Waco and Ruby Ridge: the 1990s standoffs haunting the Oregon takeover, explained

To many people, the most notable thing about the ongoing takeover of a federal government building in Burns, Oregon, is what it doesn't resemble: law enforcement's response to groups of nonwhite protesters, which is often much more aggressive even when the protesters are not armed, occupying government property, or issuing vague threats about being willing to respond with violence.

But it's hardly unthinkable that law enforcement officials would respond aggressively to armed white right-wing extremists. In the early 1990s, in two high-profile standoffs at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and Waco, Texas, that's exactly what they did. And it turned out disastrously for them.

If you want to know why the federal government isn't going into the headquarters of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge with guns blazing (or even firing tear gas canisters through the windows), you need to understand the standoffs at Ruby Ridge and Waco, and the mistakes the government learned to avoid.

This isn't to say the events at Ruby Ridge and Waco demonstrate that there isn't a double standard when it comes to law enforcement's response to radical protests. To the contrary.

The federal government learned from these standoffs that aggressive tactics can sometimes lead to a public backlash. But the story of how that backlash occurred is arguably more interesting, and more revealing, than the story of the standoffs themselves.

What happened at Ruby Ridge and Waco, in fewer than 300 words

After the fact, the incidents at Waco and Ruby Ridge have been closely linked in the minds of most Americans — two early-1990s standoffs in which the federal government's aggressive tactics almost certainly cost innocent lives. Indeed, as I'll explain later, many people became aware of them at the same time.

The standoff at Ruby Ridge, which occurred in the summer of 1992, was a relatively straightforward case of a right-wing activist taking a stand against a federal prosecution. (The Spokesman-Review, a newspaper out of Spokane, Washington, has a very clear timeline of the incident.) Randy Weaver had taken his family to live in a remote cabin near Ruby Ridge, Idaho, instead of showing up to court to face weapons charges. US marshals who were monitoring Weaver and his family ultimately got into a firefight with Weaver, a friend, and Weaver's 14-year-old son, resulting in the death of both the marshal and the 14-year-old. The gunfight prompted an 11-day standoff before Weaver and his friend surrendered. But during the standoff, an FBI sniper, attempting to hit the two men, instead shot and killed Weaver's wife as she held the couple's 10-month-old child.

The Waco siege in early 1993, involving a cult called the Branch Davidians led by David Koresh, was much complicated and weirder. (For a detailed timeline of the Waco standoff, I recommend the Frontline documentary from 1995, "Waco: The Inside Story.") Like the Ruby Ridge standoff, it began when law enforcement — this time agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives attempting to raid the Davidians' compound for illegal explosives — ended up in a gunfight. Unlike the Ruby Ridge standoff, however, it didn't end with the surrender of the people under siege. Instead, when the FBI tried to end the siege after 51 days by aggressively tear-gassing the Branch Davidian compound, the Davidians set fires that killed more than 80 people, including 22 children.

In both standoffs, the federal government made decisions that probably cost innocent lives

The federal government didn't start the lethal fires in the Branch Davidian compound at Waco, and the federal agents who killed Randy Weaver's wife and son at Ruby Ridge weren't killing anyone in cold blood. But based on what we know about both standoffs 20 years later, it's fair to say that the federal government's aggressive response to Weaver and Koresh probably led to the deaths of people who hadn't committed crimes and who did not need to die.

In both cases, the federal government made key decisions based on data that was just plain wrong. The standoff at Ruby Ridge might never have happened to begin with if the federal government hadn't exaggerated to itself how dangerous Randy Weaver was: As the director of the FBI, Louis Freeh, later said, "One misstatement of fact exaggerated to another one, into a huge pile of information that was just dead wrong."

The next year, at Waco, bad intelligence didn't launch the standoff — it ended it. Attorney General Janet Reno made the decision to tear-gas the Branch Davidian compound based in part on reports that children were being abused by Koresh and the Davidians during the siege. Those reports came from the FBI — presumably from an agent who knew that fighting child abuse was one of Reno's priorities. But they didn't come from the FBI director — he knew the reports to be false.

More fundamentally, however, at both Ruby Ridge and Waco the federal government simply made decisions that were more aggressive than they needed to be. The snipers at Ruby Ridge — like the one who killed Randy Weaver's wife — had been given rules of engagement (it's not clear by whom) that encouraged them to shoot on sight. And the decision to end the siege at Waco — provoking the lethal fire — was largely made because the FBI felt that taking decisive action would make the agency look strong.

"The FBI was of a mentality that letting this thing drag on was making the agency look weak," says historian Robert H. Churchill (who's written a book on the militia movement called To Shake Their Guns in the Tyrant's Face). "And I think they just really did not understand how much worse things could get. A lot of the time in law enforcement, there is this mentality that it's their job to take control of a situation through aggression. That's the first response they're trained in. And in Waco that clearly ended up being disastrous."

