Over the weekend I was reviewing some old VHS tapes I keep for reference from a previous century, and I came across a copy of Linda Thompson’s Waco: The Big Lie. I wrote the following for the May 2000 issue of The North Texas Skeptic. Perhaps this remains pertinent today:
This is not about claims of the paranormal or even about extraordinary claims requiring extraordinary proof. It is about people believing what they want to believe in the face of contrary evidence. It is about people putting aside good judgement and critical thinking and allowing their personal preferences to dictate what is true and what is not. As such, it is rightly a topic for discussion by the skeptics.
The siege and fiery end of the Branch Davidian compound near Waco seven years ago has been a point of controversy ever since. Apologists for the Davidians have maintained the members were innocent victims of an overzealous government. Some have gone so far as to claim the final assault by the government was a calculated move to murder those inside.
One making such a claim was attorney Linda Thompson, who shortly after the fire distributed a video titled Waco: The Big Lie. Scenes and narration in the video attempt to convince the viewer that government tanks using flame throwers torched the building, causing those inside to burn to death.
Professor Ray Eve at the University of Texas at Arlington was called in as a consultant by the attorney for Cathy Schroeder, who was one of the surviving Davidians prosecuted by the government. During the course of his work on the case, Dr. Eve obtained a copy of the video, and he gave it to former NTS President Joe Voelkering for examination.
Joe, who has since died, operated a business investigating aviation accidents and preparing presentations of evidence for court cases. Those who continue to delude themselves will continually find unexpected surprises during cross-examination, and as a result Joe developed a keen sense for putting aside personal preferences and seeing only what the evidence showed.
I viewed the tape, as well, and Joe described to me what was going on. He pointed out the places where severe editing of the tape had placed events out of chronological order to best support the story Linda Thompson wanted to tell. He also pointed out places where large flashes of light were described as flames from the tank (really an armored engineering vehicle). Closer examination showed these flashes were associated with pieces of siding or wall board from the building flashing in the sun.
Others were not so critical in viewing Linda Thompson’s video. Apparently Timothy McVeigh watched the video a number of times and convinced himself that the government had murdered the Davidians. This is thought to be part of his motivation for killing 168 people two years later.
More recently writer Mike McNulty has produced a documentary Waco: The Rules of Engagement. While the story line of Rules of Engagement is decidedly anti-government, it goes beyond offering sympathy for the Davidians. A press release states it “is a shocking film which says that the FBI machine-gunned Branch Davidians at Waco, Texas and committed numerous other rights violations there.” The press release was related to the announcement in 1998 that the film had been nominated for an Academy Award. Siskel and Ebert gave it “two thumbs up,” and it “was named one of the year’s best films in The Los Angeles Times, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, L.A. Weekly and the St. Paul Pioneer Press.”
McNulty’s conclusions regarding the machine-gunning of innocents seem to hang on his interpretation of FLIR (Forward-Looking Infra-Red) video captured by a reconnaissance aircraft flying overhead at the end of the siege. Flashes of light in the vicinity of the building are perceived as muzzle flashes from automatic and other small arms fire by government agents. In fact, a consultant shown analyzing the FLIR imagery is not circumspect in his statements. He uses phrases similar to “Here we see gunfire toward the kitchen area” and “This is a two-second burst from an automatic weapon.”
McNulty is no Linda Thompson. When two NTS members participated in the taping of a McCuistion TV program about the siege recently he was there and repeated the shooting allegations in language less strong than he used in the video. He even had praise for the agents who took part in the initial raid, including Robert White, who was wounded that day and was on the McCuistion show with him.
The NTS has subsequently obtained a copy of the Rules of Engagement video, and at the April 2000 meeting we showed the portions illustrating the purported gunfire. I have some previous experience with FLIR technology and gave my interpretation of what we were seeing. Here is a little background.
