30 years after the siege, 'Waco' examines what led to the catastrophe
In the winter and spring of 1993, more than 80 people, including four federal agents and at least 20 children, died in two violent confrontations between federal law enforcement and the Branch Davidian Christian sect near Waco, Texas. Extremist groups have since cited the assaults as evidence for anti-government conspiracy theories. JEFF GUINN writes about it in his new book, "Waco: David Koresh, The Branch Davidians and a Legacy of Rage."
Other segments from the episode on January 25, 2023
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I am Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. This spring will mark the 30th anniversary of the deadly confrontation between federal law enforcement and the Branch Davidian religious sect near Waco, Texas. The two assaults on their compound resulted in the deaths of 82 Branch Davidians including 23 children and four federal agents. The Waco tragedy has been a rallying cry ever since for militant anti-government activists though surviving Branch Davidians have rejected that association, saying their motivations bore nothing in common with right-wing militia groups.
Our guest today, writer Jeff Guinn, has written a detailed account of the Branch Davidian confrontation and its legacy, drawing in part on interviews with federal agents who were barred from talking to reporters for years after the incident and have some harsh criticisms of the operation. Guinn also brings fascinating insights into the theology and distinctive appeal of Branch Davidian leader David Koresh, who died in the assault and fire that consumed the compound. Jeff Guinn is a former journalist and the author of several previous books, whose subjects include Charles Manson and Peoples Temple leader Jim Jones. His new book is "Waco: David Koresh, The Branch Davidians, And A Legacy Of Rage."
Jeff Guinn, welcome back to FRESH AIR.
JEFF GUINN: It's a pleasure to be here.
DAVIES: Let's start with the Branch Davidian theology, which the FBI never quite really got, I guess. And it probably led to some mistakes. You know, David Koresh, the guy at the heart of this, did not found the Branch Davidians, we learn in your book. They were actually an earlier offshoot of the Seventh-day Adventists. Can you briefly explain a bit about this and what the distinctive theology of the Branch Davidians was?
GUINN: The Seventh-day Adventists always believed that there were prophets who came down to Earth or were in human bodies on Earth - might be a better way to say it - and that the end of times would soon come. And when it did, only those who believed correctly would be saved and enter the ultimate kingdom of God on Earth. But in the 1920s, some of the Seventh-day Branch Davidians in Los Angeles decided that their fellow Adventists weren't being faithful enough to the Bible, needed to be stricter. Ultimately, they broke away and founded a new compound in Waco, Texas. They called themselves the Davidians, and they called themselves the Rod - coming from biblical verse about the rod will lead you to the proper place.
They were very strict. They believed that only they really understood what God wanted. And ultimately, after a couple changes of prophets - and each of their leaders was always believed to be a prophet who was bringing new information from God - they ended up being led by David Koresh, the former Vernon Wayne Howell. And what Koresh preached was different from anyone else. The other leaders of the Branch Davidians said that they were given the rule to lead their followers and help the rest of the world understand how to change so that the end times could come. David Koresh preached that he and his followers would bring about a conflict and would make the end of days happen in their lifetimes.
DAVIES: And it's interesting 'cause he was the son of a teenage mom and had learning difficulties in the school. But when he gets involved with the Davidians and begins building a movement, he is good at it. He recruits followers from California and Australia. And what's interesting about this, as I read it, is that it's not - he wasn't the kind of evangelist who just has a way with words and kind of spin flowery rhetoric. People were impressed with the depth and substance of his command of the Bible. Tell us a little about that.
GUINN: One of the shocking things about Vernon Wayne Howell, who becomes David Koresh, is that when he arrives at Mount Carmel, he is a stuttering, stammering 21-year-old who is barely coherent. The Branch Davidians living there, even though they let him stay, think of him as a lost cause. And yet suddenly, he seems to become almost a sponge, absorbing Scripture - and not just absorbing it, but there comes out of him this new confident voice, very clear. Mesmerizing might be a better term. And the only thing they could think, of course, was that was some miracle. He'd been touched by God.
So when he would preach, he would raise issues in the Bible - he would make connections that some of America's greatest religious scholars today say were amazing, that he could put these things together - a line from one passage in an early New Testament verse and show all its parallels to a line in the Book of Revelation. As a preacher, as an interpreter of the gospel, he could convince almost anyone that he understood things no other human understood. It was a great gift.
