L. Neil Smith's
THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 220, April 21, 2003
Remembering April Nineteenth
Special to TLE
It is with great sadness and not a little fear that I write this essay. Certainly the words "April Nineteenth" don't set off emotions at the same level as "July Fourth," "December Seventh," or "September Eleventh." I am distressed that Americans nowadays must acknowledge April 19th as twin anniversary dates of tragedy, rather than the proud moment in our nation's history that the date should inspire.
By the inspiring moment, I of course refer to April 19, 1775: the day when a band of Massachusetts colonials, fed up with the actions of an intrusive, uncaring government in which they had no representative voice, did the unthinkable and mustered to defend themselves.
Instead of commemorating this singular act of boldness, today we acknowledge April 19, 1993, and April 19, 1995 for quite different reasons. Most Americans know full well what happened on those dates: in 1993 our own Federal government incinerated a group of approximately 82 religious dissidents, some of which were children under the age of five. In 1995, that same Federal government was sucker-punched in Oklahoma City by a group of fed-up American citizens, in an act which resulted in 168 deaths — some of whom were children under the age of five, in a day-care center.
Let me be clear right at the outset: I recoil in horror at both events. Both were totally unnecessary, both are an affront to civilized behavior, and both have been so thoroughly clouded by misdirection, double-dealing, missing evidence and outright lying as to forever defy an honest reckoning.
April 19, 1993
In February 1993, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (then an enforcement wing of the Treasury Department) set in motion its plan to execute search warrants at the Waco, Texas compound of a breakaway group of Seventh-Day Adventists. This particular schism, known as Branch Davidians, was led by a charismatic young man who went by the name David Koresh (ne, Vernon Howell). Koresh was, by all accounts, a powerful and persuasive speaker, with an innate musical talent and a fiery passion. The ATF had been following up on Koresh's activities, believing him and some of his senior followers to be involved in arms trafficking. Koresh was known to Texas Rangers as a small-time concern — nobody worth expending case time on.
The ATF was under an uncomfortable bureaucratic microscope at the time; a series of sexual harassment charges from the rank-and-file had made their way onto the six o'clock news. The a gency was also grappling with a racist image problem which seemed to uncover new allegations with every passing week. For reasons never made quite clear, the ATF decided to stage a full-scale raid on the Branch Davidian compound, inviting television cameras along for the ride. On the morning of February 28, a convoy comprising roughly 80 Federal agents, state and local police (conspicuously, no Texas Rangers) arrived at the Mt. Carmel compound under cover of three oversized farming equipment trucks. The SAC (Special Agent in Charge) of ATF's Dallas Field Division was even present for the raid, watching event unfold from a military helicopter on loan from Joint Task Force Six (JTF-6), a military drug interdiction unit. (The military support for this operation was predicated on an entirely falsified report of a 'methamphetamine lab' inside the compound.)
Exactly what went wrong that morning is certainly unclear, but some jumpy soul was a little too quick on the trigger and a massive shootout between the Feds and the Branch Davidians erupted. Four ATF agents were killed in the first few minutes, even as Koresh got on the phone and begged the local police to stop shooting. Based on Koresh's lengthy telephone conversations with indifferent negotiators over the next few weeks, it appeared that six Davidians had also been killed — at one point Koresh himself alluded to a gunshot wound in his leg. The smoke cleared, and the FBI's Hostage Rescue Team (HRT) — that wonderful defender of liberty and democracy that brought us civilian slaughter at Ruby Ridge, Idaho — moved in to take over the operation.
For the next 51 days, the FBI made a wonderful show of trying every tactic its in-house 'cult advisors' could come up with — including cutting off electricity, blasting Nancy Sinatra music at all hours, and shining searchlights in the windows. Koresh was, by all accounts, hard at work on a manuscript that outlined his interpretation of the Seven Seals as described in the Book of Revelations, but on the bright sunny morning of April 19, HRT commander Jeffrey Jamar had decided he wasn't going to listen to any more 'Bible babble' and raised the stakes. National Guard tanks (again, courtesy of JTF-6) were used to punch holes in the side of the compound (reportedly in the kitchen area, crushing several people to death) and flammable CS gas was pumped into the structure. The resulting inferno was probably inevitable. What the press never was allowed to broadcast (their crews having been pushed back to 2 miles from the site) was the spectacle of FBI agents in full combat gear opening fire on the compound even as it was being engulfed in flames — this horror is corroborated by footage taken by the FBI's own surveillance helicopters and was later highlighted in the gripping documentary film Waco: Rules of Engagement. Members of the group who were coming out to surrender were purportedly fired on and so rushed back inside to their deaths. The Waco, Texas fire department was likewise kept away with threats. (Five survivors, not counting those who had voluntarily walked out of the compound during the 51-day siege, would later be tried on manslaughter charges.) By noon nothing remained of the compound but a pile of smoking ash and the charred skeleton of a school bus. The final tally: 82 Davidians dead, including Koresh, his wives and family, his lieutenants, and at least 25 children, some of whom were younger than five. The ATF raised its flag over the smoking ruins in time for the evening news. To this day law enforcement is united in its insistence that the Davidians started the fire themselves in a ludicrous act of mass suicide (a la Jonestown).
