20 Years Ago Today: Operation Showtime

On February 28, 1993, the Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms Bureau raided the home of the Branch Davidians, a religious sect just outside Waco, Texas. The agency, which has suffered bad press due to sexual harassment and racial discrimination scandals, made sure reporters were there to witness its planned heroics and dubbed the raid “Operation Showtime.”

The agents sought to apprehend sect leader David Koresh, whom they deemed a dangerous cult leader, but who, as an integrated member of the community, they could have easily arrested peacefully on his regular jog or during one of his frequent visits to the bar. Indeed, not only had they monitored Koresh for over a year; he had befriended them, shown them a tour of his place and his weapons, and gone shooting with them.

But a quiet arrest would not serve public relations as much as a histrionic military-style raid, for which planning had begun under the George H.W. Bush administration, even employing a model of the Davidians’ home. A little over a month into the Clinton administration, the ATF conducted its planned assault, which resulted in instant tragedy and embarrassment.

There is controversy as to who fired first, but the agents attempted to break into the home, and as a gunfight ensued, four ATF officials were killed. When the ATF ran out of ammunition, the Davidians allowed them to leave the property in peace. A standoff began, stretching into April, and the FBI took over. The FBI waged psychological warfare and employed military tactics against the Davidians, then on April 19 pumped CS gas into the home, drove a tank through it, and fired incendiary devices, which it only admitted doing in the late 1990s. The home went up in flames and almost 80 Davidians died, including about two dozen children.

The Davidians were accused of several transgressions, accusations that helped in their demonization and served to rationalize the raid in the first place. They allegedly had a meth lab, which no one seriously believed, since this was based on the Davidians having reported the remains of a meth lab from years ago when they moved in. But the drug connection allowed for exceptions to the Posse Comitatus Act and the use of military hardware in the siege. They were accused of stockpiling weapons, although at least one Davidian was a licensed weapons dealer. And eventually the focus fell on Koresh’s alleged abuse of children.

As bad as February 28, 1993, should have been for ATF’s public relations, in the long run it didn’t hurt at all. In the midst of Sandy Hook, progressives from Rachel Maddow to John Stewart focused on the ATF’s supposed underfunding and insufficient personnel. Maddow even depicted the agency’s behavior at Waco as heroic.

In the last 20 years, the militarization of domestic policing has only ramped up—the drug war, the terror war, gun confiscations and martial law after Katrina, an explosion in prison populations and spending on local policing, military weaponry in the hands of law enforcement, concentration camps for illegal immigrants, internal checkpoints, SWAT raids unleashed on mostly non-violent Americans about one hundred times a day. Police kill about one American every day, and even if you think 90% of them deserve it, the sheer enormity of this situation deserves unrelenting scrutiny if not revolutionary outrage, not the yawns or outright support that we see instead.

When the LAPD dealt with Chris Dorner earlier this month by surrounding him in a wooden cabin, launching CS gas and incendiary devices, and reportedly blocking his escape, it was carrying out a policy of instant summary execution, and the tactics were all too familiar. The officers had even told the media to look away, and all too many journalists were eager to oblige. And the people seemed glad to have one more killer off the street, unconcerned about the innocents hit in the police department’s reckless rampage to hunt down Dorner and kill him, as though they are properly judge, jury, and executioner.

Today, when something like that happens, there is almost no controversy at all. Americans can’t be bothered to debate the tendency of law enforcement to treat alleged criminals as a wartime enemy and employ military tactics to destroy the enemy. War is the health of the state, and the war on terror, along with all the traumatized veterans filling the ranks of domestic federal and local police agencies, have begun to bring the war to American soil. Yet it seems every week the public debate is about something infinitely trivial compared to the very real tyranny at our doorsteps.

It is February 28, 2013, and perhaps it is not too late to turn things around. We had a better shot at it on February 28, 1993, however.

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