DAVIES: He was kind of a biblical savant. He was enormously persuasive. And his following grew, and he came to lead the group at Mount Carmel, the headquarters of the Branch Davidians, outside of Waco. He had a wife, Rachel. But as time went on, as he was the leader of the followers among the Davidians there, he kind of dictated some new rules for intimate relationships. You want to explain this?
GUINN: What David Koresh would do for his followers at Mount Carmel is occasionally announce that God had sent him a new light, a new message. The initial messages basically were ways everyone could work better, love the Lord more, and basically make yourself worthy of being saved when the end times came. But gradually, some of these new lights benefited David Koresh and no one else. This is not unique among religious demagogues who claim a special relationship with God.
The first thing he claimed, even though he already had a wife, a 14-year-old girl - pushing legal limits in Texas, but she had her parents' permission, so the marriage was legal. But he announced that God now wanted him to have wives, multiple wives. He pointed out some Scriptural passages that he said back this up, and he claimed that he needed multiple wives because it was his job to sire 24 children, who would become elders and help rule after the kingdom of God's reestablished at the end times.
Then, he further announces that among all the women at Mount Carmel, every woman of childbearing age - and that would be, say, from 12 up - were now his wives and could have sex only with him for procreation purposes. The husbands of these women were forbidden to have sex at all anymore, and Koresh said this was a blessing to them 'cause now they could focus their energies on studying the Bible more and becoming more worthy of the Lord. So it was sex. It was everyone else's wives. And he even decided God wanted him to have the only unit air conditioning in Mount Carmel. Again, he said these were the privileges of the lamb.
DAVIES: So the Branch Davidians were established in this compound at Mount Carmel outside of Waco. And they had decent relationships, it seems, with folks in Waco who knew of them. They were obviously kind of odd, but they even - Koresh knew the local sheriff and, I think, DA. But over time, there was law enforcement interest. And part of it involved this rule that David Koresh made, that he now was the husband of every woman there, and that included some very young girls, really. Was this a clear violation of Texas law? I mean, there was an investigation by the McLennan County Child Protective Services. Give us a sense of what they found and how - what this meant for the Davidians.
GUINN: David Koresh took as his wives little girls as young as 12. He began having some sort of sexual relations with little girls as young as 10. We know this from testimony given later after all the events at Mount Carmel in 1993. Beyond that, the rules of discipline for all children at Mount Carmel came from a passage in the Bible, the old famous one that basically says, spare the rod and spoil the child. Children as young as six months old were paddled for any kind of disobeying, any kind of transgression. One little boy was outside playing, accidentally killed a grasshopper. His mother made him eat it because the book of Leviticus says that you can only kill a living thing if you mean to eat it. This is how seriously, how literally the adult Davidians took the Bible.
Rumors spread that children were being abused physically rather really than sexually at Mount Carmel, and Child Protective Services in McLennan County in Texas investigated. It was very frustrating for the investigators. They would talk to the children, and the children would say everything was wonderful. There was nothing bad happening to them. But some of their answers seemed to be very robotic. When they would try to question the children away from any of the adult Davidians, afterward it would seem that David Koresh knew everything that had been asked and that the children were being coached. They were not able to put a definitive case together.
DAVIES: We're going to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with writer Jeff Guinn. His new book is "Waco: David Koresh, The Branch Davidians And A Legacy of Rage." We'll be back to talk more after this short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF AVISHAI COHEN'S "GBEDE TEMIN")
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with writer Jeff Guinn. He has a new book about the deadly confrontation between federal agents and the Branch Davidian cult near Waco, Texas. The book is called "Waco: David Koresh, the Branch Davidians And A Legacy Of Rage." You know, the federal agency that would try to arrest David Koresh was the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the ATF, and they were investigating violations of gun laws. Explain how the Branch Davidians got into guns.
GUINN: The Branch Davidians wanted to use guns to raise money, initially. They would take semi-automatic weapons, buy extra parts, turn them into automatic weapons and sell them at a considerable profit. It also allowed them to build the stockpile at Mount Carmel for their final battle. They not only had the guns, but they also bought grenade shells and powder. So they built illegal grenades. They had guns against the gun laws. And that meant that the ATF was correct, once they learned about it, that they would plan some kind of operation to get the guns back, to get the guns safely away and to arrest David Koresh.
DAVIES: They started actually doing that to make money. Why were they engaging in target practice?
GUINN: David Koresh wanted to make sure that when the final battle occurred, his followers would be able to fight the way the Book of Revelations said they must. It had to be an all-out battle. His people were going to die, but obviously they had to be ready to kill the agents of Babylon. So this is why practice was needed, so that when the attack came from Babylon, as he was sure it would, his followers could give a good account of themselves before they died. That way God would be pleased.
