Mar 20, 2023

Netflix Revisits America’s Ghastliest Cult Catastrophe

Nick Schager
Daily Beast
March 20, 2023

David Koresh was the leader of a doomsday cult whose members believed he was the messiah and that they were destined to perish in a conflict with the U.S. government. And on April 19, 1993, following a 51-day standoff with the FBI, that prophecy came true. Setting his Mount Carmel ranch compound on fire, thereby killing dozens of his own disciples (including children), Koresh committed the unthinkable. Thus, when someone refers to this incident in Waco: American Apocalypse as a “tragedy,” it’s difficult not to view it as one explicitly brought about by the madman, who for good, ugly measure was also a pedophile, polygamist, domestic abuser, and armed insurrectionist.

Tiller Russell’s three-part Netflix docuseries Waco: American Apocalypse (March 22) is an even-handed examination of Koresh, his Branch Davidian outfit, and the fight they instigated with law enforcement. It features interviews with figures on both sides of the story’s divide, from negotiators, tactical agents, snipers, and journalists, to surviving cultists, who even today profess their innocence and victimhood at the hands of a tyrannical government. Providing a 360-degree view of those fateful months in 1993, it addresses many of the arguments that have raged over the past 30 years regarding Koresh’s villainy and culpability, his adherents’ crucial roles in stoking the conflagration, and the law enforcement mistakes that may have thwarted a peaceful outcome.

What it ultimately presents, however, is a portrait of a catastrophe that its chief player always sought, and worked tirelessly—and successfully—to make a reality.

As recounted in Waco: American Apocalypse, Koresh grew up in a broken home and eventually made his way to Mount Carmel in the mid-1980s, where he seduced the cult’s elderly leader and got into a firefight with her son in order to seize control of the group. Once he had it, he set about changing its Christian doctrine to his liking—namely, by proclaiming himself the Lord’s divine prophet (if not God incarnate) and dissolving his followers’ marriages so that he could steal everyone’s wife for himself. The fact that anyone went along with such a demand is nuts, but then, Koresh had already gotten tacit permission from his supporters to marry a 14-year-old. He habitually practiced pedophilia and it was tolerated because, as adherent Kathy Schroeder states in a new interview, Branch Davidians believed that girls “come of age” when they’re 12.

The Branch Davidians were like many other cults in that participants accepted anything Koresh said because they were under the delusion that he was divine. In such a deranged environment, it made sense to take him at his word when he said that governmental enemies were fated to arrive on their doorstep, and that they should prepare by stockpiling weapons. So they did, amassing semi-automatic rifles that they illegally converted to automatic, producing homemade grenades, purchasing armor-piercing .50-caliber rifles, and accumulating 1.6 million rounds of ammunition. Such gestures were clearly a preface for war. Consequently, when the ATF (the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives) showed up in force looking to inquire about this cache—which they’d learned about via a broken package in the mail that contained a grenade—the Branch Davidians attacked.

Whether the ATF or the Branch Davidians fired first remains a subject of much speculation, and if Waco: American Apocalypse doesn’t draw a definitive conclusion, its ATF interview subjects (like Jim Cavanaugh and Bill Buford, the latter of whom barely made it out alive) come across as far more credible than its Branch Davidian talking heads (such as David Thibodeau and Schroeder). Four ATF agents died in the shootout, and in the wake of the agency’s failure to secure the cult’s armaments, the FBI was called in to negotiate a surrender. Russell’s docuseries uses archival material (some of it never seen before) and firsthand testimonials to bring that prolonged process to vivid life, be it Hostage Rescue Team sharpshooter Chris Whitcomb discussing his unexpected chance to assassinate Koresh and not taking it (a decision he doesn’t regret), Heather Jones recalling leaving the compound and never again seeing her father (who chose to remain and die by Koresh’s side), or negotiator Gary Noesner detailing his efforts to convince Koresh over the phone to end things without additional casualties.

Waco: American Apocalypse benefits from audio recordings of those chats, as well as news broadcast footage and clips from the movies Koresh made inside the compound during the standoff. Better still, it captures the way in which frictions between the negotiation and tactical teams undermined their joint goal to conclude this powder-keg dispute without fireworks. The sheer length of the ordeal, and the news media’s voracious coverage, only made things tenser, as did Koresh’s delay tactics, peaking with his announcement—at the moment he was supposed to surrender—that he needed more time to write his new version of the Book of Revelation. Though he’d allow 21 children and two adult women to leave the compound, federal authorities determined that he was never going to go quietly.

They were ultimately right, to a shocking degree. The feds’ April 19, 1993, plan to fire tear gas into the compound (after announcing their intentions to Koresh beforehand) was meant to compel them to capitulate. Instead, Koresh and his minions set their home ablaze and, minus a few individuals, such as Thibodeau (who still denies Koresh’s responsibility for the inferno), chose to stay inside. It was mass suicide for a national television audience, and while Thibodeau contends that the Branch Davidians were innocent “martyrs” who “died for God”—and Koresh’s lawyer implies that this was all the byproduct of an unreasonable search and seizure order, which rings laughably false—the overriding impression left by Waco: American Apocalypse is of a calamity orchestrated and instigated from the start by an unhinged fanatic committed to his dreams of manipulation, exploitation, and bloodshed.

Russell lets his Branch Davidian subjects make their sympathy-courting case but—even in light of the government’s imperfect handling of the situation—they come across as zealots still in thrall to a lunatic who fed them lies and cost them everything. Timothy McVeigh honored Koresh and struck back at the system he viewed as their joint enemy by bombing the Oklahoma City federal building on the Waco siege’s two-year anniversary. In doing so, he further underscored that, in the end, this catastrophe’s lasting legacy is highlighting the threat posed to us all by the virulent and violent right-wing, anti-establishment religious extremism that thrives within our own borders.

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