Petzal: Waco According to Herbert

Bob Herbert is a regular op-ed columnist for The New York Times who exists in a perpetual state of outrage, and one of the things that outrages him is the fact that people like you and me have so many guns. On Saturday, June 20th, he did a column on that subject which I read with equanimity until I got to this paragraph:

"….Four federal agents were killed and 16 others wounded in an attempt to serve a search warrant at the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas, where a stockpile of illegal machine guns had been amassed. The subsequent siege ended disastrously with a raging fire in which scores of people were killed."

Even by the relaxed standards of truthfulness which now guide the Times, this is a reach. It's like saying that the Titanic struck an iceberg and sank but that 706 people were saved, and letting it go at that. Waco was, from the get-go, the greatest American law-enforcement debacle of the 20th century.

The Branch Davidian sect that inhabited the compound near Waco was suspected of possessing too many guns for the ATF's liking, and for having machine guns. Despite an offer by the sect's leader, David Koresh, for ATF to come in and have a look for themselves, the ATF arranged for a search and arrest warrant, and assembled a massive force to serve it.

At this point, a single county sheriff could have showed up and probably would have been able to serve the warrant peaceably. However, the ATF showed up looking like Patton's Third Army and leaked word of the coming raid to the press, which in turn (inadvertently) tipped off the Branch Davidians. This did not put Koresh and company in a reasonable state of mind. No one knows who fired the first shot, and as Bubba Clinton pointed out later with some heat, you're not entitled to shoot law-enforcement officers who are trying to serve a warrant on you, but on the other hand, it's hard to see how ATF could have handled it more poorly. Then ensued a siege.

On one side were 50-plus BD men who knew how to use guns and 75 women and children who didn't. On the other side were arrayed hundreds of ATF and FBI agents, soldiers of the Texas National guard, every piece of high-tech gear they could muster, plus helicopters, Bradley Fighting Vehicles, and two M-1 Abrams tanks--all to serve a warrant.

On the 51st day of the siege, Attorney General Janet Reno gave her approval for an all-out assault which resulted in deaths by shooting and from the fire that enveloped the compound. As Bob Herbert says, four Federal agents were killed and 3 wounded. The casualties on the other side, which he chose not to mention, numbered 86 Branch Davidians, including 20 children and two pregnant women.

The ATF and FBI commanders who presided over this fiasco kept their jobs, as did Attorney General Reno. No one was disciplined for anything. No machine guns were found in the compound. I find it odd today when we shake our heads at the Iranian militia breaking skulls and shooting protestors in the streets of Tehran. We did the same thing, for different reasons, on the watch of Bubba Clinton, in the United States of America.