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Wright speaks at 20th anniversary event of Waco tragedy

wrightIn recognition of the 20-year anniversary of the tragedy at the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Stuart Wright, chair of the Department of Sociology, Social Work and Criminal Justice at Lamar University, was one of several scholars invited to speak at the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University.

The event, “Reflecting on an American Tragedy: The Branch Davidians 20 Years Later,” held April 19 at the Truitt Seminary Powell Chapel, was an opportunity for students and scholars, law enforcement, community members and Branch Davidian survivors to discuss the issue and recognize the lives lost in the 1993 tragedy at the Davidian compound, Mount Carmel.

“It was an attempt to revisit this incident, which has such incredible cultural and historical significance,” Wright said. “There were some Branch Davidian survivors there who were able to attend; it was interesting to hear them speak about their experiences.”

Wright has done extensive research on the Branch Davidians, having published a book, “Armageddon in Waco: Critical Perspectives on the Branch Davidian Conflict” (1995), and at least a dozen articles and essays for various publications.

At the conference, Wright discussed “The Role of State Militarization in the 1993 Branch Davidian Conflict” and its effect on the raid at Mount Carmel. He analyzed the military training the tactical team received at Fort Hood and presented photographic evidence of the military-style tactics used at the scene, including the employment of tanks, CS gas, and military rounds.

“It was Waco that actually changed the structure of the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team (HRT), a type of special-forces-tactical unit,” he said. “At the time, the hostage negotiation team was somewhat detached from the HRT; the HRT had chain-of-command authority. The negotiators were actually having some success in building trust with the Davidians, persuading about 30 people to leave during the first two weeks. But then the HRT would follow these good-faith gestures with provocation, which sabotaged the negotiations. After Waco, the HRT was restructured; the negotiation team and the tactical unit were given co-equal power so that in future stand-offs we wouldn’t end up with the kind of tragedy we had at Waco.”

Wright said part of the aim of his presentation was to highlight how the events at Waco are still relevant today. He said the recent push for revised gun laws, for example, has caused a backlash by members of the gun lobby, who no longer claims they need weapons to protect themselves from criminals, but to protect themselves against an “overreaching government.”

“You don’t need an AR-15 to prevent a burglary,” he said. “Waco is a subtext of the arguments against gun control. Here you have a real instance in American history of the government violently disarming its citizens, and that is the coded message in the resistance to new gun-control legislation.”

Scholars from various universities discussed the religious beliefs and culture of the Branch Davidians and how they may have interpreted the events within their biblical worldview.

Wright said there was a memorial service for those who died at Mount Carmel. Several Branch Davidian survivors attended the service to pay their respects to their lost friends and loved ones.

“It was very emotional,” he said. “These people had their entire lives wiped out – they lost their mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers. Their stories are just incredible, and your heart goes out to them.”

Among the Branch Davidian survivors who attended the memorial service, several were Branch Davidian children who had grown up.

“It was interesting to interview some of those people,” Wright said. “Some of them remember some of what happened, and others don’t remember anything at all. You can tell some of them never recovered, while others simply moved on. But if they were at the memorial, they were there to remember.”