Much posturing from Washington followed, including an offer of resignation by newly-installed Attorney General Janet Reno ('I'm accountable, the buck stops with me'), which President Clinton refused to accept. An investigation followed, during which ATF director Stephen Higgins 'decided' to retire (replaced by former Secret Service director John Magaw, who would later become Tom Ridge's number-two man at the Department of Homeland Security). The SAC and two ASACs (Assistant Special Agents in Charges) of the ATF Dallas Field Division, as well as the RAC (Resident Agent in Charge) of the Waco, Texas Resident Office turned in their resignations. Four days later the FBI announced that its own internal forensic department had completed its examination of the site, and promptly bulldozed the entire property, effectively erasing any and all remaining evidentiary questions that might have later come to light.
To say that a few lies have come out of this fiasco would be something of an understatement. But the core of it cannot be argued: on April 19, 1993, the U.S. government acted as judge, jury, and executioner to a group of private citizens rather than allow itself to be seen as anything less than completely and totally in charge. Congress would only open its formal investigation of the situation a full two years later — but by then, a different horror would have gripped the nation.
April 19, 1995
Romanticized documentaries portray Gulf War veteran Timothy McVeigh as a loner with "anger issues;" as someone who would, following his dishonorable discharge, make a "pilgrimage" out to the Davidian site on April 19, 1994 and make a vow of revenge. Whether this actually happened is certainly open to interpretation. Whatever his true level of involvement, McVeigh was implicated in "the worst attack on U.S. soil" one year later, tried, found guilty, and executed.
Just as the workday was beginning on the beautiful cloudless morning of April 19, 1995, a massive blast shook the Alfred P. Murrah federal office building in Oklahoma City, demolishing more than one-third of the structure and killing some 168 people, many of them low-level Federal office workers and contractors. The Murrah building housed, among others, the local field offices of the ATF and the DEA, as well as the Secret Service. (The FBI's Resident Office was in a different building). The building also included VA offices, a Navy credit union, a U.S. Army recruitment office, a Social Security office, and most chilling of all, an in-house day-care center on the second floor. Every agency in the building had raised its respective flag over the smoking ruins in time for the evening news.
The nation's first reaction was to suspect Islamic terrorism — and indeed, the first few arrests made that day were almost exclusively of Middle Eastern men, some of whom found themselves locked up without ever being formally charged — a harbinger of things to come. But by the following evening, with investigative bits and pieces starting to materialize, America woke up to an unpleasant reality — that the perpetrators of this crime might just be all-American white faces; the faces of extreme citizen discontent and a deep, loathing distrust of all things government.
To this date only two individuals have ever been charged in the Oklahoma City bombing; McVeigh and his supposed "mentor," Terry Nichols. McVeigh and Nichols were almost immediately vilified as far-right extremists; gun-loving conspiracy theorists that subscribed to a dangerous movement known as the (drum roll) Citizens' Militia — a loosely-organized citizen's network of tax protestors, gun-rights advocates, and — just for good measure — white supremacists, anti-Semites, and neo-Nazis. President Clinton, searching for a palatable scapegoat, decided to focus his ire on right-wing talk show hosts and commentators for contributing to an atmosphere of hate and intolerance. New Constitution-crushing legislation was rushed into being that sharply curtailed civil rights and afforded the government broad new powers to seek, detain, and declare "terrorists" at home. Even Oprah Winfrey, that mouthpiece for soccer moms everywhere, opined that it was "perfectly okay" to give up constitutional rights and liberties in exchange for protection from terrorism.
As before, the FBI took up the investigation and locked down the disaster site under the pretense that it was a "crime scene." The tireless efforts of rescue workers, firefighters, and volunteers to recover bodies would almost certainly have gone quicker and more smoothly had not Federal agents been double-checking and triple-searching every individual that moved through the site. Also as before, once the FBI's in-house forensic examination was done, the rest of the building was swiftly leveled in a controlled implosion, effectively erasing any and all remaining evidentiary questions that might have later come to light.