DAVIES: So this partly explains why this was such a disaster - the ATF's plan to enter the compound and arrest Koresh. They felt that if you had a large force of armed, you know, men from the government, that these religious cultists would immediately cave because they would be intimidated. What they didn't get was that for the Davidians, this was a joyous moment. They were going to die and fulfill the prophecy and return in the kingdom of God. But they had to fight hard.
GUINN: They not only had to fight hard, but they had to die, which sounded a lot better in theory than in practice. During the actual ATF raid, when the first Branch Davidians were shot and badly wounded, their screaming really disconcerted the other Branch Davidians who were still fighting. They had never really considered, I think, that dying for God involved agony.
DAVIES: The ATF develops a plan to get the jump on the Davidians and arrest Koresh. Briefly, what was the plan? How is it supposed to work?
GUINN: The ATF learned that the Branch Davidians were purchasing, having shipped in to them, different types of materials to change semi-automatic weapons into automatics. And they discovered that the Branch Davidians weren't doing the required paperwork or paying the taxes. That meant the Branch Davidians had a large cache of illegal weapons. They further heard from a couple disgruntled Branch Davidians who had left after Koresh's new lights about marriage and every woman was his wife and so forth that Koresh was actually training his people in the use of these weapons and that eventually the Branch Davidians might actually launch an attack out of Mount Carmel on civilians around Waco, that there was going to be some kind of mass attack or even a mass suicide like the one that occurred some years earlier in Jonestown with People's Temple in Guyana.
So the ATF made the decision they are going to go into Mount Carmel. They're going to raid. They're going to take away these illegal guns, and they are going to arrest whoever is in charge, meaning at least David Koresh. But the ATF agents who are talking now, who have never talked before, all say the same thing. They were given no information about what the Branch Davidians believed, what their religious faith meant. They thought they were going in to basically pick up a bunch of sheep-like, deluded, stupid people who were following an, you know, obvious demagogue. They thought, from their sources, that all the guns were kept in a locked room at Mount Carmel, a room that could only be opened with Koresh's permission.
Problem was the people who were telling them this hadn't been at Mount Carmel for over a year. In the interim, David Koresh had passed out most of these weapons. And everyone at Mount Carmel, which was just a huge building on top of a hill, had their own guns and magazines of ammunition in their rooms, meaning they had a complete 360-degree field of fire if they ever wanted to shoot at any intruders. ATF planned to simply sneak 76 agents up onto the property in a couple cattle cars - something you see a lot of around the Waco farm country. ATF agents in battle gear would jump out, knock down the front door at Mount Carmel and overwhelm the Branch Davidians before they could get to their gun room and open the door.
DAVIES: So the ATF plans to bring this, like, 76 agents in these two cattle cars, which are places where - they're covered with a tarp. They aren't even able to stand up, and then hop out. They think they're going to quickly surprise these Davidians. We can't go into all of this here, but they lost the element of surprise. Even though they had agents nearby posing as neighbors who had actually gone in and spoken with Koresh, somehow, they did not have the element of surprise. And there's a whole story about why that happens. And so they get there thinking this is going to be easy. What happens?
GUINN: The ATF agents in the morning of February 28, 1993, come to Mount Carmel in two cattle cars. They believe they're going to catch the Branch Davidians by surprise. In fact, they've guaranteed their superiors in the Treasury Department in Washington they'll call off the raid if the element of surprise is lost. But unfortunately, a member of the Branch Davidians encounters somebody from a Waco TV station just outside Mount Carmel before ATF arrives. And local media had been tipped that there was going to be an ATF raid. The TV cameraman actually asked the Branch Davidian for directions to Mount Carmel because a government agency was about to raid them. And the Branch Davidian promptly raced back to Mount Carmel, warned Koresh, who sent his followers to their rooms. So when the ATF agents disembark from the cattle trailer, they were met with a hail of bullets. The battle was on, and nothing was going to stop it because the Branch Davidians believed their time had come, and God was honoring them by allowing them to kill for him and to die for him.
DAVIES: So they think they're going to make this easy. Instead, there's gunfire. You make the point that nobody is sure to this day who fired first. But there was a heavy exchange of gunfire - several gun battles, really - and then a truce finally called, and the ATF folks retreated. What were the casualties at that point on the two sides?