In Waco, the government's decision to take the aggressive route was all the more tragic because there were agents on the ground urging patience. As a 1996 New Yorker article about the FBI pointed out, the rise of anti-government groups had exacerbated a culture clash within the agency: "The tactical agents, whose job was essentially to heat things up, found themselves increasingly at odds with the negotiators, whose aim was to cool things down."

The culture clash hit a low point at Waco. The negotiators felt that every time they got somewhere with Koresh or other Davidians, the tactical team undermined them by making another aggressive move. The tactical team basically accused the negotiators of being on Koresh's side: Someone left a graffiti message in one of the team's porta-potties, "Sage [the name of one of the negotiators] Is A Davidian."

The negotiators lost the argument. But many of them still believed afterward that they could have prevented a disaster. "If, from the very beginning at Waco, we had exercised the infinite patience" that negotiators had used in other circumstances, lead FBI profiler Clint Van Zandt told the New Yorker in 1996, "there's a good chance those women and children would have come out, one by one."

Initially, Americans totally supported the federal government's actions

A lot of what we know now about the missteps at Ruby Ridge and Waco come from subsequent investigations. At the time, even though both were covered by the national news — especially Waco, because of how long it went on and the weirdness of the Branch Davidian cult — neither was seen as a huge controversy. Most Americans supported the federal government's actions: Immediately after the end of the Waco siege, 70 percent of Americans said they approved of the actions the FBI and other government authorities had taken in the standoff.

The reason was simple: People assumed that anti-government extremists like Weaver or cult members like the Branch Davidians must have provoked the federal government into an aggressive response. "It was very easy [to think], 'Fuckin' white supremacist sends his kid out to shoot at the federal government, he gets what he deserves,'" says Churchill of Ruby Ridge. Indeed, he says, that was what he believed himself until he started reading up on the incident.

Furthermore, the aggressive tactics used in both Ruby Ridge and Waco were standard procedure for law enforcement officials. That was especially true when dealing with radical political groups: In 1985, Philadelphia police bombed the headquarters of the black militant group MOVE, killing 11 people (including six children) in the ensuing fire. And the FBI was certainly comfortable using force to resolve criminal hostage situations, which is essentially how it treated both the Waco and Ruby Ridge standoffs. The FBI sniper who killed Randy Weaver's wife was on the agency's Hostage Rescue Team, and the government agents managing the Waco siege assumed that David Koresh wasn't allowing his followers to leave the compound.

But while Ruby Ridge and Waco seemed totally standard to the FBI — and totally justified to the American public as a whole — they became enormously significant to the growing right-wing militia movement. As Churchill told Vox:

Ruby Ridge and Waco were perceived as being part of a much larger wave of paramilitary-style policing, which had been done in the inner cities in the war on drugs for decades but was just in the 1990s beginning to be employed to enforce gun control laws, and being employed in more suburban and rural areas. People were hearing about Ruby Ridge and Waco, but they were also hearing about the ATF kicking in a door at 5 am much closer to home, or hearing about the ATF raiding a local gun shop with weapons drawn, telling all the customers to get on the floor.

So there was a perception that this style of violent policing had been unleashed, and, particularly for people who had been involved in the gun rights movement, was being targeted particularly at people like them. Waco and Ruby Ridge became, pretty much, symbols of what could happen to anybody.

The Oklahoma City bombing was intended to get Americans angry about Waco. That's exactly what happened.

One of those right-wing activists particularly angry about the federal government's actions at Waco was Timothy McVeigh — who, on April 19, 1995, bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma.

McVeigh clearly conceived of his attack as vengeance for Waco. He later told federal investigators that he had considered a strategy of targeted assassinations of people involved in Waco (including Janet Reno). But neither he nor accomplice Terry Nichols issued any public statements about the cause of the attack. Instead, they simply picked the date carefully — April 19, 1995, the second anniversary of the end of the Waco siege — and let the American public figure out the connection.

It totally worked. Mass media outlets, trying to explain to the American public just why people like McVeigh and Nichols were so mad at the federal government, ended up giving the Ruby Ridge and (especially) Waco standoffs the critical treatment they hadn't been given two to three years earlier.

And American public opinion divided fast. As noted by author Brigitte Lebens Nacos, immediately after the Oklahoma City bombing, "nearly three in four Americans approved of the actions of the FBI at Waco." Three months later, two in four Americans disapproved. And that split persisted through the rest of the Clinton administration. A solid quarter of the American people had changed their minds about events that had occurred a couple of years earlier, due to the grievances of a pair of domestic terrorists.