FLIR is a remarkable technology. It enables seeing in the dark for all practical purposes. Infra-red film is sensitive to what is called “near infra-red.” This is electromagnetic energy with wavelengths just longer than red in the visible spectrum. What IR film sees is very hot objects or reflected solar IR. In contrast, FLIR sees objects that are barely warm. This electromagnetic energy is low energy and is called “far infra-red.”
In a laboratory demonstration once I switched off the lights and viewed the imagery on a video monitor (which is what you have to do, since the FLIR just produces digitized images). There was no practical difference between lights on and lights off. Everything in the room showed up to some extent, since everything was about room temperature. People produce remarkable IR images. Certain areas of the face and other exposed skin show up lighter because they are warmer. Clothing is darker because it is closer to room temperature. Cold objects are very dark. Place your hand on a surface and remove it. The outline of you hand shows due to the residual warmth.
Outside, the imagery mostly shows the effects of solar warming and residual warmth. Objects that absorb IR readily also readily emit it. The black lettering on the Wal-Mart truck driving by showed up clearly in the imagery. A construction worker’s cigarette was a bright beacon.
I did not retain any of the imagery from my FLIR project, but I do have a shot from a Texas Instruments Web page (see Figure 1). The picture shows a highway and railroad bridge north of Dallas. The shot was made in the daytime, when the sun was warming exposed surfaces. Steel structures are hot and show very bright in the image. Bridge piers are shaded and show up dark. I have reversed white and black in this image, because the FLIR operators produced the original in reverse mode, showing hot as dark. The black rectangles were injected into the imagery by a target tracking system to show the operator the tracking points. They show up black here, but they were white in the original.
Figure 1. FLIR image from a missile seeker
From the Texas Instruments (now Raytheon) Web site
Other imagery I have dealt with showed automobiles, tanks, and other vehicles, and here is the important point. You can tell by looking at the tires of a car or truck or the treads of a tank whether the vehicle has been moving. The tires and treads are warm and show up brighter.
In the Rules of Engagement video the tank treads show up brighter. The FLIR was sensitive enough to show the extra warmth. In the siege video no shooters show up. “Gunfire” erupts from a patch of ground, supposedly directed at the Davidian’s building, and we don’t see anybody doing the shooting. The FLIR that is sensitive enough to show warm tank treads does not show a warm (98F) person lying on the ground. More so, there is a two-second burst of automatic weapon fire, and we don’t see a stream of hot bullets. A gun barrel that should be too hot to touch does not even register.
Surviving Davidians are now suing the US government for the wrongful deaths of their friends, and they had planned to use the FLIR imagery from the aircraft as evidence. In its defense, the government conducted tests at Fort Hood using similar FLIR equipment plus real gunfire and real shooters.
The results of these tests are now beginning to come in, and it does not look good for the Davidians. The new video shows shooters where there are shooters, and it shows flashes like those in the earlier video where there are no shooters. Science may provide the answer to what has been wild speculation up to now.
In the meantime, Mike McNulty has produced another video, Waco: A New Revelation. We have not seen it yet, but you can get additional information from a Web site devoted to it at www.anewrevelation.com.
It seems everybody has an opinion one way or the other in this matter, and here is mine: Rather than submit to a raid by the AFT and to the surrender of their weapons and rather than face arrest on felony weapons charges, the Davidians chose to shoot it out with the feds. For 51 days they held off the inevitable, knowing the government forces would not attack because of the presence of the children. Finally, when the government did force the issue (in a rather stupid and clumsy manner), the Davidians torched their own compound and killed themselves (with some exceptions) and all of the children. Sometimes the truth is as simple as that.
And that was that at the time.
Mike McNulty has since produced another documentary, appropriately titled Waco The F.L.I.R. Project. I ran into McNulty at the taping of a panel program about the Branch Davidian raids, and we subsequently had a couple of go-rounds on the topic. The January and February issues of The North Texas Skeptic carry the details. If you have any comments, check out the on-line references and get back with me.