by Anthony Gregory

Seventeen years ago, on April 19, 1993, the FBI finished off its siege of the Branch Davidians’ home just outside Waco, Texas, by pumping poisonous and flammable CS gas into a room filled with women and children, driving a tank through the wall, throwing incendiary devices at the survivors and, most likely, spraying them with machinegun fire. The conflagration that engulfed the lives of seventy-six people of diverse international and ethnic backgrounds and of all ages, who had been brought together under the fringe but peaceful religious separatism of David Koresh, came at the end of a 51-day standoff that began when the ATF bungled a public-relations stunt in the form of an aggressive raid of the Davidian home, which had been practiced on life-size model buildings and whose planning began in the lame-duck years of the first Bush administration. Koresh could have easily been arrested without all this fanfare and violence – he was an integrated member of the town, and law enforcement had visited the Davidian home and even fired weapons with him at their shooting range – but the ATF had made sure the press would be there to witness their chivalrous swooping in and capture of this menace of Mt. Carmel. Meth lab! Weapons stockpiles! Child molesters! The excuses for this federal militarism in the heart of Texas were numerous and shifting. But when it was all done, a peaceful American community had been utterly destroyed by the U.S. government.

It was an event that crystallized and radicalized populist rightwing anger at the Clinton administration. The left, for the most part, stood by the federal government, swallowed its propaganda about how the Davidians killed themselves, had been a threat to the community, were stockpiling illegal weapons and harboring child abuse. At the White House press conference, journalists applauded the regime. Liberals mocked the religious nuts and began stoking fears that such extremists were not the last. They were thankful to be "protected" by the FBI. Only the most anti-establishment leftists joined the populist right and radical libertarians in their denunciation of this act of governmental mass murder.

As bad as mainstream attitudes toward Waco were in the immediate aftermath, the popular meaning of the massacre was fully inverted through the Oklahoma City incident exactly two years later, on April 19, 1995. This act of mass murder was blamed on rightwing and anti-government extremism, and even on the more moderate anti-Clintonianism of Rush Limbaugh, who himself declared publicly his solidarity with Clinton in bringing the Oklahoma killers to justice. (Just recently, Slick Willy raised concerns that the Tea Parties would breed more Timothy McVeighs.) As for the facts that McVeigh was trained by the government, served the U.S. in the Gulf War, and described the Oklahoma attack as revenge for Waco – this was twisted into a retroactive vindication of the government’s behavior at Waco. As with the blowback explanation of 9/11, the blowback explanation of Oklahoma City with the corollary that U.S. government violence leads to violence at home never got a serious hearing. On the contrary, post-Oklahoma, sympathy for the Branch Davidians became increasingly perceived as sympathy for McVeigh’s cause.

What emerged in the mid- and late-nineties was a narrative of hysteria and paranoia that the populist right, the patriot movement, anti-New World Order types, so-called "hate groups," and the nation’s diffuse array of militia were all part of a rightwing conspiracy to bring down the U.S. government, and only federal police agencies, the rigorous liberal domestic interventionism of the Democratic Party, and a new era of political correctness engineered by our socially balanced rulers stood between order and chaos. This narrative worked in dampening the right’s dissent. While the Contract with America was a Republican scam whose failure could be pinned on the GOP, the anti-Clinton radicalism behind the 1993 resistance to Hillarycare and anger about Waco were most completely neutralized by the militia hysteria that conflated David Koresh with Timothy McVeigh and conservative dissent with anti-American terrorism.

This narrative was suspended during the Bush II era, when the main terrorist threat was seen as coming from abroad, and the Republican administration was busy erecting a 21st century national security state and launching two aggressive wars of occupation purportedly to keep Americans safe from a boogeyman even worse than McVeigh – a boogeyman with an alien culture, plans to conquer America in the name of Islam or kill thousands or more in the attempt to do so, and turn back the clock a millennium. For a few years the left dissented, at times heroically, viewing the conservative wing of America as a danger insofar as it wielded power, not insofar as it protested government. This meant the left’s critiques were far more trenchant and correct than in the 1990s, but at the same time Bushian violence was mostly opposed in the context of respectable public policy disagreements. Most left-liberals saw Bush’s Iraq war as a disaster, but would not dare put U.S. wars on the same moral plane as the acts of 9/11 or Oklahoma City.

