by Kevin Cook (Henry Holt and Company, 278 pp., $29.73)
To mark the thirtieth anniversary of the federal raid and fifty-one-day siege of the Branch Davidians’ compound outside Waco, Texas, that eventually left four federal agents and eighty-two Branch Davidians dead, Kevin Cook’s recently published Waco Rising: David Koresh, the FBI, and the Birth of America’s Modern Militias provides a definitive account of the lead-up to the incendiary final events of April 19, 1993. In addition to this narrative, Cook also proposes that there is a through-line of right-wing violence from the ashes of Waco to the steps of the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021.
With both its narrative and its marketed thesis, Waco Rising overwhelmingly succeeds.
The Davidians Before 1993
Waco Rising provides a clear and detailed account of the origin of the Branch Davidians and the rise of self-appointed “Sinful Messiah” David Koresh. Cook makes extensive use of interviews with Branch Davidian defectors as well as survivors of the 1993 siege, providing a perspective from inside the compound not seen in other nonfiction accounts. Waco Rising is in fact dedicated to the memory of both the Branch Davidians and the Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) agents who died during the standoff. Cook’s sympathy for the Davidians is evident throughout his narrative, without it becoming unobjective.___STEADY_PAYWALL___
In the 1930s, a splinter group from the Seventh-day Adventist Church settled on land outside Waco, Texas, naming their community “Mount Carmel.” It was a deliberate Old Testament reference to the mountain overlooking the plain of Armageddon in Israel. The community was a multiracial, multinational group that included highly educated members whose principal belief was the need to prepare for the supposed imminent return of Jesus and the failure of mainstream Seventh-day Adventists to do so. A young Houston native named Vernon Wayne Howell arrived at Mount Carmel in 1981. He later changed his name to the biblically-charged David Koresh, once he had assumed control of the organization and its operations.
One strength of Cook’s book is that he does not conjecture about Koresh’s motives, preferring instead to recount his words and actions. One survivor he interviewed remarks of Koresh:
[He] was a plain old country boy. People think we were a bunch of fanatics following this ‘charismatic’ leader, this radical who hypnotized us. It wasn’t like that…Why did we follow him? Mainly because he had a deeper understanding of scripture than anyone I ever met.
By the early 1990s, Koresh had established himself as the undisputed leader of the Mount Carmel community. His ascendancy is a stranger-than-fiction tale, that involves his seduction of Lois Roden, the sect’s postmenopausal reigning “prophetess,” a murder attempt against her disinherited son, and even grave-robbing. Once established, Koresh embarked on systematic sexual predation against the girls of the sect. Cook details the stomach-churning reality of this abuse in a sober and respectful manner.
In the early 1990s, at Koresh’s direction, the Davidians began visiting gun shows to purchase semiautomatic weapons, gambling that proposed gun-control legislation would increase the firearms’ resale value. The Davidians soon were attending gun shows as vendors, selling secondhand AK-47s and Uzis along with a line of “David Koresh Survival Wear” clothing, which included hunting vests embellished with sewn-in inert grenades. It was a spilled delivery of inert grenades reported by a UPS driver that led the ATF to open an investigation into the Davidians in May 1992.
Just months after the ATF began its investigation of the Davidians, federal agents attempted to serve a warrant to white supremacist Randy Weaver on a minor firearm violation. Shots were fired, and so began the eleven-day siege at the Weaver family home in Boundary County, Idaho—now commonly referred to as Ruby Ridge—that left Weaver’s fourteen-year-old son, wife, and a federal agent dead. It was the Ruby Ridge incident that led Koresh to predict that government tanks would attack Mount Carmel—a prediction which would all too soon come true.
The Raid, the Siege, and the Inferno
In a strange irony, while it was a UPS driver that sparked the ATF investigation, it was a postal carrier who foiled the ATF’s surprise raid on the Branch Davidian compound on February 28, 1993. Following up on a tip about a raid, a journalist asked a mailman for directions to the compound. The mailman was Koresh’s brother-in-law, who promptly sounded the alarm. Four ATF agents and six Davidians would die in the ensuing gunfight. The FBI then led a siege on the compound, which culminated fifty-one days later when federal agents fired tear gas and flammable material from armored vehicles into or near the complex on April 19. A fire broke out and quickly engulfed it.
It is most likely, as Cook lays out, that the fire was intentionally started by Davidians. However, it is incontrovertible that most Davidians chose not to escape. Many died by close-range gunshot wounds, either by their own hand or by “mercy killing.” Horrifyingly, a number of children still inside the compound died by “mercy killing.”
Cook provides convincing evidence that the FBI’s decision to assault the compound was partially motivated by their own anger and frustration. The hostage negotiator’s maxim “time is always in our favor,” was replaced in this instance with “there’s no use trying to talk to these bastards…We’ve got to just go in there and cut their balls off.” A contempt for the Davidians’ “Bible babble” worldview hampered the federal agents’ efforts to find a peaceful solution, as illustrated in this early phone exchange between Koresh and the FBI:
‘We can talk theology, but right now—’ [The agent said.]
