Waco Survivor, FBI Negotiator Fear History Is Repeating Itself With QAnon, Toxic Politics

A survivor of the Waco Siege and an FBI veteran who led negotiations for the first half of the standoff warned that the toxicity of America's political discourse risks breeding more extremism and violence, noting parallels to the horrors they experienced.

David Thibodeau, who was among the survivors of the massacre in central Texas, and former FBI lead negotiator Gary Noesner, both told Newsweek they see echoes of the 1990s when Ruby Ridge, Waco, and the Oklahoma City bombing rocked the U.S.

They urged lawmakers and the media to tempter partisan rhetoric and abandon zero-sum politics in an increasingly polarized society marred by events such as the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.

The country now faces "terribly troubling times," Noesner told Newsweek. He added: "I'm 70 years old. I've never seen it to this extent in our country. I find it very, very upsetting."

Thibodeau said: "I fear what other people will do."

President Joe Biden's pleas for unity appear to have fallen on deaf ears, and both left and right are embroiled in a range of bitter policy and culture war battles.

Meanwhile, dangerous conspiracy theories such as QAnon and extremist groups persist on the fringes, raising concerns of increasing political violence on American streets.

The tragedy at Waco—where 86 people died in April 1993—retains a poignant place in modern U.S. history. For some, it became a rallying cry against the federal government.

Waco—along with the killings at Ruby Ridge the previous year—was in their eyes the manifestation of government overreach; proof that it would harass and kill those who undermined its authority and then smear their memories.

It was one of the key radicalizing events for Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, who used a truck bomb to destroy the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in April 1995 on the second anniversary of the Waco tragedy.

The bomb killed 168 people including 19 children. "I wanted the government to hurt like the people of Waco and Ruby Ridge had," McVeigh later said.

President Donald Trump's turbulent term inflamed society's deep-rooted tensions. Old wounds were reopened and new ones inflicted. Extremist groups felt emboldened and went on the march, believing they finally had an ally in the White House.

Right at the end of his term, Trump's refusal to accept electoral defeat last November breathed new life into the fringe conspiracy theory and racist groups lurking on the far-right.

The deadly storming of the U.S. Capitol on January 6—which came after state capitols in Michigan and Oregon were also attacked—was the culmination of Trump's divisive presidency and a powerful symbol of the nation's beleaguered democracy.

As lawmakers investigate the attack and those involved are charged, some are already pushing for new domestic terrorism legislation to face down extremists on the right, and perhaps too on the left.

There is little to suggest American politics is moving away from its breathless partisan conflict.

But according to Noesner and Thibodeau, lawmakers and voters must heed the lessons from Waco, where the media circus, political pressure, and poor communication combined to create tragedy.

Noesner—the retired former chief of the FBI negotiation unit and author of Stalling for Time: My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator—led negotiations with the Branch Davidians for the first half of the stand-off.

Under his watch, 35 people including children were allowed out of the Mount Carmel Center where David Koresh's devotees lived.

"We had conflict within the FBI as the best way to resolve the incident," he told Newsweek. "There was a sort of a head butting between my branch and the tactical teams that wanted to exert an ever-increasing level of pressure.

"I was able to prevail for the first half of it, but it was taking time, costing a great deal of money and they decided to go with a more confrontational approach. They went forward with another strategy at that point. No one else came out."

Noesner said external pressure—from the media, FBI headquarters, and Washington, D.C.—made it difficult to keep the situation calm: "I think those factors and others drove some bad decision making that would run counter to long-standing FBI practice."

One narrative of what happened at Waco is that the federal agents failed to understand who and what they were dealing with.

Koresh's group was a millenarian split-off from the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and he believed in a looming apocalypse, telling his followers that the U.S. government would one day come for them. They stockpiled weapons and ammunition in preparation.

Noesner said it was "pure nonsense" to suggest the FBI lacked knowledge of the group or the understanding of how badly wrong things could go. He noted that the memories of the 1978 Jonestown Massacre informed their planning.

"We didn't pretend like we fully understood it," Noesner said of Koresh's religious theory, adding that his negotiation team quickly realized "we were best to stay away from that topic as much as we could."

Instead, Noesner said his team tried to be "genuine, sincere, cooperative," though added that the agitation of some tactical units made this job more difficult.

"You cannot argue somebody out of their core foundational religious beliefs," he said. "We didn't really think we were going to have a grand solution, rather we wanted to slowly erode."

Bill Pitts, an academic at Baylor University and a leading expert on the Branch Davidians, said Koresh's religious beliefs "just didn't make any sense" to federal forces, regardless of how long they listened for.

"They felt like they were not heard," Pitts said of the Branch Davidians.

And beyond Noesner's team, other influential players knew less. "A lot of information that politicians might have benefited from was not passed along to them," Pitts said.

"They were shielded from some of the things going on...I do think there was certainly a lack of understanding of these people, what their goal was, what their purpose was."

Gary Noeser and David Thibodeau Waco event
Retired FBI hostage negotiator Gary Noesner (top left) and Waco survivor David Thibodeau (top, second from left) are pictured with actors and producers during a media event for the 'Waco' television series on January 15, 2018 in Pasadena, California. Phillip Faraone/Getty Images for Viacom

Media and lawmakers demonized the Branch Davidians and leader Koresh before, during, and after the crisis, framing them as unstable extremists yearning for an apocalyptic event.

