Feds and other whackos

Waco: The Rules of Engagement BBC2
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The Independent Culture
Waco, Texas, April 1993. How best to describe the stand-off between the American law-enforcement services and the besieged religious extremists? A woman sums up the scene for the TV cameras: "It's like a big carnival!" Around her, a mile from the Branch Davidians' base of Mount Carmel, there are trestle tables piled with "Waco Wacko" T-shirts, and tourists are charged $1 a time to peek through the locals' telescopes. International news teams are treating events as a joke, the Dallas Ku Klux Klan has joined the party, and the FBI is having some fun of its own. Its tactics for exhausting and demoralising the Branch Davidians include training spotlights on their headquarters through the night, and playing Nancy Sinatra tapes at deafening volume, while the lower-ranking operatives intimidate the enemy by dropping their khakis and mooning. Alan Stone, a Harvard professor of Law and Psychiatry, has studied the siege: "I thought the main problem was going to be understanding the psychology of the people inside the compound," he says. "But as I got into it, I quickly became aware that the psychology of the people outside the compound was more important." On April 19, the carnival was over, and 76 people, many of them children, were dead.

It can't be many years before the release of Waco: The Movie. It will be a fantastic black farce, like M*A*S*H, Mad City and Natural Born Killers combined. Every ingredient is there: fanaticism, jingoism, bigotry, sex, marketing, media overkill and gung ho militarism, all mixed up in the insane crucible of the American South. Oliver Stone will probably direct, and Brad Pitt will star as David Koresh, the man who believed he was readying God's people for a battle with the forces of Babylon at the end of the world.

Janet Reno, Bill Clinton's Attorney General, has already written her script for the movie. And she has had no trouble selling it to the majority of news reporters. In her story, the villain is a polygamous, child-abusing megalomaniac who brainwashes his acolytes and stockpiles weaponry. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms plans to raid his bunker, but as its agents approach, they are shot at by the Davidians. Four ATF men are killed in the line of duty. The FBI closes in, and the crazed cultists commit mass suicide by setting their building on fire. The end.

William Gazecki's Waco: The Rules of Engagement, the jewel in the crown of BBC2's "Storyville" series of feature-length documentaries, has a divergent script. In Gazecki's account, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (the juxtaposition of those three products in one name is the stuff of satire in itself) was a department in fear of a forthcoming budget review. It thought it might enhance its reputation by persecuting a peaceful, law-abiding, religious teacher who had already invited them to search his premises. Yes, Koresh could be justifiably described as wacko, as the T-shirts would have it, but he didn't claim to be the Messiah and he didn't use drugs or brainwashing, as was alleged. His credentials for wackodom were his collection of armaments, and his belief that he spoke with God - credentials shared by a worrying percentage of the Texan population.

On February 28, 1993, the ATF knew that Koresh had been tipped off about its raid, but rather than admit to being sloppy, its agents drove up to the Davidians' front door in full combat gear and opened fire. The residents shot back in self-defence - the survivors were cleared in court of homicide - all the while phoning the emergency services and begging for an end to the attack. The ATF withdrew only when it ran out of ammunition. At this point, the Davidians stopped shooting, too.

Enter the FBI. Snipers were posted, tanks rolled into the area and in its last act, the farce plunged into tragedy. On day 51 of the siege, the Federal troops resorted to gouging holes in the Mount Carmel building with a tank, injecting the now well-ventilated structure with highly flammable CS gas, and shooting into it. Earlier, an FBI agent admitted on the phone to a Davidian: "The guys that gravitate toward, you know, riding in tanks, jumping out of airplanes and stuff like that are a little different mind set than you and I, right?" As Mount Carmel was swallowed by fire, ATF men ran their own banner up its flagpole.

The Rules of Engagement offered a relentlessly detailed, step-by-step case against the Government forces, methodically stacking up the shocking audio and video evidence. What makes the documentary one of the year's most compelling films - and what renders any dramatised recreation almost redundant - is that the proceedings were so extensively recorded at the time. ATF agents filmed themselves in action; TV crews from all over the world were present; and the subsequent congressional hearings were conducted in front of the cameras. Inside the compound, Koresh and his friends put their own feelings on video; and we have cassettes of the Davidians' telephone negotiations with the FBI and the ATF.

Even if you discount the views of Gazecki's endless parade of academics, forensic experts, local lawmen and fire chiefs, not to mention disaffected FBI and ATF agents, all of whom argue that this was a case not of mass suicide, but of mass murder, there are horrifying scenes on film to be answered for. There is the footage of ATF agents pumping round after round of ammunition into a building full of women and infants; of a helicopter shooting an unarmed man, an occurrence which an ATF boss would later deny; of a tank pushing holes in Mount Carmel's walls and roof, while a loud speaker insists, "This is not an assault"; of Janet Reno sniggering in the House of Representatives that this tank wasn't the nasty, dangerous kind: it was "a good rent-a-car". Finally, there is the photograph of an eight-year-old girl's blackened corpse, bent backwards by the muscle- tightening effects of cyanide.

All a movie could add to this scrupulously assembled documentary would be the expressions on the faces of the confused, terrified women and children as they crushed together in their kitchen, hiding from the raging fire, choking on poisonous gas, and believing, let's hope, that they would soon be in heaven.