adds: “In confined or poorly ventilated areas, vapors can readily accumulate and cause unconsciousness and death.” Eric R. Larsen, Ph.D., a retired Dow chemist, confirmed a later Associated Press report that “MeCl [methylene chloride] vapors will reduce the flash point of hydrocarbon fuels and thus will enhance the rate of flame spread. One might as well toss gas on a fire.” Poorly ventilated areas “could have been turned into an area similar to one of the gas chambers used by the Nazis at Auschwitz,” Larsen added.

Janet Reno took the ultimate decision to allow the FBI to attack the compound and mass murder the civilians, based on what she stated was “hard intelligence” that “children were beaten”. Further from the book:

On the evening of April 19, hours after our tragedy, Reno would appear on talk shows and state that the FBI had “hard intelligence” that children were being beaten. It was bunk. Two days later the FBI denied Reno’s claims, dropping her in the soup. “We did not tell the Attorney General there was evidence of abuse during the siege,” an agency spokesman declared. “We passed on the 1992 reports from last year.” That is, the FBI gave the Attorney General a copy of the report of the intense investigation carried out in early 1992 by the Texas Department of Child Protective Services, which had been terminated for lack of evidence. Sessions himself later admitted that the bureau had “no contemporaneous evidence” of such abuse. In fact, Child Protective Services officials, who immediately examined the kids who came out during the siege, uncovered no evidence of child abuse. They found the children to be “surprisingly healthy, happy, well adjusted, well educated, and only wanted to return as soon as they could to their friends and relatives in the compound.” In the March 8 issue of the New York Times, Texas correspondent Sam Howe Verhovek wrote that none of these children “show any signs of physical abuse.”

The following paragraph shocked me extra, actually:

Official lies survived the blaze intact. The day after Mount Carmel burned, FBI spokesman Bob Ricks stated that the agents in charge had not expected a fire. However, a nurse in the burn unit at Waco’s Parkland Memorial Hospital reported that an FBI agent contacted her at 5:00 A.M. on April 19, an hour or so before the feds sent in the tanks to inject Mount Carmel with tear gas. The agent, said the nurse, wanted to know how many casualties the unit could handle. Two other local hospitals were also approached by the FBI early that morning. (As it turned out, the feds refused to pay for the treatment of our people in the Parkland burn unit, and the hospital administrator had to file a lawsuit against the agency to get the government to pay up. The hospital’s claim was settled out of court.)

Also:

The charred corpse of six-year-old Star, David’s oldest daughter, was found with her spine bent into a backward bow until her head almost touched her feet. Her muscles were contracted by the combined effect of the fire’s heat and the cyanide in her body, a byproduct of CS suffocation. Cyanide contraction is so violent it can break bones, which is why prison death-chamber officials who use the gas strap their victims down.

Very apt:

The Israeli mother of my friend Pablo Cohen, herself a survivor of the Nazi death camps, said that never in her worst nightmares did she expect her son to die by gassing and incineration in America.

Thibodeau adds this:

I now realize that David Koresh made huge mistakes. He was guilty of statutory rape and slept with a number of women, among them Michele, who was fourteen at the time. […] It should be noted that the age of consent in Texas at that time was fourteen (with parental permission) and although David’s actions might have been legal at the time, they were morally reprehensible, as well as bigamous.

In the end, 80 persons were slaughtered by an indifferent, wrong, and judging authority that received no penalties for their actions. Thibodeau’s introductory 10% of the book are brilliantly told, even though I feel that the style is later lost. Still, due to how clearly the story is told, without any seeming want to seek pity or to disregard truths about the compound attack (from both sides, as it were), this books is worthy of four out of five stars based on its sheer historical importance, reminding us to always keep watching the watchmen, be they leaders of cults or governments.

Bonus video: Bill Hicks!

The online news site The Guardian describes this video clip as Hicks riffing on religious cult, but the description should have been based on what Hicks says in the last half of the clip: “The Branch Davidians did not start the fire. They were murdered in cold blood by the p*ssies, the liars, the scumbags — the ATF.”

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