David Koresh and the Myth of the Alamo

Perhaps the long cult standoff could have happened anywhere, but there are unsettling reasons why it happened in Texas.

One day it was the star of David flag that snapped in the wind over David Koresh’s compound near Waco. The next day, after at least 86 people, including 17 children, had gone up in smoke, it was our own flag, Texas’ Lone Star, that flew at half-mast above the Ranch Apocalypse.

The sight of our flag presiding over the conquered compound was evidence of what many of us in Texas had tried to deny throughout the 51-day siege—that somehow this tragedy had its twisted roots on our common heritage. Like many people, I told myself that the standoff could have happened anywhere. Even though Koresh was a Texan, many of his followers came from Australia, Britain, and Hawaii. I took solace in the fact that a New Age religious sect—also driven by the possibility of an apocalyptic end to an evil world—has put down stakes in Montana, near Yellow Stone National Park. Jim Jones retreated with his followers and deadly Kool-Aid to the rotting jungles of Guyana. Neither Texas in general nor Waco in particular has the sole franchise on fervent, bellicose, religious wackos.

And yet hidden behind the wisps of smoke and the screen of death in the days following the inferno was the conflict that has long contributed to Texas’ historical burden—the conflict between the individual’s right to mete out his own brand of frontier justice and the community’s right to live in peace. In the end, it didn’t matter that Koresh could have isolated himself on a distant prairie outpost in any other state, just as in 1963 it didn’t matter that John F. Kennedy could have been assassinated anywhere. The fact is, both events happened here, and they are now part of the sorrow of our collective memory.

That memory begins with and is still dominated by the Alamo. Unfortunately there are comparisons between the Alamo and the Branch Dividian compound. On the surface, William Barrett Travis, who commanded the forces at the Alamo, and David Koresh had some things in common. Both had strong internal visions of themselves. Both were young men—Travis was 26, Koresh was 33—who led military operations. The morals of each were open to question. When Travis moved from Alabama to Texas, he left behind a pregnant wife and a child. He had many love affairs and found comfort with prostitutes; at least once he contracted a venereal disease. Koresh’s sexual predilections—his multiple partners, his pedophilia, his physical abuse—are by

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