GUINN: The gun battle that ensues lasts almost three hours. And in this time, five Branch Davidians are initially killed and a few wounded. Four of the government agents die; 20 more are wounded. Almost one-third of the ATF agents are carried away bleeding or dead from this fight. Two cease-fires don't work; the third finally holds. But before noon on this day, ATF is dragging itself away like a defeated army. And the Branch Davidians inside Mount Carmel are both rejoicing and apprehensive. They're rejoicing because a few of their number have died just as God wanted, and that was the good part. That was the reward. But for the rest of them, they're stuck inside drafty, creepy, uncomfortable Mount Carmel. It looks like ATF or somebody will be coming back to fight them, and they're still alive. They hadn't planned on that. This was supposed to be the ultimate battle. Then David Koresh announces, well, God just told me that it wasn't necessary for anybody else to die right now. But still, everyone expects to die, and it's a standoff.
DAVIES: All right. Let's take another break here, and then we'll continue our conversation. Jeff Guinn's new book is "Waco: David Koresh, The Branch Davidians, And A Legacy Of Rage." He'll be back to talk more, and we'll hear some tape of Branch Davidian leader David Koresh during the standoff in Waco after this break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF BILL FRISELL'S "LIVE TO TELL")
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I am Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. This spring marks the 30th anniversary of the deadly assault by federal agents on the Branch Davidian religious sect near Waco, Texas, which killed 82 people including 23 children and four federal agents. Our guest, writer Jeff Guinn, has written a new detailed account of the confrontation as well as the events that led to it and its legacy as an inspiration to militant anti-government groups. Guinn relied in part on interviews with federal agents who were critical of the planning of the operation but were prevented from speaking with reporters for years after the assault. Guinn's book is "Waco: David Koresh, The Branch Davidians, And A Legacy Of Rage."
You know, I thought we should hear a little bit of the voice of David Koresh. And what we're going to hear is a scratchy recording that was made by Koresh during this 51-day standoff that would follow the initial gun battle with the ATF. And he's going to talk about, you know, his own situation. He mentions a Robert Gonzalez. That's his name for an ATF agent who posed as a neighbor and who had gone to Mount Carmel several times and had talked with Koresh to try and gather information. Koresh knew he was an ATF agent and nonetheless spoke to him. So let's listen. This is David Koresh during the standoff.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
DAVID KORESH: I'm the kind of guy that I'll stand in front of a tank. You can run over me. But I'll be biting one of the tracks. No one's going to hurt me or my family. That's American policy here. He could have arrested me any day as I jogged up and down this road. He could have arrested me going to town and going to Walmart. The two agents (ph) across the street over here - Robert Gonzalez. I love the guy. I was honest with him. I brought him into my home. You know, he wanted to tour around the place. I promised him a tour. He could have talked to any of these guys around here, anybody. He was free to come and go as he chose. God speaks to me. I have a message to present. You may not (ph) believe that.
DAVIES: And that is David Koresh inside of his compound in Waco while he was surrounded by federal agents. We should note that David Koresh, he was wounded in the battle - right, Jeff Guinn? - had a - was hit on his side. He had chipped a bone in his hip and then also in his thumb and fingers. So he was not comfortable here. He makes an interesting point here. Why didn't they arrest him outside the compound? Would there not have been an easier way to do this?
GUINN: ATF could have and should have arrested David Koresh outside the compound. They bungled it completely. He left the compound frequently. This never should have happened. He should have been arrested away from the property.
DAVIES: Painful to think about. So what happens after the gun battle where the ATF has agents who were killed and wounded is the FBI comes in and takes over. This is obviously a disaster so far. And they back off, establish a perimeter around the property, established phone communication with Mount Carmel, and begin negotiations with David Koresh. This lasts for 51 days. How does it go?
GUINN: It doesn't go well. From the beginning, the FBI, just as had been the case with ATF, did not understand what the Branch Davidians believed and didn't think it was important anyway. The Branch Davidians didn't care what the FBI said about breaking laws, things you can't do, because they thought they were doing what God wanted, and the FBI didn't count. There were several false starts. The FBI lead agents decided that Koresh was simply lying about everything and just wanted to drag out the siege because he loved the attention.
Inside Mount Carmel, David's followers were waiting for something to happen. He had promised them that they were going to be translated into great glory. Nothing was happening. Nobody trusted the other side until finally, towards the end, David said that if he would be allowed to write out his explanation of the seven seals of the Book of Revelation and get those out to religious leaders in the country, he and his followers would come out. That was his promise. The FBI didn't believe him and decided something had to be done to end the siege.
