The flames outside Waco, the FBI, David Koresh and the mysteries of Bible prophecy
(COMMENTARY) The recording tape was rolling on Feb. 28, 1993, when Branch Davidian leader David Koresh called Larry Lynch at the McLennan County sheriff's office.
In the background, gunfire continued as Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents raided the 77-acre Mount Carmel complex near Waco. Koresh was wounded early in a two-hour firefight in which four agents and six civilians died.
Koresh kept talking about Bible prophecies. Lynch kept interrupting, trying to get him to pay attention and help stop the fighting.
"All right, we can talk theology," Lynch said, frustrated. "But right now …"
Koresh fired back: "No, this is life. This is life and death! … Theology … is life and death!"
For Koresh, everything hinged on Book of Revelation texts about the Seven Seals and "the Lamb," a mysterious figure who would open those seals in the Last Days.
That was the infamous Branch Davidian drama summed up in one tense exchange, according to the creators of the six-part Paramount Network miniseries "Waco," which runs through Feb. 28. The complex community inside the compound – including some believers who debated with Koresh – kept trying to tell FBI leaders and their handpicked experts why they were doing what they were doing and why they believed what they believed.
In the end, federal officials saw everything through a "cult" lens.
"Something dehumanizing happens when you start using the word 'cult,' " said John Erick Dowdle, who with his brother Drew spent four years creating the miniseries. "No matter what happened, no matter what anybody said, the FBI people thought it was just a matter of time before they would kill themselves."
Of course, no one living inside one of these faith communities "believes that they belong to a cult," he added. Thus, one of the main goals of "Waco" was to "try to show what all of this looked like on the inside, for some of the Branch Davidians."
The 51-day siege, which unfolded on television news, ended in a still-mysterious firestorm ignited when nearly 900 soldiers and other law officials, with armed tanks, crashed into the shabby tinderbox that was the Mount Carmel complex. In all, 76 men, women and children died in the flames. Negotiators had arranged for 35 to exit, including 21 children.
The tragedy led to Congressional hearings, creating massive amounts of reference materials – including recordings of Koresh and others. The "Waco" miniseries drew inspiration from books by David Thibodeau, a Branch Davidian convert who survived, and Gary Noesner, a key FBI negotiator.
The Dowdle brothers also visited Baylor University in Waco, digging into archives from years of dialogues with Branch Davidian leaders. These contacts began long before the mid-1980s arrival of a young rock musician, biblical-prophecy savant and eventual polygamist who would change his name to David Koresh.
For example, in the late 1970s, a Davidian leader – Perry Jones, father of Koresh's wife Rachel – spoke in a class linked to my church-state graduate studies at Baylor. The topic? Debates about the term "cult." Jones stressed that the Davidians split from Seventh-day Adventism, but retained an emphasis on pacifism and apocalyptic prophecies. Jones was fatally wounded in the first moments of the 1993 fighting.
The Dowdle brothers said it was highly likely that the Mount Carmel firestorm could have been avoided if federal officials had listened to scholars who truly understood the beliefs of the Branch Davidians. This included their convictions that Koresh might be "the Lamb" and that one of the Seven Seal prophecies predicted they would be tested by an invasion of hostile forces.
Had the Feb. 28, 1993, raid validated that prophecy? Many Branch Davidians thought God wanted them to stay where they were, awaiting another sign. They also believed that the FBI would take their children, no matter what, because of child-abuse rumors.
However, local officials, hospital personnel, Baylor professors and others knew the Branch Davidians as people – not violent cultists.
"The FBI was totally dismissive of what they called the 'Bible babble' of Koresh and his followers," said Drew Dowdle. "They felt that if you let them talk about that stuff they would just go on and on all night. …
"In the end, they just didn't think that talking about the Bible had anything to do with what was happening at Mount Carmel. And that was that."