There were exceptions. On the fringes of the left, there were grand denunciations of Bush as a fascist, a Nazi, a war criminal. Images at antiwar protests depicted the president with a Hitler mustache. Those on the far left compared Bush to the most despised of all totalitarians, and the center left brushed off this radical rhetoric as harmless and in the spirit of dissent, the highest form of patriotism.

But these radicals were exceptions. In any event, most of the left failed to be permanently radicalized in the Bush years. Waco had been mostly forgotten, and progressives could not be bothered to rethink what they thought they knew about their beloved federal government. They knew they hated Bush, but most Democratic voters would never come to revise their understanding of Clinton’s wars and domestic depredations, or see the Bush term as just a particularly egregious installment in a long series of murderous and authoritarian presidencies – a line of would-be dictators that included most of the left’s favorite modern statesmen from Harry Truman to Lyndon Johnson.

In September 2005, the Bush administration’s response to Katrina taught the leftwing dissidents all the wrong lessons. Instead of reacting in horror to the martial law, the gun confiscations, the use of FEMA and military personnel back from Iraq to tame the people of New Orleans, seeing these as dangerous precedents for the creation of a police state, the respectable left adopted the universal critique that Bush was not doing enough. The government was too laissez-faire. As always, the problem with Republican rule was that it was insufficiently activist – even at the height of an administration that amassed so much power in Washington, unleashed terror upon two Muslim societies, murdered hundreds of thousands of people, and penetrated one traditional constraint upon government after another, we were all supposed to hate Bush mostly because he was too anti-government.

The failure of the left to learn the obvious lessons from the Bush experience – the Actonian axiom that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely – has contributed to the peculiar political dynamic and maddening hypocrisy we see now that the Brown Scare is coming back, perhaps worse than it was in Clinton’s time or even in FDR’s, when the president had a long list of political enemies compiled for purposes of imprisoning them if the right circumstances arose.

It is increasingly often that one mainstream news outlet or another builds on the narrative that the fabric of America is being threatened by out-of-power rightwing extremists. This narrative thrives through the conflation of varying strains of anti-establishment thought and activity, all bundled together to paint a picture of American Brown Shirts conspiring not to erect the modern activist central state, as the Nazis had done, but do tear it down. This hysteria is partisan, and so it is directed against relatively mainstream Republicans, the odd loose-cannon killer motivated by extremism or racism, normal Americans who fear for their country’s economic health under a conspicuously active presidency, and everyone in between who is not ecstatic about Obama’s policies.

How is the conflation of anti-government sentiment and actual violence, including against the innocent, achieved? A contribution from to the new Brown Scare, entitled "A history of anti-government rage and violence" and providing an eerie slideshow of anti-government extremism, is fairly typical. Opposition to Obama’s health care plan is shown to be part of a menacing historical pattern of resistance to the U.S. government – the slideshow includes the Whiskey Rebellion; the New York Draft Riots; opposition to Reconstruction, Integration and Social Security; anti-JFK animosity and the Davidians’ resistance Waco. Some of these events involved violence, others simply peaceful political opposition, but all of it is missing its crucial context – a government at least as belligerent as those standing in dissent. Not that all of it is benign: the Draft Riots, for example, involved violence against the innocent – but so did the draft itself and the way Lincoln militarily pacified the rioters. This part of the story is dropped. In portraying the government in these conflicts as the embodiment of social order, progress, racial harmony, economic fairness and national unity, critics of a government takeover of medicine are practically called out as enemies of all that is good in modern society. Quite tellingly, the Vietnam war protesters are also included in this picturesque story of nefarious anti-government agitation. Even the progressive left’s greatest anti-government cause of the last several generations, the 1960s antiwar movement, is in the crosshairs of the liberal media’s pro-government depiction of American history as a struggle between the mainstream state and the peripheral Americans who oppose it.

(See Pt. 2 for the rest: )