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WACO -- Standing at the top of the slight rise called Mount Carmel, it is almost impossible to imagine a tank charging up its slope. The windswept hill grants a serene view of the rugged landscape, the normally quiet Double E Ranch Road, and two small ponds so tranquil, they reflect the sky. From the top, it's easy to imagine David Koresh staring contentedly at the empty surroundings, head of a small but soon to be infamous religious sect.
That same landscape was blanketed with cars and film crews last Wednesday, the seventh anniversary of the botched government raid that killed more than 80 Davidians and four ATF agents. While President Clinton and U.S. Attorney Janet Reno inaugurated a memorial for the victims of the Oklahoma City bombing, a smaller ceremony was held at Mount Carmel to dedicate a new church built for the Branch Davidians by volunteers from all over the country.
The idea to rebuild a church at the site began more than seven months ago but snowballed into an effort that attracted more than 1,200 volunteers from 43 states, as well as Australia and Canada. Well-wishers, hearing about the project through radio programs, the Internet, and shortwave, donated $93,000 in materials and cash, according to organizers. The keys to the church were presented to Branch Davidian Clive Doyle, who survived the 1993 fire but lost his 18-year-old daughter on the last day of the siege.
"The government can come destroy buildings, but as long as there is one child of God, they will never destroy this church," Doyle said, his voice cracking, to the crowd of about 300 Davidians and antigovernment activists who gathered to dedicate the church.
Outside the building, a simple white structure typical of rural churches, are memorials to the dead Davidians, the slain ATF agents, and the victims of the Oklahoma City bombing, which was carried out in retaliation for the government's raid at Mount Carmel. The atmosphere on Mount Carmel may have felt like a church picnic on acid, but the event renewed the site's status as the rallying point for the nascent antigovernment Patriot Movement.
"Eleven million dollars was spent to memorialize the 168 people who died in Oklahoma City. President Clinton is there now," said Alex Jones, the blowhard and antigovernment radio talk-show host who spearheaded the church-building project. "That money was stolen from you. This money was given from you, and we built a church with it."
His rough point is well-taken. The Patriot Movement is a fragmented coalition of Constitutionalists, survivalists, militiamen, libertarians, followers of fringe religious groups, and plain old paranoids, all of whom have become accustomed to operating alone. The church-building project was a rare, coordinated effort that reinforced the movement's shared beliefs, providing the kind of comfort in numbers its adherents lack through their rejection of mainstream society. There is no other comparable symbol of their movement that comes close to the permanency, status, and drawing power of the church at Mount Carmel.
Those in attendance ranged from white-bread rural families toting toddlers to a grim contingent of Michigan militia members swaddled in camouflage uniforms, complete with name and rank. Some attendees flew American flags; others called it the "flag of occupation." Many knew one another from previous events or Internet connections; cheerful reunions were a common sight. Any cluster of Patriots could yield pastors, teenage hell-raisers, grimy but smiling hitchhikers, or veterans from myriad wars.
"Thank God these American people won't let this die," said David Thibodeau, one of nine people who made it out of Mount Carmel alive. "They're the only reason we're still here."
Thibodeau acknowledged he felt a distance between himself, as a Branch Davidian, and the new movement coalescing around the site at Waco. Asked whether he felt proprietary toward the use of his religion and his friend Koresh as signposts of the burgeoning movement, he said: "It's hard for me to be out here. I feel guilty about not coming out more and helping Clive more. But it's just not in me. I do find satisfaction that all these people came from across America to build this church...I take great faith in the human spirit."
Thibodeau shares the attendees' fear of and indignation toward a federal government seemingly out of control. The crowd was eager to swap conspiracy theories. Many raised complaints about the deteriorating status of civil liberties under the boot heel of anti-terrorism laws, property forfeiture, crooked politics, and gun control. A great many other alleged acts of tyranny were offered up uncritically: Illuminati world domination, MK-Ultra mind-control experiments, secret drug labs, and weather-control weapons.
Interestingly, the racial makeup of the crowd did not echo that of the Davidians. Roughly one-third of the Branch Davidians were black, and many others were Hispanic. Only a handful of minority men and women attended the April 19 dedication.
The opening of the church on Mount Carmel may revive the fading custom of making a pilgrimage to mark the anniversary of the siege's end. Over the years, according to sympathizers and perennial celebrants, the numbers of people who showed up on April 19 had fallen off. Last week's turnout was not as large as it was the first two years, but it marked a dramatic increase in interest and an important counter to the attention given to the Oklahoma City tragedy. Some made the pilgrimage from as far as Nevada, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania.
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