Waco

Bill Clinton’s invocation of Timothy McVeigh in connection with the Tea Party movement caused me to recall my review of a book on the Waco massacre that was a motivation for McVeigh.  The book under review was Reavis, The Ashes of Waco, and it appeared in the Times Literary Supplement in 1995.  Re-reading it for the first time in many years, I was struck by this section:

[T]here is the post hoc justification for the use of CS tear-gas in the raid offered by the US Justice Department and senior Clinton administration officials. The public generally, and even the Congressional hearings, seem to have accepted that the children at Waco were gassed and then died as, in effect, “collateral damage” in the course of a raid aimed at their parents.

This is not quite the case, however, by the Clinton administration’s own admissions. CS gas was used at the compound, in order, as senior White House adviser George Stephanopoulos said, echoing senior Justice Department statements, to “try and pressure” those in the compound. It was hoped, he said, that as this “pressure was increased, the maternal instincts of the mothers might take over and they might try to leave with their kids” (Washington Times, April 23, 1995).

But the FBI knew beforehand that adults in the compound had gas masks; the gas therefore would not put pressure on them. On whom, then? If the FBI knew that the adults had gas masks, but went ahead with the gas attack anyway, it is plain that this “pressure” was brought directly against the children because, as the FBI knew, they could not fit into adult- size gas masks. “Maternal feelings”, the FBI hoped, would be unleashed in the mothers by watching their children choking, gasping and blistering from the gas.

The plan Reno approved and took to President Clinton for approval contemplated the children choking in the gas unprotected for forty-eight hours if necessary, to produce the requisite “maternal feelings”. By taking aim at the children with potentially lethal gas, their mothers would be compelled, according to the FBI plan repeatedly defended by the Clinton administration afterwards as “rational” planning, to flee with them into the arms of those trying to gas them. [Emphasis added.]

An independent report on Waco written by the Harvard Professor of Law and Psychiatry, Alan A. Stone, for the then Deputy Attorney General Philip Heymann, says it “is difficult to believe that the US government would deliberately plan to expose twenty-five children, most of them infants and toddlers, to CS gas for forty-eight hours”. Unfortunately, however, that appears to have been exactly the plan.

The effect of CS gas on an unprotected infant exposed for only two to three hours is discussed in the report; in that case report, dating from the early 1970s, the child’s symptoms during the first twenty-four hours were upper respiratory; but, within forty-eight hours his face showed evidence of first degree burns, and he was in severe respiratory distress typical of chemical pneumonia. The infant had cyanosis, required urgent positive pressure pulmonary care, and was hospitalized for twenty- eight days. Other signs of toxicity appeared, including an enlarged liver.

Professor Stone’s report is measured, careful and damning. It is hard to know whether Heymann’s courage in commissioning it was a reason for his subsequent departure from the Justice Department. In the mean time, questions about the performance of the Justice Department are treated by the Clinton administration not as serious allegations of criminal activity, but as little more than a below-the-belt salvo in the culture wars.

I was shocked to read in Stone’s report that the Justice Department had undertaken, and had defended in the press as such, activities which if conducted in wartime would constitute war crimes. Because exposing the children to CS gas was the point of the FBI exercise: no children exposed, no pressure.