After a community is seared by unthinkable violence, the shock and grief usually give way to the impulse to carve the memory into stone.
A memorial is a community’s attempt to punctuate tragedy, to close it with a period, or perhaps an exclamation point or a question mark.
Public memorials have honored the victims and shaped the storyline of terrorist bombings in Oklahoma City and New York City, of a president assassinated in Dallas, and of mass shootings across the country, including in Killeen and Austin.
But Thursday, on the 20th anniversary of its beginning, the Branch Davidian disaster east of Waco remains an unpunctuated sentence.
On Feb. 28, 1993, federal agents raided the Branch Davidian sect’s compound east of Waco, setting off a confrontation that killed six Davidians and four Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents. A 51-day FBI siege followed, ending April 19 in an inferno that killed 76 Davidians, including 21 children.
Twenty years later, no memorials or interpretive sites have been erected outside the site itself, which now is controlled by a small faction of Davidian followers and is avoided by survivors of the siege.
No publicly sponsored ceremonies are planned here to mark the disaster, which has become synonymous around the world with the name “Waco.”
“We’ve gotten a couple of calls about the 20th anniversary, asking if we were planning anything in commemoration,” said Larry Holze, the city of Waco spokesman who was a city councilman during the siege. “My answer is, we have no plans because it did not happen in Waco, and we had no legal responsibility for it.”
Likewise, county government leaders have no plans to commemorate the tragedy. In response to an inquiry for this story, the McLennan County Historical Commission briefly discussed last week whether to pursue a historic marker for the site.
“There was no interest whatsoever in that,” commission chairman Van Messirer said. “There was a feeling that it’s one of those things that’s probably best left alone.”
On Thursday, officers with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms will hold private ceremonies to honor the fallen agents, but ATF officials declined to say where the ceremonies will be.
The surviving Branch Davidians will meet the week of April 19 for their annual reunion, which usually draws about 50 people. But they will avoid Mount Carmel, the 77-acre site of the siege and blaze, because of an ongoing dispute about who represents the Branch Davidians.
“At the memorial service last year, we put it to the vote of the people how many wanted to be at Mount Carmel the next year,” said Clive Doyle, a survivor of the 1993 disaster who now leads a small group of Davidian faithful. “A large portion thought it was a good idea, but then the feedback came that some wouldn’t go out there.”
Meanwhile, the Tribune-Herald “Through Our Pages” museum and the long-dormant Helen Marie Taylor Museum of Waco History both have Branch Davidian exhibits and are planning to open for tours at some point this spring.
Baylor University’s Center for Religious Studies is planning an all-day symposium April 18 on the Mount Carmel saga. Scholars will discuss why the confrontation with the Davidians went so wrong and will try to put the beliefs of the Davidians into context of American religious history, said Gordon Melton, a Baylor religion professor organizing the event.
“There are very serious questions that should not be left to popular culture images,” he said.
Melton said he understands Waco’s reluctance to claim the Branch Davidian disaster as part of its identity. He noted that Waco became a household word overnight, associated both with religious extremism and heavy-handed federal law enforcement.
“There’s certainly a popular image around the country that identifies Waco as home to a group of religious weirdos,” he said. “That’s been embarrassing to residents of Waco in general. Many people have said, ‘If we forget it, maybe it will go away, and the rest of the country will forget it too.’ Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s the case.”
The Branch Davidian disaster has been eclipsed by events such as the 9/11 terror attacks, he said, but it is too shocking to leave public consciousness.
Waco Mayor Malcolm Duncan Jr. said he hasn’t given any thought to memorializing the 20th anniversary of the disaster and doesn’t want the city to take sides regarding who is to blame. But he said it should be recognized as part of Waco’s history.
“Regardless of where the physical place is, the first place people think about when you mention the Branch Davidians is Waco,” he said.
Doyle noted that the Davidian movement began in Waco in the 1930s, and it’s a matter of mere semantics to say the 1993 disaster didn’t happen in Waco. Mount Carmel is located near Elk, about 12 miles from downtown Waco and eight miles beyond the city limits. The Davidians moved there in the 1960s from their communal headquarters near Lake Waco.
During the siege, then-Mayor Bob Sheehy Sr. held regular press conferences and often reminded journalists that the compound was not in Waco. Still, the news stories were datelined “Waco,” and during the long siege, reporters hungry for a story wrote profiles on the city ranging from sympathetic to nasty. One British newspaper called Waco “a one-horse town where the horse has died.”
Liz Taylor came in as Waco’s tourism chief in the middle of that public relations challenge, starting her job on March 1, 1993.
She said she admired Sheehy for stepping up to represent Waco in front of the TV cameras.
“He was so good at it,” she said. “His love for the community won them over every time he did an interview. He would show them that there’s much more to Waco than you might be thinking.”
Taylor said she doesn’t think the popular association of Waco with the disaster has tarnished the city’s image, but she thinks a museum exhibit, not a monument, would be the best way to recognize that history.
The events of spring 1993 have been thoroughly investigated in reports from the U.S. Treasury Department and special counsel John Danforth. But controversy lingers about who was more at fault and the nature of the Davidian sect.
Federal law enforcement agents at the time portrayed the Davidians as a doomsday cult that abused children and was armed for apocalypse.
DNA testing later would confirm that David Koresh had impregnated under-aged girls in the group. Investigations showed the Davidians had stockpiled some 300 firearms, including assault rifles modified to become fully automatic, as well as hand grenades.
