Verdict on Waco

March 01, 1994

The verdicts in the murder cases against survivors of the Waco disaster are fittingly ambiguous. None of the 11 defendants was convicted of the more serious murder and conspiracy charges, but five were found guilty of something called aiding and abetting voluntary manslaughter. This acknowledges that four federal agents were killed in the first attempt to storm the Branch Davidian stronghold in Texas a year ago. But it leaves unresolved the question who was really at fault.

In no way can the violent deaths of lawmen be condoned. The proper response even to an improper use of police power can never be gunfire. Subsequent events at the cultists' heavily armed compound demonstrated an irrational, perhaps insane, readiness to die rather than submit to legal authority on the part of David Koresh, the cult's leader, and some of his followers. Crimes had been committed at the compound, and some police action was justified. The jury verdict leaves legally unresolved the question of what kind and how much.

There is no doubt that the attempted storming of the compound by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms was botched. Its superiors at the U.S. Treasury Department have admitted as much. But federal officials still have not faced up to the question whether the raid was an appropriate operation in relation to the crimes involved. The federal agents knew there was a cache of illegal semi-automatic weapons in the compound, but they also knew there were women and children there.

Just because the 51-day siege that followed ended in far more horrifying violence does not prove that negotiation might not have saved lives before the first raid. The FBI's handling of the negotiations and subsequent fiery assault on the compound was no textbook example of police work either. Whether the second assault was necessary will never be resolved. The initial attempt by the ATF was premature at best.

The leadership of both the FBI and ATF has been changed since the Waco fiasco. Both agencies have taken some measures to correct the shortcomings the incident disclosed. They still have to prove that they have discarded the mind-sets that sent agents and civilians to avoidable deaths.

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