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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Putting a human face on the Waco disaster

Keean Johnson and J. Smith-Cameron, center, star in the new Showtime series “Waco: The Aftermath.”

By Chris Vognar

The creators of “Waco: The Aftermath,” Drew Dowdle and John Erick Dowdle, were in the writers’ room of their new Showtime series when they looked up at the TV. It was Jan. 6, 2021, and a violent mob was storming the U.S. Capitol building. The limited series, which stars Michael Shannon and premiered last Friday, follows an FBI negotiator’s efforts to track the domestic terrorist movement spawned by a standoff outside Waco, Texas, in 1993.

In a recent interview, John Erick Dowdle recalled their response as they watched the televised Capitol attack: “Oh my God, this is it.” The Dowdle brothers were no longer just dramatizing the events of Waco and its aftermath. Their project seemed to be springing to life again in real time.

Thirty years after a standoff between federal agents and an armed, apocalyptic religious sect known as the Branch Davidians culminated with a raging inferno at the group’s compound that was broadcast on live television, and ultimately ended with 86 dead, many Americans are still divided on Waco. It was either an inexcusable episode caused by government overreach, or the lamentable outcome of a dangerous cult’s fanaticism. It’s an ever-exploitable schism, as former President Donald Trump recently demonstrated when he kicked off the first rally of his 2024 presidential campaign in Waco, with an aggrieved antigovernment screed.

Middle ground remains hard to find, especially for those directly involved. The mid-size Texas city about halfway between Dallas and Austin has become as much a symbol as a place, a line in the cultural sand.

It may seem unlikely that TV, the platform for so many opinion-spouting talking heads, could add reason to the debate. But it does, on at least two fronts, as the 30th anniversary of the events approaches. In “Waco: The Aftermath,” the Dowdle brothers present an all-in-one prequel and sequel to their 2018 limited series “Waco.” The new series looks back at David Koresh, the Branch Davidians leader, in his early days at Mount Carmel, the compound where he would lead the end-times sect, and revisits two stories that unfolded in the wake of the tragedy: the courtroom trial of a handful of Koresh’s followers, and the push by an FBI negotiator (played by Shannon) to prevent a presumably inevitable attack on American soil.

The events also get a second look in “Waco: American Apocalypse,” a documentary series streaming on Netflix that presents a painstakingly balanced account of what went down during that 51-day standoff. There are interviews with some who participated in the siege, including surviving Branch Davidians (still unwavering in their faith) and agents from the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, or ATF. The three-part series also features previously unaired footage from inside the FBI Crisis Negotiation Unit, which only reinforces the prevailing theme that the catastrophe could and should have been prevented.

All told, the two series put a human face — many human faces, actually — on what almost instantly became a national shouting match.

“There were no exact right answers, and everybody was desperately trying,” Tiller Russell, the director of “American Apocalypse,” said in a video interview. “That includes the press, and that includes the different factions within the FBI. It includes the Davidians, who were trying to do what they thought was right by following the person who was their prophet and conduit to God. It was very humbling to find all of that humanity.”

The flip side of this view, of course, is that everyone involved is to blame. “There are no heroes here,” said Jeff Guinn, author of “Waco: David Koresh, the Branch Davidians, and a Legacy of Rage.” Or, as Buffalo Springfield sang in its 1960s anthem “For What It’s Worth,” nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong.

A few facts, from both sides of the equation. Koresh, whose birth name was Vernon Wayne Howell, worshipped and studied at Mount Carmel when it was being run by a self-proclaimed prophet named Lois Roden (depicted in Showtime’s “Aftermath” by J. Smith-Cameron of “Succession”), and he took over in 1987. He claimed to be the “lamb,” or second coming of Christ, from the Book of Revelation, and spoke of his apocalyptic visions, preaching that he would lead his flock to victory over the forces of the outside world, or Babylon. His flock believed him. He built an arsenal, largely by illegally converting semi-automatic weapons to the automatic kind. He also separated wives from their husbands, former followers later said, in his quest to populate a postapocalyptic kingdom.

The ATF got wind of the weapons stash and, though its agents apparently knew they had lost the crucial element of surprise, raided the compound in February 1993. A gunfight ensued — both sides still disagree on who fired the first shot. The FBI then took over, initiating a 51-day siege, with the bureau’s Hostage Rescue Team and Crisis Negotiation Unit at odds over how to proceed. That April, the FBI launched a tear gas attack, after which the compound went up in flames, killing 76 Davidians.

The tragedy galvanized violent anti-government groups and individuals, including Timothy McVeigh (played by Alex Breaux in “Aftermath”), who engineered the 1995 bombing of a federal office building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people.

The story’s contemporary resonance persuaded Shannon to star in “Aftermath,” as Gary Noesner, the real-life FBI hostage negotiator; it was “embarrassing,” the actor said, “how little I knew about it at all before I did the series.”

Much of “The Aftermath” focuses on a San Antonio courtroom, where surviving Davidians stood trial on weapons and conspiracy charges. Lauren MacKenzie, who, along with her husband, Andrew Gettens, was a writer and a producer on the Showtime series, sought to show that the Davidians had been wronged in some ways. But she emphasized that the series doesn’t condone any of the anti-government violence that has followed in subsequent years.

“Especially when it comes to the trial, there were things that are very questionable that the government did,” MacKenzie said. “But you don’t want to conflate that with where we are now. There are many groups that use Waco as this clarion call, and we don’t want to add fuel to that fire.”

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