President Bill Clinton, for example, dismissed any suggestion of wrongdoing by federal forces. "I do not think the United States government is responsible for the fact that a bunch of religious fanatics decided to kill themselves," he said shortly after the incident.

All those who spoke to Newsweek said the dehumanization of Mount Carmel Center residents during the siege made a peaceful resolution less likely, and continued dehumanization afterward made it difficult for the wounds to heal.

Echoes of that media frenzy and moral outrage can be seen now in coverage of the QAnon phenomenon in the aftermath of January 6, or the Black Lives Matter movement and its leftist allies after violence and vandalism on the edges of last summer's protests.

Both Noesner and Thibodeau noted the parallels.

"These are just people," Thibodeau said of those who died at Waco. "These are not crazy satanic radical religious people, and that was the impression that the FBI, the ATF gave everyone. It took the FBI 51 days to control everybody in this country.

"They had 51 days of conditioning and demonization against the group, so that when you're seeing that radical thing that took place, your impression was: 'Those people are crazy and they're probably getting what they deserve.'"

Thibodeau noted 19th century Sen. Henry Clay's famous quote on the abuse of power: "The arts of power and its minions are the same in all countries and in all ages. It marks its victim; denounces it; and excites the public odium and the public hatred, to conceal its own abuses and encroachments." This remains as true now as it was then, he said.

Noesner has also pushed back against demonizing those who died.

"David Koresh wasn't a bad person," he said. "He was a manipulative narcissist, you could say an evil guy...but his followers were really sincere and genuine people—maybe simplistic, maybe naive—but they weren't inherently criminals or bad people. They didn't deserve to have the kind of ending that they faced."

Noesner and his colleagues were unable to reach Koresh and the Branch Davidians. Eighty-six people died over the course of the siege, whether in the initial failed ATF raid or when agents used CS gas to try and force the Branch Davidians from their compound.

What happened on the final day is still debated, but several fires started simultaneously within the compound and burned out of control.

Thibodeau and others allege the fires were started by pyrotechnic rounds fired into the building rather than being set by the Branch Davidians, who the government blamed for causing the blaze.

Many burned to death or were crushed by falling debris. Thibodeau and others say several children were suffocated by the CS gas fired into the buildings by federal agents, despite warnings of its deadly effect in enclosed spaces.

Several, including Koresh, either shot themselves or their fellow devotees as the fires closed in. Others had already been shot dead by federal officers in the initial raid.

No federal agents faced charges over the raid, and civil suits brought by surviving Branch Davidians were dismissed. Ten surviving Branch Davidians were imprisoned for a range of offenses, including voluntary manslaughter and firearms offenses.

"The hardest thing to deal with, with Waco, other than obviously the loss of the children, the loss of my friends, is the lack of justice there's been," Thibodeau told Newsweek days after the 28th anniversary of the tragedy, and also just after the conviction of Derek Chauvin, the former police officer who murdered George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020.

This sense of a lack of justice, he said, is a persistent seam running through American history and a driver for people like McVeigh, one that could motivate others to extremes—whether on the left or the right.

"The one thing I've learned through my experience is anything that is an extreme viewpoint of the world is dangerous," he said.

"I don't care if it's religion, or if it's politics, or your outlook on social events. If you're not willing to listen to the other side because your mind's already made up you're doing yourself and your country but a great disservice.

"We're the greatest country on the face of the earth, why can't we find solutions to these problems of ours? You're not going to get it from one side screaming so loudly that no one can hear the other side.

"We got to start talking to each other, we're going to start listening."

Thibodeau said Americans should refocus away from each other and on the "one, two, three percenters that own all the press and that are manipulating us into this extreme way, into these extreme viewpoints. And maybe we have to hold them accountable."

Media played a significant role in Waco. A Treasury Department report in the aftermath of the assault said media organizations published "false or misleading public statements" given by the ATF and FBI, and that media conduct ″posed a substantial danger not only to the security of ATF's operation but also to the lives of agents and civilians alike."

American news media has steadily grown more partisan and less trusted since the 1990s, a situation exacerbated by the advent of 24/7 news channels and social media. The media divide is helping fuel partisan anger, fomenting fresh violence, Noesner said.

Those on the fringe right have "a whole reinforcing conservative news media entity that tells them that the election was stolen that tells them that there's people in the government that are trying to thwart the president," he said.

"Each side tends to categorize opponents in their most troublesome form. We've lost our ability to think about a difficult challenging topic in a rational way...It's a big challenge and it's not going to change overnight.

"White men like me are seeing their historic dominant place change. They're not happy, they're not sure why."

Pitt said a potent "sense of resentment" has permeated U.S. politics, in which the "winner takes all." This, he warned, "does not bode well" for American democracy: "Think about what we've created, and how easy it is to destroy."

This resentment will breed desperation and violence in 2021, as it did in the aftermath of the Waco disaster.

"After Waco, the right-wing militia anti-government movement had a significant surge," Noesner said, though he suggested it was dampened down by the Oklahoma City bombing, especially the killing of children.

It remains to be seen which direction the fringe far-right groups will take in the aftermath of January 6 and under the Biden Administration, and the summer, as COVID restrictions loosen, is a potential flashpoint.

The fear of political violence is "probably the only thing that I agree with when it comes to my government," Thibodeau said.

Waco Mount Carmel Branch Davidians burns raid
The Branch Davidians' Mount Carmel compound outside of Waco, Texas, burns during the raid by the ATF on April 19, 1993. Greg Smith/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images