Posted on June 16th, 2012 | Filed under Academic, Challenges, Community, Congregation, Featured, Interfaith, Leadership, Learning, News, Social Issues
Tagged with Believers, Branch Dividians, Davidians, FBI, Residents, Texas, Waco
On April 19, 1993, the 51-day standoff between the FBI and the Branch Davidians at Mount Carmel, a compound located close to Waco, Texas, came to what the Waco Tribune Herald described as a “fiery end.” The Waco Tribune Herald, along with many major newspapers and magazines outside of Texas, thrived during the standoff, covering every update in the negotiations. Reporters flocked to Waco, setting up a temporary city that they called “Satellite City,” which was full of motor homes that reporters set up to keep track of the events. Many outside of the Waco area watched with curiosity, wondering what would happen next in the standoff. Reporters became true residents, with Satellite City receiving regular garbage collections as well as having an unelected mayor.
The Waco residents who wrote letters to the Waco Tribune Herald, by this point, had grown tired of the constant coverage. The main grievance that these residents had was concerning the outside media’s perception of Waco. Originally, the Branch Davidians were described as the cult near Waco, but over time, the cult was described as the cult in Waco. They disliked the sweeping generalizations that were made by the media about Waco. One Waco resident remarked that, “some far displaced observers appear to imply that Waco, being a very religious town is fertile ground for apocryphal atrocities. Ultimately, that’s a slur against all believers—guilt by the most vague of association.” Many Waco residents agreed that the opinion that these people held of Waco was inaccurate; and following the fire, 66.8% of residents surveyed after the siege believed that Waco’s image would be more favorable a year or two later.
For Waco residents, this crisis was more than just a spectacle; it was an event that, in essence, polarized the town. While many Waco residents supported the ATF, there were also many Waco residents who disagreed with the actions of the FBI and ATF. They, instead, felt that it was an attack on their rights, and that the FBI and ATF should have left the “Branch Davidian problem” to local Texas authorities. In a poll taken before the fire, Waco-area adults were asked whether they thought the ATF did a “good job or a poor job of conducting the raid on Mount Carmel.” Out of all the residents surveyed, 49.9% thought that the ATF did well and 40.5% thought that the ATF performed below maximum efficiency. As early as days before the fire, this division of opinion prevailed in the Letters to the Editor, with relatively equal number of residents for and against the ATF’s actions. Following the fire, however, 82% of Waco residents thought the FBI “did the right thing by trying to end the standoff by pumping tear gas into the compound,” and only 12% of the residents thought it “was the wrong thing to do.” This is much higher than a poll taken of New York residents, which found “two-thirds approval of the tear-gas assault.”
The change that occurred among Waco residents may have been due to the escalation of articles regarding the outside perceptions of Waco. The amount of articles regarding outside perceptions of Waco escalated, however, in the last half of the standoff when the Waco Tribune Herald published an article discussing a British reporter’s opinions of Waco. The reporter said that, “Waco is a grungy, one-horse town where the horse has died.” When Waco residents started to realize that this was how the media perceived not only Mount Carmel but Waco, they started to become more defensive. Especially since, according to a Waco Tribune Herald poll, “only 5 percent of Waco people even know anybody out there.” While they originally may have felt disconnected, the media’s scrutiny caused them to become more united.
Additionally, the shift in the Waco Tribune Herald’s interpretation of the standoff may have also contributed to this change in opinion, at least among Waco Tribune Herald readers. At the start of the standoff, the Waco Tribune Herald published multiple articles and editorials that put a strong emphasis on David Koresh as a person and gun control as the solution to the “Branch Davidian problem.” Most Waco residents were against gun control and, in turn, interpreted the Waco Tribune Herald’s articles to mean that this standoff was a sign that the federal government was trying to assert its power over Waco. Residents were frustrated because they felt the Waco Tribune Herald was blaming the NRA and guns instead of blaming David Koresh for the actions of the Branch Davidians.
Within the last month of the standoff, the Waco Tribune Herald focused their attention on David Koresh and his abuse of children. As more articles on the abuse of children were published, the majority of the letters to the editor were in favor of the ATF and the federal government’s actions. Though it is arguable that the Waco Tribune Herald may have a bias, this bias is not easily recognized because supporting and opposing views of the ATF were both selected for publication.
Through examining local resident perceptions as evidenced by the Waco Tribune Herald, it is evident that an evolution of opinion occurred. While the Waco Tribune Herald many not represent the full range of local public opinion on the subject, it provides an essential window into local public opinion at the time. While Waco resident opinions were originally divided in regard to whether they agreed with the ATF’s actions or not, the media’s criticism of Waco led to residents supporting government efforts so that they may appear more unified as a town.
Though historians have discussed the Branch Davidian siege itself in great detail, no historian has yet investigated the changing perceptions of the Waco residents of the Branch Davidian conflict. Historians such as Todd Kerstetter have looked into the reasons behind why the Branch Davidians made the United States government so uneasy and what motivated the attack by the ATF on February 28, 1993. He argued the “West had limits when it came to religious freedom. American society still did not tolerate barbarians in the garden.” Another historian, Kenneth C. G. Newport argued the government acted in the best interests of the people in the area and that the government had no idea that the Branch Davidians would try any form of mass suicide. He argues that the Branch Davidians, unknown to the government, had a “theological rationale” for mass suicide. He explained that the government reports were “unassailable evidence” that they had not known prior to the siege that the Branch Davidians would try to kill themselves, and he aimed to dismiss all the conspiracy theories that stated that the government had started the fire, and not the Branch Davidians. In responding to Kenneth C. G. Newport’s work, historian Stuart Wright explains that while Kenneth C.G. Newport dismissed the conspiracy theories, the evidence that the government provided was all but “unassailable.” Wright explains that Newport’s argument “principally [addresses] conspiracy theories,” and fails to explore the possibility that the tear gas may have been a possible cause of the fire. He explains that the tear gas forms “flammable, vapor-air mixtures in larger volumes” and that it could be an “explosion hazard in confined space.”
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The image is from Wikimedia Commons by author Hoshie. Located here.
 George Church, “The Branch Davidians: The End is Near,” Time Magazine, (April 26, 1993)
 “A Religious Town.” Waco Tribune Herald, Letter to the Editor, March 7, 1993
 Marc Masferrer, Waco’s Residents Tell World It’s Not Our Fault, Waco Tribune Herald, April 22, 1993
 Lynn Bulmahn, Poll: Image Won’t Change, Waco Tribune Herald, April 25, 1993
 “Waco,” Waco Tribune Herald, Letter to the Editor, March 28, 1993
 “Blame the NRA,” Waco Tribune Herald, Letter to the Editor, March 17, 1993
 Todd Kerstetter, God's Country, Uncle Sam's Land, Urbana: University of Chicago Press, 2006: 125
 Stuart Wright, “Revisiting the Branch Davidian Mass Suicide Debate,” Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions 13, no. 2 (November 2009): pp 4
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