Controllers and Catastrophes

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As we sequester in our homes, restricted from gathering in churches or public places, hounded by ever-changing government regulations and nosy neighbors, worried about when the supply chain will be broken and the food will run out, the miniseries Waco seems like an apt viewing choice for a Saturday afternoon. It features sheltering in place for nearly two months; overzealous government agents; nosy neighbors filing specious reports; a violation of basic constitutional rights including freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, and the right to bear arms; no opportunity for celebrating funerals or birthdays or going outside; and homeschooling to the max in a compound that included dozens of young children.

You remember the story, of course. For 51 days in 1993, ATF and FBI agents besieged a religious group called the Branch Davidians, an offshoot of the Seventh Day Adventists, who had been living on a small farm outside Waco, Texas since 1962. The Davidians were accused of stockpiling weapons, although they had permits to buy and sell at gun shows. Their leader, David Koresh, was also accused of physical and sexual child abuse, because at least two of his wives were under 18. The standoff ended in flames and the deaths of 76 men, women, and children in the religious group.

Kitsch’s Koresh is earnest, childlike, persuasive, and even playful.

The Davidians broke away from the Adventists in 1929, established their headquarters outside of Waco in 1934, and purchased the farm in 1962. Koresh (né Vernon Howell) arrived on the scene in 1981 and proclaimed himself the Chosen One, eventually wresting leadership from George Roden. So why did the ATF suddenly decide to attack the compound in 1993? According to the series, they needed a successful story to restore the agency’s reputation after the botched attack in Ruby Ridge, Idaho, where officers who were determined to arrest mountain man Randy Weaver killed his wife and son instead. They thought their raid on the Waco compound would be textbook perfect. In the film they even hire a public relations expert, Angela Duke (Sarah Minnich), to stage the offensive, position news cameras, and handle the press. She also botches the job.

The series’ six episodes are tightly written and well-acted, especially the two key players, David Koresh (Taylor Kitsch) and crisis negotiator Gary Noesner (Michael Shannon). Kitsch’s Koresh is earnest, childlike, persuasive, and even playful. We don’t see an evil manipulator but a charismatic leader who inspires those who follow him. His Texas drawl mixed with grandiose intonations of prophecy reassure them. Even when the hour is darkest, he convinces them to stay the course and “pass the test.” And yet there is something in his stubborn certainty that reveals self-doubt and a longing to be accepted.

What he teaches theologically may not make sense to us, but there is no doubt that he believes it. And his followers believe in him, too. Even when he convinces them that God wants the men to be celibate and Koresh to “assume the burden of sex for [them] all,” though “not for my own kicks,” he asserts. Indeed, while having sex with his wife Rachel (Melissa Benoist), he chastises himself when he starts to enjoy it. Clearly, the man has some issues, perhaps beginning with the fact that his own mother had been just fourteen when he was born. But his kindness toward his family of followers and his desire to understand God seem sincere and without guile.

Koresh's wives brush off their own nagging doubts about the sexual arrangements as weaknesses in faith and a trial to be borne, not wrongs to be righted.

Michael Shannon, who makes his living playing twisted bad guys, is equally earnest and sincere as Gary Noesner. As a seasoned negotiator who had convinced Randy Weaver to surrender peacefully just a few months earlier, he knows the importance of understanding Koresh’s deepest concerns and needs in order to reason with him. He does not see Koresh as evil but as misguided. At one point he argues with Tony Prince (Glenn Fleshler), the bureaucratic FBI director of operations, “Why have the people in Waco gotten along with these people all these years? Because they talked to them. They understood them.” And later, when all hell breaks loose, he questions, “We are all of us Americans! When did we start seeing each other as the enemy?” We could very well ask that question again today.

The most troubling part of the story, and the reason we can’t truly identify Koresh as a folk hero, is the polygamy. This is not The Handmaid’s Tale by any means; the women in the story are strong, intelligent, and valued. They have self-will, and can choose to leave at any time (and some of them do). But they seem to genuinely believe in Koresh’s revelations, and they brush off their own nagging doubts about the sexual arrangements as weaknesses in faith and a trial to be borne, not wrongs to be righted. The way they live might seem kooky and appalling to most of us, but the women seem to accept it as God’s will.

The real villains in Waco are the government agents who are set on controlling the situation and restoring their reputations after the public relations disaster at Ruby Ridge — oh yes, and the unnecessary shooting deaths of a woman and her young son. “If we can come out of that compound with a bunch of innocent kids and loaded guns, it might remind Congress why they need us,” muses the ATF director Ed Wiggins (Christopher Stanley) when he’s presented with the idea of going after Koresh.

That’s a scary motivation. We are controlled by the fear of our controllers.

And it’s a power trip too. Later, when Noesner begs Mitch Decker (Shea Wigham), the hotshot FBI agent in charge of the assault, to just leave the Davidians alone, Decker tells him, “It’s 5,000 to one. Those are the odds against us. Five thousand citizens to one officer of the law. They believe we’re more powerful than we are. We project strength, and the people believe we have strength . . . By letting this drag on we look weak in front of the world.” That’s a scary motivation. We are controlled by the fear of our controllers.

How accurate is the series? No one really knows; even today, after the trials and the appeals have ended, it is still disputed who shot first and how the fires started. The series is based on memoirs written by two participants on opposite sides of the fight, Waco: A Survivor’s Story, written by former Branch member David Thibodeau (Rory Culkin), and Stalling for Time: My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator, by Gary Noesner. Thibodeau had met Koresh at a music event in LA and had been at the compound for only a year when the trouble broke out. In that sense both men were somewhat outside observers and might have been more objective in their writing than someone who had been a longtime member. Thibodeau’s sweet and chaste relationship with Michelle Jones (Julia Garner), who had lived at the compound her whole life, is one of the highlights of the series.

Waco may or may not be completely factually accurate in its portrayal of Koresh and the sequence of events during the assaults, but it is thematically correct. It contains important truths about the right to assemble, the right to defend oneself, the right to believe, and the right to be left alone. It also introduces tough questions about the right to raise one’s children when one’s beliefs may lead to harm. It doesn’t whitewash the issue of polygamy, especially Koresh’s weird “king of the pride” version of it, but it acknowledges that adults should have the right to choose what a marriage will look like. Most of all, it exposes a justice department whose mission is no longer “to protect and serve” but “to control and contain.”

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