Scripps-Howard's Outrageous Waco Analysis
by Ari Armstrong, September 5, 1999
Finally the ATF/FBI attack of the Mt. Carmel religious center at Waco, Texas is getting critical news coverage. Every newspaper and every wire service has been carrying regular updates about the renewed Waco investigation.
The news coverage has been excellent, but the same cannot be said for all the editorial analysis of the conflagration. For instance, in a piece distributed by Scripps Howard, Dan Thomasson compared everyone who believes the government is primarily responsible for the deaths of the Davidians with Tim McVeigh. This sort of unjust and offensive commentary is counter-productive as well as simply incorrect.
The Rocky Mountain News, which is owned by Scripps Howard, printed the commentary September 3, 1999.
To be fair, I'll note that Thomasson is also highly critical of the FBI in his piece. He refers to the "FBI's vaunted propaganda machine" and blasts the organization for withholding evidence for the past six years.
But Thomasson's comments regarding the "extremist" critics of the government's handling of Waco simply must be corrected. He wrote,
One can have little sympathy for the adult followers of David Koresh, male or female, who murdered four federal agents, wounded 20 others and caused the death of more than 30 innocent children... Disclosure of the use of some incendiary devices after years of denial now have given new life to charges by extremists and survivors that the Davidians actually were the innocent victims of this nightmare, put to death by a vindictive government. The Oklahoma City bombing was a direct result of this kind of thinking.
Isn't it amazing how Thomasson manages to pack so many distortions into three sentences.
First, it's a stretch to call the Davidians' killing of the federal agents "murder." The better name for it is "self-defense." The feds went into the center with guns blazing, even though they could have arrested Koresh much earlier when he was in public. Further, while many accusations have been made by the FBI concerning illegal activities of Davidian members, no substantial evidence has ever backed up any of these charges. And no one can now put lying past the FBI. The only plausible charges of sexual misconduct put forth are no worse than what Bill Clinton has done -- and the charges against Clinton are better proved.
The film Waco: The Rules of Engagement offers convincing evidence that the government indeed killed the children at the compound, whether or not it started the fire. (No evidence exists which suggests the Davidians started the fire, and some evidence suggests the FBI did it.)
Next, Thomasson's use of the term "extremists" is clearly intended to impugn the character of those who believe the FBI, through intent or through negligence, is responsible for the deaths of the Davidians. I for one am proud the wear the "extremist" banner in this situation -- I want an extreme level of truth to be revealed about the government's role at Waco and I want an extreme amount of justice for any agent guilty of misconduct.
Were the Davidians innocent victims put to death by a vindictive government? Clearly. I am reminded of the federal agent who, returning from the initial botched raid, ran his thumb across his neck to signal, "We're going to get 'em." So the federal agents were vindictive ("disposed or inclined to revenge"), and even the government admits that many of Davidians killed were completely innocent of any crime.
It is Thomasson's next comment that is so thoughtless. He supposes that those who believe the FBI and ATF are primarily responsible for the Davidians' deaths are naturally inclined to want to kill hundreds more innocent people.
The suggestion is absurd and insulting.
The strongest critics of the government's actions at Waco are also among the loudest who condemn McVeigh's murderous deeds. Two wrongs don't make a right, and neither do two terrorist acts.
My analysis concerning the type of thinking that lead to McVeigh's actions is a lot more sophisticated than Thomasson's is. I have argued that the reason McVeigh was able to murder innocent people in the name of revenge upon the government is that he reified that government. Instead of blaming individual federal agents for killing the Davidians, McVeigh imagined the government as some kind of monster unto its own. Thus, in his mind, he wasn't bombing a building full of innocent men, women, and children, he was bombing "the government." But reification is a logical fallacy -- in this case a deadly one of mass proportions.
Libertarians, on the other hand, hold individuals responsible for their actions. We hold the burning of Waco to be as morally reprehensible as the bombing of Oklahoma City.
We might also ask, though, what type of thinking lead to Thomasson's ridiculous assertion that those who oppose terrorism at Waco must therefore favor terrorism at Oklahoma City.
The most likely explanation is that Thomasson is hopelessly lost in the left-right view of the world. On the "extreme left" are the revolutionary commies, on the "extreme right" are the fascists. Only by staying carefully in the center can one avoid error. Moderation means support of the status quo and generally implies a conformist attitude. The government must be right, because, well, it's our government with a tradition going back a couple hundred years. And anyone who thinks different is a corrupt "extremist!" To this line of thinking, I merely reply with Goldwater's line that extremism in defense of truth, justice, and liberty is a virtue.
The left-right paradigm is ultimately incoherent. Libertarians have a more sensible way of looking at the world -- as a mixture of liberty and force. At Mt. Carmel, the government was all about force and all about destroying liberty. The same can be said about Tim McVeigh at Oklahoma City.
That said, I grant the Davidians acted stupidly. Just as it's not a good idea to walk in a dangerous neighborhood alone at night, it's not a good idea to provoke a federal agency that's obviously on a power trip. Most people who are murdered could have prevented the murder by taking more sensible actions. But that doesn't excuse the murderer.
Thomasson's piece was of mixed quality, but it was only part of the Waco coverage that day. The same paper on the same day printed a page two Waco story by the AP and a page five story about Waco: The Rules of Engagement and its creator, Mike McNulty of Fort Collins.
I was surprised to read an August 28 story from Cox that detailed the participation of the Army's Delta Force in the Waco assault. Earlier in the month, I had read a web page that claimed this mysterious Army unit had participated in Waco, but I had assumed the idea belonged in the "paranoid" file. (The web page also claimed McNulty's film is a hoax because it makes too many excuses for the government -- I think it's safe to say this claim is still paranoid.)
The cumulative effect of the newspapers' coverage can only be an increased public awareness about the government's deeds at Waco. The Rules of Engagement will be viewed by more and more people (and should be viewed by every mature person in the United States). I expect NcNulty's follow-up, A New Revelation, to add to the case against the government.
In fairness, I should note that Janet Reno truly seems to have been deceived by the FBI. It seems plausible that she is guilty only of bad management, not of ill will. I suppose that if there's one thing Reno could take back and cause never to have happened, it would be Waco. The Mt. Carmel assault has broken the illusions for so many people of the "Benevolent State," that it could well be one of the most significant catalysts for the libertarian movement this end of the century. Libertarians would prefer to stick with the more arduous process of reasoned discussion, but that matter lies in the hands of government officials.
May the souls of the Davidians someday rest in peace.