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World According to Waco: Conspiracy Theorists Flock to Davidian Shrine : Texas: Carloads of people pay homage to site where nearly 80 people died in a fire as federal agents rushed the property. The only remaining resident says visitors are of three types: tourists, religious pilgrims or those who see it as a symbol of diminishing civil liberties.

April 30, 1995|MITCHELL LANDSBERG | ASSOCIATED PRESS

WACO, Tex. — Welcome. World's Most Persecuted Church.

--Sign at Branch Davidian property near Waco

For the last year and a half, Amo Bishop Roden has seen the visitors arrive. They pull up in their cars, their trucks, their vans. They get out, wander around. They try to absorb the spirit of the spooky, ravaged and oddly beautiful place she calls home.

Sometimes, they take jokey pictures of each other amid the ruins. Sometimes, they ask lots of questions. Sometimes, they cry.

"A lot of women cry here," Roden said in a soft voice almost lost to the wind whooshing through a chinaberry tree. "I suppose that'll be the same in Oklahoma when they put a monument there."

It was on April 19, during the dedication of a monument to the perished members of the Branch Davidian religious sect here, that Roden first learned of the bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City.

Many Americans were surprised, two days later, to hear that the FBI had accused Timothy McVeigh, a suspect in the bombing, of carrying it out in revenge for the government's deadly siege of the Branch Davidians. Precisely two years before, nearly 80 sect members had died when fire consumed their multi-building compound.

It didn't surprise Amo Roden in the least. As the last remaining resident of the Branch Davidian's property, she knows as well as anyone just how deeply the Waco tragedy stirred a small but passionate subsection of Americans.

She sees them every day.

"People come for three reasons," Roden said. "They come because they're tourists and they just want to see it, they come because it's a religious shrine, and they come because it's a shrine to the diminishing civil rights, civil liberties, constitutional rights--that kind of thing."

Among those who have made pilgrimages, according to the government, is Timothy McVeigh.

Along with a similar but smaller-scale siege at the cabin of white separatist Randy Weaver in Idaho, the Waco disaster has kindled a potent backlash among many extremely conservative Americans, particularly those in the self-described "patriot" or "militia" movements.

"It's the single most repeated theme used by militia organizers . . . to show that the government is at war with anyone who won't kowtow to it," said Irwin Suall of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, which monitors the militia movement and the far right.

"They're infuriated by Waco," said Angie Lowry, a researcher for Klanwatch, which also monitors far-right groups. "If there's anything that unites the right-wing movements in this country today, it's the 2nd Amendment (the right to bear arms) and Waco."

From the start, Waco was a rallying cry for, among others, neo-Nazi and other white supremacist groups. There may be some irony in this, since the Branch Davidians were multiracial and multiethnic, but leaders of the racist right were able to overlook the group's rainbow hues and focus on a greater enemy: the federal government.

Other officially non-racist militia groups were formed in the months after Waco. Among them was the Texas Constitutional Militia, which, like its counterparts elsewhere, is dedicated to upholding state's rights--at gunpoint, if need be.

"It was a galvanizing situation," spokesman Ralph Turner said. "People said, 'We were concerned before, but now the government has proven what it's capable of doing. . . . We will not allow government agents to run roughshod over the citizens of this nation and kill them for no good reason.' "

Turner was among the militia members at the April 19 ceremony, in which he helped dedicate a granite monument donated by a Texarkana branch of the Texas Constitutional Militia. It says, in part:

"On Feb. 28, 1993, a church and its members known as Branch Davidians came under attack by ATF and FBI agents. For 51 days the Davidians and their leader, David Koresh, stood proudly. On April 19, 1993, the Davidians and their church were burned to the ground."

Like most of those mobilized by Waco, Turner said he shares no theological bond with the Branch Davidians, an unconventional offshoot of the Seventh-day Adventists. Nor does he believe they were necessarily blameless.

But, he said, "No matter what happened, the government was at fault because they didn't enter into the thing in a proper and humane way."

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms raided the Branch Davidian compound on Feb. 28, 1993, to arrest the sect's leader, David Koresh, on weapons charges.

The ATF alleged Koresh had stockpiled a vast illegal arsenal. It stormed the compound with about 100 agents. In a shootout, four of them died, along with six Davidians.

A standoff ensued for 51 days. When the FBI finally mounted an armed assault on the compound, fire broke out and burned the buildings to the ground. Seventy-nine Davidians, including Koresh and 18 children, died.

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