Digging Through the Ashes of Waco
April 26, 2000
The Ashes of Waco: An Investigation, Dick Reavis, Simon and Schuster, 1995, 320 pp, $24 The seven week raid on the Mt. Carmel encampment in Waco, Texas started out as a feeding frenzy for the media. Reporters gathered at Satellite City a few miles away, vying for a glimpse. But slow negotiations made for boring news. Then came the hearings--an attempt to decipher the conflicting testimonies of insiders from the community and the agents who conducted the raid--only to be eclipsed in the headlines by a far more interesting scandal, the arrest of O.J. Simpson. Or so Dick Reavis' story goes. Reavis says he took on the project of investigating the events in Waco, which culminated in his book The Ashes of Waco: An Investigation, because he suddenly realized there was no other responsible journalist out there who would do it. It would be great if the book, being the self-touted first reputable book on the topic, was simply a compilation of the facts, but from the outset, it 's clear that Reavis is out to do much more. He clearly mistrusts the government, and almost never buys any of their explanations, even on minor points, of what happened between February 28 and April 19. At times it becomes unclear who is more paranoid-David Koresh or Dick Reavis. To his credit, much of the book is carefully researched. Reavis has, quite possibly, read every document available, including transcripts from the phone negotiations, courtroom testimonies and coroner's reports, and several previously unavailable documents. He racks up particular points for the details he dug up about the lives of the members of the religious sect inhabiting Mt. Carmel, an evolved version of Seventh Day Adventists. He gives us background, personal history, the whys and hows of the journeys that led these people to this semi-literate, self-proclaimed prophet and would-be savior. In so doing, he provides a human side to the people so quickly labeled a "cult," a word not lacking in negative connotations. But while he does a good job pointing out the discrepancies in various testimonies, he almost always manipulates the story to end up in a clearly anti-government stance. More than simply giving these "cult" members a fair shake, Reavis lets his biases in favor of them shine through. The real point, at least the one that matters, is that the raid was unconstitutional. To this end, Reavis develops a fairly convincing argument. The evidence of mistakes and cover-ups, not to mention overreaction, is overwhelming. Yet, he almost completely ignores the question of whether or not law enforcement agencies had reason to be concerned, glossing over the alleged sexual molestation, stockpiling weapons and brainwashing. He indicates that because the children missed their parents when they were taken away, they could not have suffered any abuse, when this reaction is perfectly common in abused children. By far the strongest attribute of the book is the religious content. Reavis has done some valuable research in tracing the roots of the group that, according to Reavis, referred to themselves as "students of the Seven Seals" (apparently, "Branch Davidians," the term used by the media, was a misnomer that actually applies to a much larger segment of religious groups). He provides excellent background information on Seventh Day Adventists, Ellen White and Lois Roden, the roots of Koresh's teachings. Reavis finds obscure scripture references, and even more obscure interpretations, to help Koresh make sense. He is also fairer here, acknowledging the messianic trends associated with the millennium, and the well-known group suicides in other religious groups, like the Jews on Massadah or the Jonestown People's Temple. This sort of historical reference and fine religious research lends Ashes of Waco a credibility it would not otherwise have. The main shortcoming is that Reavis, aside from his confession that he "acquired a grinning respect for the poetry and vision of the Holy Writ," never gives any explanation of why he finds the residents of Mt. Carmel so credible. I was left wondering if he didn't get a little caught up in Koresh's legendary charisma, and the romance of the notion of having all the answers handed to him by a messenger from God.