Consider this. Scores of a cult lock themselves up in a Texas compound, waiting for the world to end. They have weapons stocked in case of a police raid or a military attack, which finally does arrive.
And 51 days later, nobody but 9 out of over 86 believers survives.
There are all the checkpoints for a nail-biting Netflix drama here. That’s Waco for you, a 6-part mini-series on the events that led up to one of modern America’s worst government vs. cult conflicts.
However, filmmaker John Erick Dowdle (who wrote the episodes with brother Drew Dowdle) will surprise you with a different take on this dark history.
He is looking at the theory of an unchecked U.S. government that fails to accept an unconventional minority cult and causes an apocalyptic end to so many lives, including those of children.
By the end of the series, you are almost thinking that Koresh, the cult’s leader, did horrible things (including taking child brides and having children with them) but probably didn’t deserve to be brutally killed in a government raid.
Cult’s Leader Is Not The Originator
The show is based on two books on the opposite ends of the spectrum, which is what allows it to be an informed and gripping tale.
A Place Called Waco: A Survivor’s Story by Branch Davidian survivor David Thibodeau and Stalling for Time: My Life As An F.B.I. Hostage Negotiator by F.B.I. negotiator Gary Noesner from the basis of the plot.
And yet, Waco does get some details wrong. The cult’s face at the time of the mishap, David Koresh, did not start the Branch Davidian sect
It was started by a Bulgarian man way back in the 1930s who had strayed from the Seventh Day Adventist Church. Secondly, the siege did not mark the end of the cult (as shown in the series.)
According to the History channel, the second group of Davidians has since settled in Mount Carmel; they call themselves Branch, The Lord Our Righteousness, and are led by Charles Pace, who became a Davidian in 1973 but left the compound after Koresh’s rise.
Why The U.S. Military?
While leading the pack, Koresh went full-blown cult leader and decided he needed to breed a fleet of future world leaders. So he took up with a bunch of wives, and soon he was “spiritually married” to 20 women, some of whom were children as young as 12.
While the sexual offenses by the cult’s leader Koresh later became grounds for justification of the ensuing deaths, it was not the official reason for the military to clamp down on Waco.
The government’s primary interest was a cache of weapons allegedly stocked up by Koresh’s followers in the Mount Caramel complex. Koresh had begun stockpiling weapons because he believed the government was about to attack them all.
On February 28, 1993, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (A.T.F.) first attempted to raid the Branch Davidian site to execute a search warrant. In the ensuing gun battle, five A.T.F. agents and five Branch Davidians were killed.
Over the next 51 days, the F.B.I. assembled what has been called the largest probable military force ever gathered against a civilian suspect in American history.
These included 12 tanks, six hundred and sixty-eight agents, U.S. Customs officers, U.S. Army personnel, members of the Texas National Guard, Texas Rangers, a hundred and thirty-one officers from the Texas Department of Public Safety, and eighteen Waco police, for a total of eight hundred and ninety-nine people.
This extreme response has been claimed to have roots in the major biases that American people, as well as government, hold against cults.
According to Dr. Megan Goodwin, a visiting fellow at Northeastern University specializing in American minority religions, the term “cult” is used to delegitimize and diminish religious practices that don’t fit neatly into the Christian-American mainstream.
The C-word is also used to justify violence that would not be used against more established religious groups.
“My standard joke is that ‘cult [equals] religion/community [you] don’t like,'” says Goodwin. After all, there is no standard way to define a cult. So much for American liberty!
Government Overreach & Disbelief
Meanwhile, the government was unequipped to deal with a bunch of believers since it thought them to be liars and cheats.
According to conflict-studies scholar Jayne Docherty argues, the F.B.I.’s approach to the seige was doomed from the outset.
In “Learning Lessons from Waco” — one of the very best of the Mount Carmel retrospectives — Docherty explains that bank robbers are different from committed believers.
There was no pragmatism behind the posturing, lies, and grandiosity. Docherty uses Max Weber’s typology “value-rational” to describe the Davidians.
A value-rational person would accept his fourteen-year-old daughter’s polygamous marriage if he was convinced that it was in fulfillment of Biblical prophecy.
Because of the F.B.I. could not take the faith of the Branch Davidians seriously, it had no meaningful way to communicate with them, and thus resolve the conflict.
Rethinking a Cult
And the lesson of the series and the Waco survivors is that Americans aren’t very good at respecting the freedom of others who seem to be so obnoxiously different.
According to a Biblical scholar, James Tabor, who tried to intervene in the Waco siege, the Branch Davidians were immersed in the Old Testament prophecies.
When he went to the F.B.I., with a fellow religious scholar, Phillip Arnold, with his discovery, he was in for a rude shock.
“It became clear to me that neither the officials in charge nor the media who were sensationally reporting the sexual escapades of David Koresh had a clue about the biblical world which this group inhabited,” Tabor writes, in an essay about his role in the Mount Carmel conflict.
Arnold and Tabor began long discussions with Livingstone Fagan, a Branch Davidian spokesman who had been sent out of Mount Carmel early in the siege.
The team soon found that Mount Carmel’s adherents thought they were living through the “fifth seal” — a stage at the end of time, during which believers are asked to suffer through a round of bloodshed, wait for a bit and then face the second round.
Watch Trailer Here:
This was why the Davidians wouldn’t leave. They had been through the first round of violence, with the initial A.T.F. raid. Now they were doing as they believed the Bible compelled them to do — waiting.
However, an impatient F.B.I. finally lost it by April 19 and moved on to pumping tear gas into the compound through holes they made in the walls.
Around noon on that same day, three fires broke out in different parts of the compound, and soon the entire place erupted in flames, killing more than 75 people. While the source of the fires was never confirmed, we know that tear gas is known to start fires under special circumstances.
Humans are strange beings. We can easily juxtapose conflicting ideas and not even flinch at justifying them. The siege at Waco was always treated in the media as a cult meeting its rightful end for being, well, a cult!
But the fact remains that all those who justified the deaths with sexual abuse of children by the cult members were justifying deaths of even children as young as three years.
The Right Connection
For years after the 1993 mishap, Right-Wing groups across the U.S. cited the incident as proof of government’s high-handed arrogance. However, the series isn’t R.W. propaganda, y’all.
It is a rare attempt at understanding two severely conflicting sides. The stakes are high because there are children to be saved.
Ironically, the believers think the police lockdown was a threat to their kids. While the police think the believers are destroying childhoods by allowing sex with 12-year-olds.
Over the years, Waco became something of a rallying cry for those viewing the government as a threat. Right-wing anti-government bomber Timothy McVeigh, for example, carried out his 1995 Oklahoma City bombings as a direct response to Waco. He had been an eyewitness at the siege of the Waco compound.
Latest Borrowed Hit
Waco is part of an ongoing trend of quirky T.V. series finding their way to major streamers before a short but successful run on T.V.
Such shows usually blend high-concept stories with well-known actors and high-class production values and grab a small but loyal audience, making them popular on social media so they can get popular later on.
Waco, too is not a Netflix original and was first premiered in 2018 on Paramount Network (a rechristening of Spike).
The cast includes Michael Shannon as F.B.I. agent Gary Noesner, Taylor Kitsch as David Koresh, Julia Garner as Michele Jones, Melissa Benoist as Rachel Koresh, Andrea Riseborough as senior follower Judy Schneider, Paul Sparks as Judy’s husband Steve, and Rory Culkin as memoirist David Thibodeau.Originally Written By Epic Dope