DAVIES: Right. Well, I guess he claimed he had finished the first of this writing of the first of the seals, and it was going to take longer. And so they decided things had to be done. You know, it's interesting that, as you describe this, you had a negotiating team for the FBI that wanted to - you know, had a lot of experience with hostage negotiations. They had to consider the kids as hostage. I mean, they wanted to not harm the children but - in this situation. But then, there was a tactical operation of the FBI. People who had a different approach, they thought, you want to put pressure. What did they do? While some were trying to negotiate, others - I gather, without really communicating with each other - were taking steps to intimidate the folks in Mount Carmel.
GUINN: It's pretty intimidating when the FBI brings in all kinds of military vehicles, including tanks, to surround a building. The people inside are not going to feel safe and secure. It was a negotiator's job to keep everything calm. It was the tactical team's job to make sure the Branch Davidians understood the FBI could end this at any time if they really wanted to. There was tension, and eventually, the tactical team went out.
Weeks before the actual end of the siege, the FBI was already putting together a plan to insert CS gas gradually into Mount Carmel. In small doses, it wasn't supposed to be flammable, and it wasn't supposed to really be too physically affecting beyond irritation to eyes and skin. And it would be enough, if inserted gradually, so the Branch Davidians would come out. Ultimately, that was the plan that was approved by the attorney general of the United States, Janet Reno.
DAVIES: CS gas, this is a variant of what we think of as tear gas?
DAVIES: Right. And so they want to get enough CS gas in to drive everyone out. But getting it in is not so easy. It's a big, sprawling compound. How were they going to deliver the gas?
GUINN: The plan was that you would be able to fire the canisters in through the flimsy walls and windows of Mount Carmel, and you could put arms on the end of tanks and kind of drive the tanks up close and then fire in all the canisters. These canisters were about the size of Coke cans, if that would give you a better sort of image of what's going to be flying through the air.
I was told by the FBI's lead negotiator, Byron Sage, that the FBI did get permission to gradually insert the gas, but that his agency actually had a Plan A and Plan B. Plan A was over two days. They'd insert a little gas at a time until the Branch Davidians gave up. Plan B was if the Branch Davidians fired at the tanks and agents as they approached Mount Carmel, they would simply put in all the gas at once and force everyone out. It was a windy, cold day. The canisters first went in. The FBI claimed that there was gunfire from Mount Carmel. Surviving Branch Davidians swear that never happened. But for whatever happened, all the canisters went in. And gradually, swirling clouds of CS gas began to spread throughout the building.
The only heat the Branch Davidians had came from Coleman lanterns, you know, with oil that had to have little flames. Within a few hours, somehow, the gas ignited. It was inevitable it would, there was such an accumulation of it. And the building went up like a book of matches. The fire was almost instantaneous. The flames rose in the air. Of the Branch Davidians left inside, only nine escaped with their lives. No one else came out. Everyone else died in just a flaming hell. It's almost indescribable how horrible it was in there.
DAVIES: How did David Koresh die?
GUINN: David Koresh's body was discovered in Mount Carmel alongside the charred body of one of his lead followers, a man named Steven Schneider. Koresh had been shot in the head. And then Schneider had killed himself, the autopsy showed. He had put his gun in his mouth and fired a bullet. Apparently, it was an agreed-on suicide. And this was taken as proof that some of the Davidians decided they would kill themselves. This wasn't suicide in their minds. They were simply taking the step to translate themselves up to God before the agony of the fire would have consumed them.
DAVIES: Nine Branch Davidians did escape with their lives. Did any of the children escape?
DAVIES: Let's take another break here. We'll talk more in a moment. We're speaking with Jeff Guinn. His new book is "Waco: David Koresh, The Branch Davidians And A Legacy Of Rage." We'll continue our conversation after this break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MATT ULERY'S "GAVE PROOF")
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with author Jeff Guinn. He has a new book about the fatal confrontation between federal agents and the Branch Davidians in their compound outside of Waco. The new book is "Waco: David Koresh, The Branch Davidians And A Legacy Of Rage."
You know, during the 51-day standoff, after the gun battle with ATF agents and before the FBI launched the raid that ended this, this was a huge national news story. And this - of course, this all happened about a year after the Ruby Ridge standoff in Idaho, where, you know, there were deaths at the hands of federal agents and would become a seminal event in the minds of anti-government activists. Did anti-government activists show up at Waco to make a point about what was going on?