‘No, this is life and death,’ Koresh said.
‘That’s what I’m talking about.’
‘Theology is life and death.’
Cook paints Attorney General Janet Reno, who was sworn in after the beginning of the siege, sympathetically. In his telling, Reno was relying on reports from the FBI that argued that increasingly coercive techniques, including the final assault, were necessary given the circumstances. Reno later discovered that they had exaggerated the extent of child abuse inside the compound to her—no mean feat, given the horrific reality—in order to play off her background as a prosecutor of child abuse. As will be discussed below, though, the investigation that cleared her would fail to acknowledge the institutional shortcomings that led to the tragedy and increasing suspicion of a cover-up.
Waco Rising is an unparalleled work of narrative. The details are plentiful and skillfully chosen. The prose is clear and straightforward without ever boring the reader (at least, this one). And Cook keeps a relatively strict adherence to the historical timeline, which preserves the narrative flow—at the expense, admittedly, of any theoretical framework. It is only in the last forty-three pages of the book that Cook tackles the thesis so conspicuously promised in the marketing materials: that the events of April 19, 1993 have inspired right-wing violence up to and including the events of January 6, 2021.
In one of the rare flash-forward moments that occur in narrative, Cook makes a direct comparison between Koresh and the QAnon phenomenon:
In much the way that an internet prophet named Q would stitch together doomsday scenarios a quarter century later, Koresh mixed Old Testament oracles, secret symbols, and science into a plausible recipe for impending disaster. God was a ‘highly technological being’ who used UFOs as his advance scouts. God had arranged the universe to send messages to humans, if only we could decipher them.
Cook offers plenty of evidence from counterterrorism experts in these last pages that the Waco incident handed right-wing militias a powerful message: the government hated guns enough to murder children. This narrative of “protecting the children” through anti-government activities carries on into QAnon rhetoric today. One of the conspirators who planned to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said, following his acquittal on the grounds he had been entrapped by overreaching law enforcement, that “in some ways the Governor Whitmer business was just like what happened at Waco.” Participants in the January 6 insurrection have made explicit references to Waco, such as Fi Duong, a “gun-rights activist known as Monkey King,” who escaped arrest on the day of insurrection but declared his readiness to barricade himself at home in a standoff he called “Waco 2.0.”
The two most prominent right-wing figures inspired by the Waco Branch Davidian siege are Timothy McVeigh and Alex Jones. McVeigh had traveled to Waco in support of the Davidians during the siege, selling anti-government bumper stickers to the supporters gathered outside the compound’s perimeter. He was planning another visit to Waco when the fire broke out; he watched the inferno on the news with his future co-conspirator Terry Nichols, muttering “What has America become?” On the second anniversary of the fire, he bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people. Alex Jones, who was a teenager living in nearby Austin during the siege, has built his career on the theory that the Waco incident was a false flag operation, even spearheading the construction of a memorial chapel at the Mount Carmel site.
In reading Cook’s account, one is struck by the immense cognitive dissonance—or simple hypocrisy—of those like McVeigh and Jones who have used the children of Waco as a rallying cry. McVeigh’s victims included nineteen daycare attendees. Jones declared bankruptcy last year after parents of Sandy Hook victims successfully sued him over yet more “false flag” claims. But the most glaring of all the disconnects centered on “protecting the children” are the QAnon adherents willing to overlook fact that David Koresh was a prolific child molester.
A quote made by Texas Observer editor Lou Dubose following the harsh sentencing of surviving Davidians distills the essence of Waco Rising’s message: it is a “false dilemma” to force a choice between “the goons on the right and the jack-booted ATF cowboys.” Cook argues that this false dilemma was perpetuated by the government, as seen in the one Waco-specific investigation discussed in the book, which was led by Senator John Danforth. That investigation "absolved the government of blame for the fire and loss of life at Mount Carmel” despite revelations that “a few government lawyers and an FBI agent”—in other words, a few bad apples—“did conceal from the public, Congress, and the courts that an FBI agent fired three pyrotechnic tear gas rounds” into the Branch Davidian compound. Even though these pyrotechnic rounds likely did not cause the fire, the seeds of doubt about government trustworthiness and accountability had already been sewn. Even Danforth was quick to acknowledge that “although the government did nothing evil on April 19, 1993, the failure of some of its employees to fully and openly disclose [to] the American people the use of pyrotechnic devices undermined public confidence in government and caused real damage to our country.”
In light of what was to come and as manifested on the steps of the U.S. Capitol almost three decades later, this would prove to be an understatement.
Allison R. Shely is a native of Houston, a graduate of Boston College, and a resident of the Greater DC metropolitan area. She writes about power, policy, art, and faith on her weekly Substack, All Opinions Her Own.
Image: ATF agents line up behind cars and trailers during the opening moments of the raid. (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives)
American Purpose newsletters
Sign up to get our essays and updates—you pick which ones—right in your inbox.Subscribe