Waco, popular culture and newstatesman.com

Where we are at newstatesman.com and the extraordinary story of David Koresh

This week we asked a lefty blogger called Kate Belgrave to write us an article about John McDonnell’s leadership campaign – it’s a good read and it’s interesting to hear what young socialists in the Labour Party are saying about the lack of a contest to succeed Tony Blair. It also ties in rather nicely with our latest in a series of interviews with deputy leadership wannabes. This week John Cruddas.

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Just two months have passed since we relaunched newstatesman.com and we’re still introducing lots of improvements behind the scenes. We’ve plenty of plans for the coming weeks including forums and podcasting. As always we’re interested to hear feedback on what you like and dislike.

So let’s start with this question: what is a blog? Is it a second rate article posted online? A personal diary of somebody’s very dull life? The rantings of an unelectable right-wing nutcase? An exchange of techy news for and by nerds? Or finely honed column for that most discerning/fickle of audiences, the web-user?

The answer, of course, is all of the above and much, much more. I just pose the question because New Statesman columnist Becky Hogge made the observation that blogs should be a bit like a conversation. I thought I'd try it out. So what do the rest of you think?

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I recently made one of my rare sojourns in the world of popular culture, watching a fascinating documentary on the awful events 14 years ago at Waco. Remember the siege of David Koresh’s Branch Davidians that ended with the deaths of 84 adults and children?

It was one of the most extraordinary episodes of the 1990s – not least because it subsequently became a rallying point for right-wing nutcases like Timothy McVeigh. He chose to conduct the Oklahoma bombing on 19 April 1995 – two years after the FBI decided to put an end to the Waco situation in such a disastrously bloody manner.

What I think was interesting was the way this piece of TV operated. On many levels it was excellent - thoroughly researched, it had managed to bring together a lot of eyewitness accounts from those who had played key parts in the tragedy.

But what was distasteful, to me at least, was the mixture of reconstruction and original footage – it became unclear eventually what exactly you were looking at.

The real drama was in the accounts of people who have been left permanently affected by what they experienced, what they could have done, who they lost.

Plus there was more than 50 days of TV news footage from when the whole debacle began with a bungled bid by the ATF – the bureau of alcohol, tobacco and firearms – to take Koresh into custody because of his arsenal of weapons.

Why the documentary makers had to fake up the rest is quite beyond me – this was a story that required no actors.

But all that aside they managed to take the audience through events more or less as they happened.

There were moments where you were allowed to believe that Koresh wasn’t all bad – if you forgot the armoury of weapons he inexplicably kept in his compound or the fact he was siring children with underage girls and the wives of his followers.

One of his sexual partners was Kathy Schroeder who survived the gun battle and the fire. She still believes in Koresh as a manifestation of God, said she would have considered it an honour to have had his child and was plainly still entirely under the spell of the dead cult leader. That's despite the fact her 29-year-old husband was one of the first casualties, shot as he tried to return to the compound.

People can be incredibly susceptible to manipulation and that's one of my chief objections to this tendency to mix up the real with the 'reconstructed' on TV. It leaves us all in a state of confusion about what was real and what was a product of a programme-maker's imagination.

Ben Davies trained as a journalist after taking most of the 1990s off. Prior to joining the New Statesman he spent five years working as a politics reporter for the BBC News website. He lives in North London.
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As the strangers approach the bed, I wonder if this could be a moment of great gentleness

I don’t know what to do. In my old T-shirt and M&S pants, I don’t know what to do.

It’s 1.13am on an autumn morning some time towards the end of the 20th century and I’m awake in a vast hotel bed in a small town in the east of England. The mysterious east, with its horizons that seem to stretch further than they should be allowed to stretch by law. I can’t sleep. My asthma is bad and I’m wheezing. The clock I bought for £3 many years earlier ticks my life away with its long, slow music. The street light outside makes the room glow and shimmer.

I can hear footsteps coming down the corridor – some returning drunks, I guess, wrecked on the reef of a night on the town. I gaze at the ceiling, waiting for the footsteps to pass.

They don’t pass. They stop outside my door. I can hear whispering and suppressed laughter. My clock ticks. I hear a key card being presented, then withdrawn. The door opens slowly, creaking like a door on a Radio 4 play might. The whispering susurrates like leaves on a tree.

It’s an odd intrusion, this, as though somebody is clambering into your shirt, taking their time. A hotel room is your space, your personal kingdom. I’ve thrown my socks on the floor and my toothbrush is almost bald in the bathroom even though there’s a new one in my bag because I thought I would be alone in my intimacy.

Two figures enter. A man and a woman make their way towards the bed. In the half-dark, I can recognise the man as the one who checked me in earlier. He says, “It’s all right, there’s nobody in here,” and the woman laughs like he has just told her a joke.

This is a moment. I feel like I’m in a film. It’s not like being burgled because this isn’t my house and I’m sure they don’t mean me any harm. In fact, they mean each other the opposite.

Surely they can hear my clock dripping seconds? Surely they can hear me wheezing?

They approach, closer and closer, towards the bed. The room isn’t huge but it seems to be taking them ages to cross it. I don’t know what to do. In my old T-shirt and M&S pants, I don’t know what to do. I should speak. I should say with authority, “Hey! What do you think you’re doing?” But I don’t.

I could just lie here, as still as a book, and let them get in. It could be a moment of great gentleness, a moment between strangers. I would be like a chubby, wheezing Yorkshire pillow between them. I could be a metaphor for something timeless and unspoken.

They get closer. The woman reaches her hand across the bed and she touches the man’s hand in a gesture of tenderness so fragile that it almost makes me sob.

I sit up and shout, “Bugger off!” and they turn and run, almost knocking my clock from the bedside table. The door crashes shut shakily and the room seems to reverberate.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge