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TV show about Waco
could have been better

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TV show about Waco could have been better
Waco negotiator reviews recent MSNBC program about Waco

by J. Phillip Arnold
The writer, a 1970 Ambassador College graduate and founder of The Reunion Institute, a Houston research ministry, received his Ph.D. in historical theology from Rice University in 1990. He also holds an M.A. in philosophy of religion from Rice and an M.A. in the history of ideas from the University of Houston.

HOUSTON, Texas--The television documentary Witness to Waco ran Oct. 18, 2009, on MSNBC for two hours and could have done a far better job of analyzing those dark days near Waco, Texas, in 1993.

Waco, of course, was the location of the standoff between agents of the U.S. government with David Koresh and his followers, a group of Sabbath- and Feast-keeping Christians in central Texas. Mr. Koresh had proclaimed himself the Lamb of Revelation who could interpret the seven seals.

The standoff ended with the compound outside of Waco burning to death Mr. Koresh and about 80 other Branch Davidians, including many children.

Unfortunately, the U.S. government didn't realize David Koresh, who had founded an offbeat Christian group, genuinely believed his odd interpretation of the seven seals of the book of Revelation.

Leading characters

The MSNBC program has the advantage over other programs about Waco of using lots of primary sources in the form of audios, videos and eyewitness interviews. This gives it a sense of authenticity and serves to introduce viewers to leading characters in the drama.

But, not too long after the program's auspicious start, the subject of "scandal" begins to take front row in the form of David's tirades, coarse speaking, control of others and liaisons with younger wives, as well as the Davidian gun issues.

Comments by Rick Ross, the Ohio-based lecturer on "cults," at least show that the Davidians believed in a religious message, while Mr. Ross's tone strongly reinforces the "cult" objectification image.

Book authors James Tabor (who has a WCG and AC background and cowrote Why Waco?) and Dick Reavis (The Ashes of Waco) do well to balance the equation.

In the program, agent Byron Sage admits FBI failure but places the primary blame on David Koresh.

Fatally stubborn

The program goes on to talk about negotiations failing, the excesses of the tactical unit and the stubbornness of David and the FBI and ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives).

Agent Sage says David's comment about having his own kids remaining in Mount Carmel (the Branch Davidian compound) fully convinced him that the group for sure was not going to come out.

But this does not follow, nor does Mr. Sage prove it.

This is the second time I have noticed that Mr. Sage draws wrong conclusions from prior assumptions controlling his interpretations.

He explained the first, on another TV program years ago, when he said he decided to "test" David by confronting him with the fact that he, Byron Sage, was content to believe in Jesus Christ for his salvation.

Inadequate 'test'

Mr. Sage concocted this "test," he says, because, if David genuinely believed he was a messiah, or Lamb of God, he would have to confront Mr. Sage and try to convince him that salvation was through David Koresh, not through Jesus, etc.

When David politely listened to Mr. Sage and did not "preach at" him to convert him, Mr. Sage "knew" that David was really a "con man," not a true believer in his messianic identity and mission.

Agent Sage assumes that any self-respecting messiah would just feel compelled to "convert" a nonbeliever on the spot.

His prior assumption that he knew what a messiah would do led the FBI agent to a fatal conclusion.

What would Byron Sage say now if he knew about the "messianic secret" attributed to Jesus in the New Testament? Or the view of some that Jesus told parables to hide, not reveal, Himself?

The MSNBC program allows James Tabor several segments to add important insights and balance to the program.

The MSNBC cable news channel also allows important information from author Dick Reavis and others. Both men show the sincere existential commitment the Davidians had for their faith and their view of the seven seals.

God started the 'waiting'

Dr. Tabor explains the breakthrough that would have led to the peaceful resolution of the standoff promised by David in his letter of April 14, 1993, but the program does not highlight it.

This omission comes from the fact that the program does not first show that David and his church believed that God commanded them to begin a "waiting period" in early February. David believed he literally heard a voice from God telling him not to exit Mount Carmel until God told him to do so.

Since the program fails to show this point, it fails to recognize the crucial significance of the April 14 letter that reveals that David believed that God had finally told him to end the waiting period.

It does mention that David Koresh's lawyer, Dick DeGuerrin, negotiated what could be a major breakthrough when David said God had told him to write his message and then come out.

Main point missed

But the program does not connect that fact to the main point that the revelation from God signified that the "waiting period" was over, that the God who said "Wait" now said "Don't wait anymore."

Instead, the program goes to agent Sage, who indicates that when the FBI heard about the writing of the seals it took it with skepticism, almost cynically. The authorities had been waiting for the waiting to end. Now that very moment arrived and they completely missed it.

There was no mention of how David Koresh and Steve Schneider (another Davidian) pleaded to speak to religion scholars, including David Noel Freedman and James Tabor and me.

There was no mention of our attempt to penetrate the media blackout and provide the contact David needed. And there was no clear mention of the April 14 letter saying that the seals would be given to scholars and then the Branch Davidians would exit.

Mr. Sage does admit on the program that David said it would take about two days per seal to write his message. Such an acknowledgment of such a short period will no doubt make some viewers wonder why the FBI did not wait a few days more before taking drastic action.

Mr. Sage says two or three times that the FBI failed. But he also says David manipulated and should be in hell for killing his people, as if David intended to murder anyone.

