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.
Allen Croft, fresh from losing his job over his complaints about his boss' employment of illegal immigrants, traveled from Rocky Face, Georgia, to attend the ceremony.
"Most people are asleep. They're 'sheeple' [part sheep, part people], but there will always be someone who remembers and will fight this," he said.
He gestured toward the assembled reporters besieging Mount Carmel with notebooks, satellite vans, cameras, and microphone booms. "All this, and I bet not even 10 percent of these interviews will be used on TV or in print. Anyone who wants the real news should listen to shortwave radio."
There were several Branch Davidian survivors on hand, none more prominent than Clive Doyle, the new trustee of the Davidians' church. Doyle is a dumpy man, so soft-spoken that his comments at an impromptu press conference were muted by the phalanx of television reporters and constant breeze. He has a propensity to weep while he speaks to crowds.
Doyle ended Wednesday's inaugural sermon, which focused on the fiery destruction of the Jewish temple at the hands of the Babylonians, by saying: "I just hope we will prove to be worthy to worship here, and I hope you will return to worship with us."
It is easy to sympathize with Doyle, because it is now difficult to see anything that required the immediate intervention of heavily armed federal agents -- especially when supporters view Koresh's headquarters as a church rather than a "compound." That stokes the attendees' fears more than anything; they feel marginalized by mainstream society and the government because of their religious beliefs, which dovetail into politics through gun-control debates and the Clinton administration's tenacious pressing of federal authority.
It was common for attendees to discuss Mount Carmel's strange tenants, distancing themselves from their religion while at the same time supporting their right to worship any way they pleased. Some conservative Christians showed up to defend Koresh's religion, even though it blasphemed their own by declaring him the reincarnation of Christ.
"If they can do it to the Branch Davidians and get away with it, they can do it to the Baptists. They can do it to the Jews. They can do it to the blacks. They can do it to anyone," Alex Jones said. "They had different beliefs. Does that mean we kill them? Does that mean we have to use tanks against them?"
Jones served as master of ceremonies and ringleader. While other survivors and supporters carried themselves with a friendly, if offbeat, dignity, Jones fell into his attack-dog radio persona so often, it became clear he knows no other way to communicate in public.
Sympathizers give him leeway in his angry presentation because he is their most accessible spokesman, and they are stuck with him.
"He has a background in commercial radio, and that probably affects his style," said Julie Hartman, a 41-year-old drug counselor from Austin who, like virtually all of the volunteers, heeded his call to get involved with the Mount Carmel project. "One thing is that he's 26. Just from knowing him during the last few years, I do believe his heart is in the right place, and that he is sincere."
His more lucid comments eventually gave way to gibberish -- berating the media for all manner of coordinated duplicity, alleging that the government orchestrated the Oklahoma City bombing. He pumped his fist and led militant chants from the church pulpit. When he wasn't ranting, his face fell into a slack and bovine stasis, waiting for the next chance to explode into a vitriolic outburst.
"You are the Paul Reveres of our age!" he screamed at the crowd, face slicked with sweat and growing red. "We are going to win! We cannot be stopped! Victory is ours!"
His most ignoble moment came when someone alerted him that a former ATF agent had pulled up to Mount Carmel on a motorcycle. Jones launched himself like a Stinger missile. He had already begun screaming at the man when he realized it was Robert Rodriguez, a former ATF agent who worked undercover to infiltrate Koresh's group before the raid. Rodriguez has testified he tried to convince his superiors to cancel the raid because Koresh had been tipped off.
Jones ripped into him, asking whether he enjoyed sneaking into people's homes to shoot their children, calling him a coward for "hiding behind the government."
"I didn't come here to argue," Rodriguez said. "I came here to pay my respects, for many reasons."
Others recalled Rodriguez weeping at court hearings and admired his personal pilgrimage to Mount Carmel. Rodriguez now rides a shiny Harley-Davidson bike and sports a crisp, unscuffed leather jacket with an ATF patch. His chaps, like his bike and clothes, were spotless. Last year Rodriguez won $2.3 million in damages from the ATF when the agency's leaders and raid commanders tried to paint him as emotionally unstable -- part of their effort to discredit his account of the siege, including his warnings not to raid the compound.
Alex Jones left and returned, seemingly armed with the identity of the biker. "I know who you are. I realize that you're not as bad as the others," Jones said. "They were still misguided Stormtroopers."
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Despite Jones' histrionics, the Patriot movement got a boost from its church-building foray. Their bumper-sticker motto was, "You burn it, we build it."
Judith Vincent, who seven years ago watched ATF agents hoist their flag on the same pole where Koresh's banner burned, volunteered time and materials to make sure a new Davidian flag was hoisted in front of the church. The middle-age woman addressed the crowd in a way that was simultaneously motherly, militant, and calm.
"This entire effort has made me feel good about America again," she said.
She received a standing ovation.