It's not that people were sympathetic to McVeigh and Nichols themselves — in fact, Churchill says, the militia movement "probably lost two-thirds of its membership overnight" after the Oklahoma City bombings, as a lot of people were turned off by the actions of people who shared some of their beliefs. But McVeigh and Nichols managed to ignite a public debate that ended up making a lot more people sympathetic to their grievances. In a post-9/11 world, it's nearly impossible to imagine a terrorist attack that kills hundreds of Americans causing America to look seriously at the terrorists' complaints. And this is where it's fair to start wondering if, perhaps, this would have happened if McVeigh, Nichols, and the movement they represented weren't overwhelmingly white.

By 1996, the federal response to right-wing militia standoffs was completely different

The federal government — especially Congress — responded very quickly to the shift in public opinion. By summer 1995, congressional investigations had been announced into both Ruby Ridge and Waco. With one hand, the federal government responded to the Oklahoma City bombing by passing the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (the same law that, 20 years later, would help spark the occupation in Oregon) — but with the other, it was quietly changing the way the FBI responded to standoffs with right-wing militia groups.

For one thing, the congressional investigation of Ruby Ridge spurred the FBI to change its "rules of engagement" for agents in the field — no longer permitting them to shoot on sight. Instead, the standards for FBI agents were brought in line with Supreme Court precedent regarding justifiable use of deadly force by law enforcement: Officers had to believe, and be "objectively reasonable" in that belief, that they were under deadly threat. While this standard has come under attack especially over the past two years for giving local police officers way too much latitude in killing African-American men, it appears to have substantially changed how willing the FBI was to use force in standoffs with white militia members.

Just as importantly, though, the internal power struggle within the FBI was decisively settled in favor of the negotiators — and their strategy of "infinite patience."

In 1996, in fact, the FBI got a chance to show off its new and improved approach toward standoffs with extremists, when a group called the Montana Freemen started a standoff with federal officials rather than get evicted from a foreclosed ranch.

Stuart A. Wright, a criminologist who's studied the militia movement (and who consulted for Timothy McVeigh's defense team), explains what happened next: "The FBI waited them out. They didn't push it. That thing lasted 29 days longer than Waco, and they walked out. Nobody was harmed. That's the model for how to conduct one of these kinds of standoffs."

The FBI hailed the Freemen standoff as a huge victory for its new approach. And it's clearly the playbook the federal government used in its standoff with Cliven Bundy in 2014 — where not only did no one die, but no one was even arrested after the fact. But according to Churchill, in playing up how nonconfrontational the standoff in Montana was, the FBI was leaving out a major part of the story: Other militia groups were threatening the FBI with violence if they spilled any blood in Montana.

"There were local FBI offices who had contact with these groups routinely, just to keep lines of communication open," Churchill explained. "What was coming from these groups all around the country was, 'If you assault the Freemen and people get killed, you need to watch your backs, because we're going to come after you.'"

"I can't tell you how much of a role that played in the FBI's thinking," Churchill added, "but it had to have played some kind of role."

That's one indication that the lesson the FBI learned after Ruby Ridge and Waco — or, rather, after the Oklahoma City bombing changed public opinion about Ruby Ridge and Waco — wasn't actually that using aggressive tactics in standoffs would cause blowback. It might simply have been that upsetting the militia movement was a bad idea.

When I asked Churchill if the FBI's response to the Freemen standoff showed that the agency had decided it shouldn't make martyrs out of people — even if those people wanted to be martyred — he agreed that was true, but only for particular kinds of people. "Particularly, the federal government has learned that doing this on a large scale in the public view can backfire really badly. It's not like there aren't people's doors getting kicked in at 5 am for various reasons, and it's not like people don't die in those raids. But they're not taking down whole groups."

Waco and Ruby Ridge are still the creation myths of the modern militia movement

The resurgent, Obama-era militia movement, for its part, doesn't exactly dwell on standoffs with the federal government that didn't end in martyrdom. "It's funny," says Wright, the criminologist. "Among academics, Montana Freemen is pretty significant. Among militias, you never hear it talked about."

Waco, on the other hand, is just as potent as it was 20 years ago. "It's their primary symbolism," Wright says. "It's the point at which they want to portray the federal government as evil."

This isn't a simple matter of ideological fellow feeling: The militia movement has much more in common with Randy Weaver of Ruby Ridge than with David Koresh. Waco is a symbol because the government's errors were more egregious, and because they arguably resulted in the deaths of 22 innocent children.

"They always want people to remember that, hark back to that," Wright says. "Those are very important to them."

But the reason Waco and Ruby Ridge are so important to militia members is totally different from the reason they're important to the federal government.

To the government, they're a lesson of "never again" — an incident that damaged public trust so badly that they changed the way agents respond to similar situations in the future. To the militias, they're a lesson that things like this can happen at any time — that this is what comes of standing up to the government.

That creates a tension, such as the one we're seeing in Oregon right now. Militia members are determined to die for their cause — or at least, they claim they're willing to. That's exactly what the federal government doesn't want to happen. Because it's learned that the American public, while it's generally supportive of law enforcement taking down extremist groups, can be persuaded to think twice. Sometimes.