Today marks the twentieth anniversary of an event which Americans will never forget. It was on April 19, 1993 that a fire destroyed the Brand Davidian compound near Waco, as FBI tanks moved to end a dramatic siege which had kept the country enthralled for 51 days.
76 Branch Davidians died in the fire, which was intentionally set by cult leader David Koresh and his lieutenants.
Gary Noesner, who was the FBI negotiator for much of the siege, recalls his thoughts as he was watching from Washington DC as the fire consumed the compound.
"Anger first at David Koresh for not having chosen to do the right thing and lead his people out to safety."
The standoff began with a bungled ATF raid on the compound on February 28th in which both Davidians and federal agents were killed in a blazing gun battle.
It then settled down into a tense, and somewhat bizarre siege. For many days, the federal agents who ringed the compound tried tactics which they had used to try to flush out deposed Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega during the invasion of Panama four years before.
"With the knowledge and experience we had, we could have done much better, and in my opinion, we could have gotten many more people out," Noesner said.
After the raid, 12 Davidians were arrested, some of them were chained to the hospital beds where they had been taken to recover from their injuries. Eight of them were convicted of felonies in a federal court trial in San Antonio the following year, but all have since been released. Many Branch Davidians still live on the site of the compound outside Waco.
For many Americans, the raid, siege, and eventual destruction of the compound was the first realization that the awesome power of the federal government, including militarized force, could and would be bear against civilians who were perceived as being 'different.' In many ways, the standoff was the first step toward many of the divisions now seen in the United States.
For example, before the 1993 Branch Davidian raid, almost no gun owners would say that the reason they own a weapon is to 'protect themselves against the government.' Today, it is the number one reason that many gun owners give for arming themselves.
For Noesner, it also demonstrated that the FBI's old tactics of simply bludgeoning people in a police action, was not good enough for all circumstances.
"You have to have leaders who have the courage to be patient, and innovative, and flexible in resolving these situations."