Mr. Sage even says that he himself would have come out quickly had authorities or anyone else put his family in danger with CS gas (tear gas). So this shows that even now agent Sage does not fully understand what faith meant to the Davidians.

What would Jesus do?

I would ask Mr. Sage if he means that, as a Christian, he would loudly deny Jesus Christ publicly in order to avoid the CS gas.

Or, better, if Jesus could have known that His stubborn actions as King of the Jews would later get Himself and a lot of believers killed, would He have denied His identity and mission in order to "save lives"?

Mr. Sage is correct to believe he would have "come out" in two shakes of the Lamb's tail, just like Herod or Pilate would have avoided the cross. But true believers in a messiah put their faith before family and friends because it is a matter of ultimate concern.

But Mr. Sage reveals a significant point when he confirms that Special Agent Jeffrey Jamar would have perhaps canceled the CS gassing had Steve Schneider on the night of the 18th not sounded so indecisive about David's writing the seals.

Mr. Sage indicates on the program (and Special Agent Jamar told me in 1995 in Washington, D.C.) that, if Steve had said on that late-Sunday-night phone call there was evidence of the writing going on, then the Monday, April 19, assault plan would have been canceled.

Ever so careful

It is true that on the late-Sunday-night phone call Steve sounded passive and too careful when answering the agent's probing questions about how the writing of the seals was coming along.

But Steve was dog-tired and being ever so careful not to distort anything by overstating what he had seen or not seen that night.

From the negotiation tapes of Saturday and earlier on Sunday the 18th, we know that Steve says he had seen scattered on David's bed many pages and that the first seal was finished and that David had started the second seal.

So on Sunday night Steve knew he had already clearly reported earlier that seal one was finished and No. 2 was underway. He was simply carefully reporting that at the moment he did not know whether David was writing that night.

Plus, on Monday Steve says on the bug tapes that he wants to tell the FBI that some of the writing is done already. Of course, Ruth Riddle (a Davidian who survived the fire) brought out the diskette on Monday with some of the material completed.

Who set the fire?

Concerning the fire: The impression is pretty strong on the MSNBC program that Davidians set the fire. But it leaves room for some question.

Dr. Tabor makes the point that, if they did set the fire, it was for protection of some sort--perhaps a way to obstruct the tanks, or a wall of fire to protect themselves. The program does not explore this enough.

Overall, in my opinion, the program makes the way the authorities handled Waco look bad, inept and heavy-handed and portrays David as bad, even a "monster," in agent Sage's last words.

But it also shows that the Davidians believed that their faith was the reason they were at Waco and embroiled in what they mistook for an end-time prophetic fulfillment.

The need to zero in

I would have liked the program to zero in on how the awful end could have been avoided if some of the points below had been recognized or acted on:

  • The holocaust might not have happened had the authorities been willing to comprehend the difference between suicide, which the Davidians rejected, and "translation" into "heaven," which could possibly in their theology be done through a fiery ascent.

    Specifically, it would have helped had they comprehended the Davidians' long history of believing that their community would be protected by a "wall of fire" in the last days.

  • If the authorities had given more time for David to write the seals, leading to members of the community exiting safely now that they were convinced the Bible predicted they would do so, there could have been a satisfactory outcome.

  • If, possibly, the authorities had granted the Davidian request to speak to me and other theologians on March 15, instead of denying that request, maybe history would have taken a different turn.

  • Since the Davidians believed that God had released them from the waiting period in the April 14 letter, the show could have made a major structural point about when the waiting period began and when it was to end.

  • The program could have said that the tragedy was that the authorities failed to recognize that the authorities' long waiting had succeeded! The period had expired. The next step was to hand over the message about the seals and come out.

  • Then the program could have better interrogated the authorities about their reasons for acting in a way that precipitated the final resolution.

  • The point could have been made that the negotiators seem to have failed to recognize that the "waiting period" was officially closing because they did not have the resources (the expertise) to interpret David's religious beliefs to agent Jamar and U.S. attorney general Janet Reno, and on up the line to Vince Foster and the Clintons.

  • The program could have let Dr. Tabor's voice be heard explaining that throughout the 51 days all the clues and information were there for the FBI to correctly recognize the end of the waiting period and what would happen if the FBI violated the sacred space.

    Like most programs on Waco, this opportunity was missed.

  • A better program would have underscored the fact that the FBI was (is?) uneducated in the worldview of the religious groups it deals with.

At Waco the ATF and FBI needed biblical and "religion-worldview translators" poring over the phone transcripts of every single word--looking for data, looking for the meaning and plans that David was telling them in his "Bible babble."

This would have led to the experts providing key questions for the negotiators to ask David and Steve.

The questions would have been asked in David's and Steve's biblical language to elicit from them exactly what they meant by their previous statements referring to prophecies about the wall of fire, suicide, crucifixion, the seals, surrendering, exiting and going to trial.

Point muddied

I have heard all the 51 days of negotiation tapes, and there is no doubt in my mind that enough information was there from the mouths of several Davidians for the authorities to have figured out what steps the Davidians would take to match the steps taken by the FBI.

One path danced to fiery destruction; another path would have marched the men, women and children out safely. The program did not make this point clear.


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