EXTREMISM30 Years Later, Waco Siege Still Resonates – Especially Among Anti-Government Extremists

By Art Jipson and Paul J. Becker

Published 1 March 2023

The Waco siege and fiery end continue to inspire extremists. What unites many of the groups influenced by Waco is a belief that the federal government is tyrannical and willing to attack citizens while depriving them of liberty, freedom, and firearms. The perception of a lack of consequences for the deaths at Waco is perceived, in and of itself, as proof of extremist beliefs.

Feb. 28, 2023, marks 30 years since the beginning of the Waco siege, the confrontation at a Texas compound that killed around 80 members of the Branch Davidian religious community and four federal agents.

Part of the siege’s legacy in popular culture is tied to sensational coverage that has presented the Branch Davidians as a cult. But the tragedy is also a powerful moment in political extremist groups’ ideologies. As scholars of domestic extremism, we have repeatedly seen how what happened at the Mount Carmel Center has been used by anti-government groups from the 1990s to today.

51 Days on Edge
The Branch Davidians, who believe that the apocalypse is imminent in their lifetime, are a splinter group of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Davidians believe that living prophets are given divine gifts of interpretation to lead the members of the church into preparation for the last days. David Koresh, a young man who had taken charge of the small group, claimed to be the final prophet before the end times.

Suspecting that the group was illegally stockpiling weapons, agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms – also known as the ATF – attempted to execute a search warrant at the Mount Caramel Center on Feb. 28, 1993. They hoped to arrest Koresh on suspicion of weapons violations and allegations of child abuse.

A gunfight ensued that killed four ATF agents and six Branch Davidians, leading to a 51-day siege. Law enforcement isolated the compound from the outside world, and attempts at negotiation failed.

On April 19, in an effort to end the siege, the FBI used tear gas to try to force members out of the compound. A massive fire broke out, and by the end, another 76 Branch Davidians had died, including 25 children. Some of the victims had died of gunshots.

Early Questions
Many Americans had watched news coverage of the siege for weeks and were horrified at the loss of life during a government operation. What had happened that last day of the siege, particularly the origins of the fire, was highly contested from the start.

In response to criticism of the federal government, leaders such as then-President Bill Clinton emphasized Koresh’s responsibility for the siege’s outcome. Attorney General Janet Reno, who had approved the FBI’s assault, had no responsibility in the deaths because “some religious fanatics murdered themselves,” Clinton said in a news conference.