McVeigh's short trial, moved to Denver so as to avoid conflict of interest, was certainly a foregone conclusion. Predictably, he was found guilty on 168 counts of capital murder, with 9 of those murders being augmented since they involved the death of Federal law enforcement agents. (Isn't it comforting to know that an 1811-series ATF agent is somehow considered to be "more dead" than a mere civilian postal worker?) In spite of blatant prosecutorial bungling and a rash of mysteriously-disappearing FBI evidence, McVeigh was executed in May of 2001, in a marvelous act of "sweeping it under the rug." Nichols got a life sentence on a vague "conspiracy" charge. To this day the government maintains that the entire act was perpetrated solely by these two men, in spite of widespread accounts of others' involvement, including the infamous "John Doe #2" who has never been found. Retired Air Force General Benton K. Partin, an expert in demolitions, concluded that McVeigh's fertilizer truck bomb could not possibly have created as much structural damage as claimed. Partin raised the suggestion that additional explosive charges may have been placed in the building earlier by additional co-conspirators, but his testimony was dismissed out of hand by the Federal prosecutor and ultimately ruled inadmissible — apparently it raised too many questions in opposition to the "lone gunman" story.
As before, the accounts very widely, from the uncomfortably plausible to the outlandish, but a central fact does not alter: the Federal government, in the face of an affront to its infallibility, lashed out and executed a man who almost certainly knew much more than the public has been led to believe, thus covering up and silencing information the public has a right to know.
April 19, 1775
In both of these instances, the U.S. government moved quickly — even clumsily — to quash even the faintest hint of suggestion that it was acting less than perfectly. Nothing was more important in the aftermath of these two April 19ths than that the government would appear blameless, or, at the very least, would have some ready-made fall guys lined up and in position. In his monumental book People of the Lie, Dr. M. Scott Peck characterizes this kind of behavior as indicative of what can be described as a psychological definition of evil:
In other words, people who are evil will scapegoat and attack others, resorting to lies if necessary, rather than face their own failures.
Is the U.S. government evil? Two April 19ths do not, of course, make a statistical universe, but the lesson cannot, and should not, be overlooked.
I shall conclude by recounting the events of one more April 19th — this one going a bit further back in time:
Dawn broke over the village green in Lexington, Massachusetts with a thick mist and the promise of an unusually warm spring day. The colony of Massachusetts Bay was positively seething with anti-Royal sentiment for some time now, having borne the brunt of the new tax acts and having had the port city of Boston forcibly closed by British troops. Some 900 redcoats marched onto the green, having been dispatched from Boston the night before. Their goal was to arrest dissident fugitives (like Samuel Adams and John Hancock) and to seize militia armaments. But they were not alone; thanks to a timely warning from local riders, a detachment of (drum roll) Citizens' Militia had mustered and was waiting for them.
Of course we all know the words of militia captain John Parker to his men: "Stand your ground; don't fire unless fired upon; but if they mean to have a war, let it begin here!" A British officer ordered the militia to disperse — before anyone could react, some jumpy soul was a little too quick on the trigger and the British infantry opened fire, killing eight militiamen. The citizens returned fire and so the War for American Independence was joined.
Three normalcy-shattering events, all on a spring day in mid-April. I don't pretend to draw some kind of cosmic link between the three, other than to note the fact that they share the same calendar date. I believe April 19th is a date that should never be forgotten in the American consciousness — it is a date that reminds us of the zealous excess to which our own government may sometimes go to maintain its status quo. It is also a date that reminds us that We The People have within us the ultimate power over our own destinies, free from government coercion or interference, and that we cannot be afraid to assert that.
A similar reflection was once made by socialist leader Eugene V. Debs, when he likened 1893's American Railway Union strike against the George Pullman Company to the events of April 19, 1775. An estimated 100,000 workers had joined the strike, blocking Chicago to railroad traffic almost completely. A court order to end the strike was issued, but Debs and the American Railway Union leaders ignored it. This strike became known in the press as "Debs Rebellion," and it ended only when President Grover Cleveland resorted to — you guessed it — federal troops:
I should mention that Debs would go on to found the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and would eventually run for President on the socialist ticket — garnering an unprecedented six percent of the vote in 1912. Certainly this was enough achievement to make him a thorn in the side of any U.S. government official. Some years later, for his temerity to openly question America's "moral superiority" in participating in World War I, Debs was arrested and convicted under the Wartime Espionage Law, which strictly forbade any speech that might discourage enlistment. He was his own attorney and though his appeal to the jury is regarded as one of the most powerful speeches ever made in a court of law, he was found guilty and sentenced to serve 10 years in prison, as well as disenfranchisement for life. Oliver Wendell Holmes spoke for a unanimous Supreme Court in upholding Debs' verdict. On a spring day in 1919, Debs was formally stripped of his citizenship and began his prison sentence, his "troublemaking" silenced and no longer an irritant to the unimpeachable wisdom of the U.S. government.
The exact date? Guess.
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