GUINN: During the siege, you had basically three categories of civilians crowding around, trying to see what was happening. There were just the usual gawkers who were out for a show. Then there was a group of people who were very pro-government agencies. And four federal agents had been killed. And these were people who were screaming for the religious nuts to come out or die, one of the two. But maybe the most vocal group, the most obvious group, were people who saw in Waco the same things they had suspected in earlier Ruby Ridge about six months before, that the United States government was systematically trying to murder or at least repress gun-owning, law-abiding citizens who had never done anything to hurt anybody else.
There were a lot of militants selling anti-government T-shirts and bumper stickers. One of them - and we have a picture of this in the book - was a guy named Timothy McVeigh, who, two years later, would blow up the federal building in Oklahoma City in protest of what happened in Waco. It was here that Waco became ground zero for future militancy. And Waco would become, to the conspiracy minded, a great symbol of the evil of American government.
DAVIES: You know, the assault - it's obviously a disaster if 23 children are killed. And, you know, one of the things that feeds conspiracies is when government agencies give explanations that then begin to fall apart. And they lose credibility. Tell us what the government's initial explanation of what happened was and how that held up over time.
GUINN: If we ever want proof that trying to cover up small things when mistakes have been made is the worst thing you can possibly do, just look at Mount Carmel in Waco. In the aftermath of the terrible fire, the FBI stated that they simply had done what had been agreed upon with the attorney general, gradually inserting CS gas - it was all non-flammable - and that Attorney General Reno had agreed to it. They lied in that early that morning, they had used some combustible military rounds to insert gas, as well as the non-combustible rounds that they had promised the attorney general. But these military rounds never actually broke into flames. The fire started hours after those rounds were fired. But when the FBI got caught lying about that, then, of course, it made it easy for conspiracists to say they're lying about everything. That was the first small step.
Then you'd have to look at the whole negotiation process. One of the lead agents for the FBI actually said, well, it really wasn't a negotiation, which gave the impression impression, he meant, that, no, we weren't going to let the Branch Davidians talk about their religion when that had nothing to do with the situation. But what it was taken to mean was that we intended to kill them all along. These things caught public attention. And once that happened, and stories kept coming out in the media more and more, it seemed there must have been lying throughout. This had to be the intention of the government, to go in there and kill those people. And it never was.
There are three groups involved in this horrible situation - the ATF, the FBI and the Branch Davidians. It's critical to understand that of these three groups, only the Branch Davidian agenda required people to die. The ATF and the FBI both went in not just with the hope, but with the actual determination that no lives were going to be lost. ATF and FBI officials made terrible mistakes that led to loss of life. And that is horrible. But it was not the original intention. Only the Branch Davidians wanted this to end with death.
DAVIES: Did reporting on these cults that you have reported on and their tragic consequences - did it affect you psychologically?
GUINN: When I work on these books, usually I'm working on them for three years, and I work every day. So it's a 24/7 sort of thing. And writing about Mount Carmel and Waco, I began having nightmares soon after I began talking to the surviving Branch Davidians, and they were talking about the terrible fire and what they had to do to get out of the building. And now, after three years of research and writing, the book's about to come out, and I'm still having the nightmares. I wake up in the middle of the night shouting and screaming, according to my wife. And it's always the same thing about being in a building, and a fire is coming closer and closer to me. I don't know how long it will take for the nightmare to go away. But at least it was only a nightmare. The people who described it to me had to live through it.
DAVIES: Do you think you're going to continue to write stories like this?
GUINN: Well, I don't always write stories like this. I've written 25 books, and quite a few of them don't involve cults or death. But it's simply a fact that in America we seem to have a predilection for demagogues. And that happens in religion. And it happens in politics. And more and more, I become convinced that when you look not just at Manson or Jim Jones or David Koresh, we can see some of the same tactics they use for the people who are running for public office and sometimes quite successfully, you know, saying, I'm the only one that can solve these problems. Listen to me and absolutely no one else. And if you don't do everything I say, you're a sinner, you're a traitor. Maybe if we study Manson and Jones and Koresh a little bit more, we'll choose a little better in terms of who we elect to lead us. At least I hope that will happen.
DAVIES: Well, Jeff Guinn, thank you so much for speaking with us.
GUINN: Thank you for the opportunity.
DAVIES: Jeff Guinn's new book is "Waco: David Koresh, The Branch Davidians And A Legacy Of Rage." Coming up, David Bianculli reviews the new series "Poker Face," starring Natasha Lyonne. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF FLORATONE'S "FRONTIERS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.