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For Far Right, Waco Was Step to Armageddon

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

For many Americans, the fiery deaths of dozens of men, women and children at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Tex., two years ago got filed away in memory under the heading “Bizarre tragedies--cults.”

But for members of right-wing paramilitary groups, white supremacist organizations and other such extremists, Waco has taken on a far deeper and more powerful significance: It is seen as a step toward Armageddon.

In their literature and speeches, leaders of these groups have portrayed the Waco disaster as indelible proof that the federal government is pursuing a deliberate plan to strip Americans of their freedoms. Waco, in this view, was a foretaste of what Washington has in store for other Americans who stand in the way of its efforts to shackle free people by first confiscating their guns.

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Now, federal law enforcement authorities say, this obsession with Waco appears to have helped spawn the most deadly act of terrorism in United States history. According to an FBI affidavit, bombing suspect Timothy J. McVeigh “had been so agitated about the deaths of the Branch Davidians” that he visited the site in Waco at some point before Wednesday’s bombing in Oklahoma City.

“After visiting the site, McVeigh expressed extreme anger at the federal government,” said the affidavit, filed last week in Oklahoma federal court.

For many members of far-right groups, the federal government’s handling of the Branch Davidians and some other episodes “represents government terrorism,” said Robert A. Wood, a North Dakota State University associate professor who has studied the paramilitary organizations. “They see, overall, a continuing and escalating abuse of power by the federal government,” he said.

This view of Waco, both the conviction that federal agents alone--not Branch Davidian leader David Koresh and his followers--are to blame for the episode and the belief that Waco is part of a larger federal conspiracy, is held not only by members of the extreme right, but also by many ordinary Americans who consider themselves “mainstream” conservatives.

Sheriff Richard I. Mack of remote Graham County, Ariz., 140 miles northeast of Tucson, says: “The disaster in Waco is very akin, I believe, to what happened in Oklahoma City. One was perpetrated by people who call themselves militia patriots. The one in Waco was perpetrated by people who call themselves public servants.

“And the results are the same,” he said, “Children are dead.”

Mack, who has become a popular figure among self-styled survivalists and private “militia” groups because of a lawsuit his department filed last year challenging federal legislation that restricts handgun sales, is not alone in predicting that the events in Waco on April 19, 1993, will remain an emotional touchstone.

While condemning the Oklahoma City bombing, Mack said Sunday that he would not be surprised if it was done in retaliation for what occurred in Waco. “When you have that much anger and emotion,” he said, “something is going to go wrong at some time.”

That mistakes were made by federal authorities in handling the 51-day confrontation with Koresh and his followers has been acknowledged by federal officials. A Treasury Department report issued five months after agents stormed the compound concluded that there had been lax supervision by senior federal officials and serious mistakes by inexperienced field commanders of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

“Mistakes and errors in judgment were made,” said then-Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen, whose department included the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, four of whose agents were killed when the ATF tried to storm the Davidians’ compound at the outset of the confrontation.

And in the aftermath, the report said, “Numerous officials were less than truthful about the facts.”

The report faulted the bureau for not trying to arrest Koresh away from the cult’s fortified compound, where he had stockpiled fuel and weapons. The bureau’s raid on the compound, led by armored vehicles, was executed without adequate planning and training, according to the report.

(In addition to the four federal agents killed when the initial raid turned into a fire fight, more than 80 Branch Davidians, including Koresh and a dozen or more children, died in the final hours of the episode, which ended with the compound being swept by an all-consuming fire.)

Although less well-known than Waco, another episode involving federal agents has taken on deep meaning for the extreme right: The deadly 10-month standoff at the remote Ruby Ridge, Ida., cabin of a white separatist named Randall C. Weaver. A Justice Department report last year criticized the FBI’s handling of the affair.

A deputy federal marshal, Weaver’s wife and his 14-year-old son were killed. Weaver, originally sought on a weapons-related charge, was acquitted on charges of murdering the marshal.

Along with Waco, Weaver’s plight became a rallying cry among far-right groups that already had taken hold in Idaho, Montana and a number of other states--including Michigan, where McVeigh lived in the months before the bombing in Oklahoma City.

The anti-government antipathy related both to the Branch Davidian siege and the Weaver case were noted in a 1994 study of the militia movement by the Anti-Defamation League.

The report concluded that the militias are driven by “a belief that gun control legislation is but a prelude to a complete ban on firearms ownership in this country.

“An essential additional ingredient, though, is their conviction that the government intends to wage war on citizens who refuse to give up their weapons. They cite as evidence . . . the tragic assault on the Branch Davidian compound . . . and the 1992 raid on the cabin of Randy Weaver in Idaho.”

Barry Morris, a radio talk show host in nearby Kalispell, Mont., said Sunday that he and other people he considers “mainstream” are outraged by the federal government’s handling of the two events. That anger, he said, combines with the perennial resentment that many rural residents--especially in the West--have toward federal policies restricting development of private property and use of federal lands.

“There are some things going on that we in the West just sit back and say, ‘What in the hell is going on,’ ” said Morris, adding that he is well-acquainted with the active militia movement in Montana. “I think there’s a lot of anger.”

How far does that anger go?

Based on his travels and conversations with like-minded conservatives, Mack, the Arizona sheriff, said he does not believe the anger over Waco would subside unless federal officials responsible for storming the Branch Davidians’ compound are charged, convicted and “executed.”


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