But in the aftermath of the siege, both the ATF and FBI drew widespread criticism for their aggressive tactics, and “Remember Waco” became a rallying cry for militia members and others distrustful of the federal government.
Government investigations in the aftermath of the Waco siege caused reforms of federal law enforcement, including a reorganization of the ATF and new training procedures.
Melton said that after the Mount Carmel siege and the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that was planned in revenge for it, officials became more interested in understanding the thinking of so-called extremist groups. For several years, FBI officials consulted with religion scholars about “new religious movements,” until 9/11 turned their attention toward Islamic radicalism, Melton said.
The lingering controversy about the siege made Waco leaders reluctant to weigh in on its meaning, said Lawrence Johnson, a Waco attorney who was on the council during the Davidian episode. Soon after the ATF raid, he recalled, the council passed a resolution in sympathy for law enforcement officers who had died.
But Johnson, who was a friend of a deceased Davidian member, wanted to go further. In June 1993, he persuaded the council to pass a resolution to recognize the loss of “innocent children” in the fire and express condolences to the families of all people who died in the tragedy.
“One of the problems the city had was the fact you had so many deaths involved, deaths not only of people who were lawbreakers but women and children,” Johnson said this month. “People don’t want to accept the fact as to what caused all those deaths. The actions of law enforcement officials did contribute to the deaths of so many, but nobody wants to recognize that.”
But there’s little precedent for how such an event could be memorialized. The Davidian tragedy was unique in the scale of deaths and the difficulty of sorting out blame.
There was no problem in identifying who were the victims of 9/11 or the Oklahoma City bombing, or of various mass shootings. Memorials have been built or are in the works for all of the 10 deadliest mass shootings in the last half-century.
In Texas, those include the University of Texas at Austin tower shooting in 1966 and the Killeen Luby’s shooting in 1991. The Killeen shooting at the time was the deadliest on record, with 24 dead including the shooter.
Fred Latham, a Killeen city councilman of that era, said the city chose to put the memorial near its civic center rather than at the strip mall where it took place, at the wishes of both the restaurant and victims.
He said memorial services on prominent anniversaries still draw crowds, and the memory of the tragedy still unites the community.
But he doesn’t see a parallel with the Waco case, and he’s not sure a memorial is appropriate for the disaster here.
“It’s a different circumstance altogether,” he said. “That’s where a government intervention caused an event that was disastrous for both sides. . . . Those people had guns and were shooting back, while the people at Luby’s were just there to celebrate Bosses’ Day.”
The 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy also is a much different kind of tragedy than Waco’s, but the problems in commemorating it were similar. For years, Dallas’ reputation was shadowed by the killing, and some media outlets branded it the “city of hate” because of the anti-Kennedy sentiment there before the assassination.
A large abstract cube representing an open tomb was erected in downtown Dallas in 1970 to honor the fallen president. But there was no interpretive site to guide the thousands of people who each year visited the memorial and nearby Dealey Plaza where JFK was shot.
In the late 1980s, the Dallas County Historical Commission answered that need by renovating part of the former textbook depository building where Lee Harvey Oswald took aim at Kennedy.
Lindalyn Adams, chair of the commission during the planning and opening of the Sixth Floor Museum, said many prominent Dallas residents opposed the effort as inappropriate.
She said that in 1984, well into the planning process for the museum, tycoon Ross Perot, Cowboys coach Tom Landry and makeup entrepreneur Mary Kay Ash were panelists on a television show covering the Republican Convention. All agreed that the textbook building should be torn down.
“That’s a natural feeling: Let’s put this behind us,” Adams said.
Ash later became a major supporter of the Sixth Floor Museum, she noted.
“It has proven to be something we really needed,” Adams said. “It’s been so worthwhile to see that it met our greatest expectations and more so. What happened here is a part of our history that will never go away, and as such, it behooves us to have something that explains the times and what occurred here.”
Today, visitors to Mount Carmel hoping to get a coherent story of the Branch Davidian episode are likely to be disappointed.
On a recent Friday afternoon, the gates of the site were unlocked, but the property mostly was deserted, except for one tourist and a few loose dogs. Wild ducks swam on a weedy pond and a cold wind swept across the winter grass.
The remains of the sprawling compound building have been removed, except for a swimming pool that was used as a bunker during the siege.
In the building’s place is a small chapel built by Davidian sympathizers after the fire. It was locked, but a stack of fliers on the door referred to it as an audiovisual museum of Davidian history and condemned both the government and David Koresh for the 1993 tragedy.
The chapel and the property are under the control of Charles Pace, who considers himself a Davidian leader but is at odds with Doyle and other followers of Koresh. Pace has created a new memorial by mortaring together stones marked with the names of the Davidian dead, stones that originally were spread through a grove of crape myrtles.
A hodgepodge of other granite memorials are scattered across the site, including one honoring the ATF officers and one donated by a militia group.
But it appears that for now, they are memorials that ATF officers and siege survivors are unlikely to visit. And city tourism officials say that with each passing year, they get fewer inquiries seeking directions to the compound.
Johnson, the former councilman, said he still would like to see more recognition of what happened at Mount Carmel in 1993.
“It’s a part of Waco’s history,” he said. “I always stated there should be a memorial that might have been a place people would want to come and see. It could have been a tourist attraction. But people just wanted to forget about it.”