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Machismo and the new masculinity

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Today I watched Waco: The Rules of Engagement.

This seems appropriate since we’re coming up to the 12th anniversary of what some deem to be one of the most tragic events in America’s already spotted history.

(And, by the by, I’m not ashamed to admit that we have a thang for docos these days, especially since La Boîte Noire offers a two-for-one jobbie. We habitually find ourselves grabbing a no-brainer new release, and then heading over to the documentary section in an attempt to mitigate our absolute lack of class.)

I was flabbergasted to realise that the whole Waco incident happened way back in 1993. Now that makes me feel old, because I remember it like it was yesterday. (If by ‘remembering’ you mean a vague recollection of some whacko torching himself and his followers in a church basement. Or something.) But I remember the burning building. I remember the images.

I suspect I was like most people at the time: aware of some kind of bizarre stand-off between the United States government and a group of crazy cultists. The media — hamstrung and drip-fed by the FBI — played up this angle for all it was worth, and there was little sympathy accorded the religious group known as the Branch Davidians or their leader David Koresh.

Next thing you know, four federal agents and over 80 men, women, and children are dead. The church building in which the original stand-off took place is razed to the ground.

The idea is propagated, by both the FBI and the press, that the Branch Davidians started the fire themselves in an act of group suicide.

This is what I had always believed.

Waco: The Rules of Engagement was made in 1997. It is still possible, however, going by the impact this film had on me, to experience the sadness, indignation, rage and disgust — even from this distance — at the way this tragedy was allowed to happen.

What is perhaps more frightening, is the way recent events ripple across your consciousness while you’re watching the movie, creating unsettling echoes and an odd kind of inversed déjà-vu.

For those of you who have trouble remembering the exact sequence of events, or for those who are too young to remember (curse you for reminding me of my decrepitude), here’s a quick run down:

The Branch Davidians were a group with some interesting religious beliefs (this is not necessarily a crime in itself. At least, it didn’t use to be.). It was fronted by a charismatic and controversial leader. They were allegedly stockpiling weapons. (Technically they were “stockpiling” firearms, but as part of a perfectly legal retail trade.)

A flailing and image conscious government agency — The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) — decided to go after the group, in what they intended to be a preemptive strike in order to prevent the Davidians from becoming a danger to the local community. The ATF organized a full-scale raid of the group’s church centre. Complete with press reporters and TV cameras.

The raid was predicated on the element of surprise, but this went seriously awry when a reporter informed the religious group that they were about to be attacked. The ATF (in a scene reminiscent of just about any American action style movie you’d care to name) converged and fired on the Mount Carmel church buildings. The Branch Davidians, in panic and self defense, answered with shots of their own.

Two hours, four dead federal agents and six dead Branch Davidians later, the ATF retreated because they had run out of ammunition.

Koresh and his followers were labeled murderers for their part in the deaths of the four ATF agents, despite the fact that — under the American Constitution — they were simply exercising their right to self defense. They were urged to surrender. The FBI stepped in.

It is worth mentioning at this point, that all of this could have been avoided if the ATF had decided to forgo its violent publicity stunt and simply present its search warrant to Koresh in person. They had ample chance to do so — he was often seen about town on errands. But, in what seems to be a reoccurring theme for American government agencies, it seems they were too far in the shit to see their way clear.

Or to put it another way: the ATF were intent on displaying their clear moral superiority by any means necessary, up to and including a preemptive show of force. Their triumph over the ‘lunatic fringe’ would thereby reinforce their authority and give them a much needed image boost.

Needless to say, it backfired.

The Branch Davidians dug their heels in and holed up. The FBI set up camp. Negotiators were brought in. Media — local, national and international — stationed themselves around the outskirts of the compound. The FBI strictly controlled the flow of information. Towards the end of the stand-off, David Koresh repeatedly asked for access to the media, so that people in the outside world might have some sense of the Branch Davidians. The FBI refused.

Interestingly, the FBI itself allowed a video camera inside the compound, with the express intention of having the religious group tape themselves. The documentary postulates that the FBI did this with a view to discrediting the Branch Davidians further. A kind of: “Yeah, would you just look at these weirdos…? Can you see now why we need to take ’em out…?” In actual fact, the video footage leaves the viewer with the strong (and somewhat destabilizing) impression that these people were sane, intelligent, and caring individuals. Individuals who just happened to have some deeply held beliefs that were a little different from the norm.

The FBI never made this tape available to the media.

As the stand-off continued to drag on, the FBI began to indulge in a little psychological warfare.

Tanks were brought in. After spending part of an afternoon watching members of the Branch Davidians bury one of their dead, FBI agents drove a tank back and forth over the very spot, in a gesture obviously aimed at taunting those inside. At night, the FBI would shine searchlights on the compound and play loud music or high decibel screeching sounds, making it impossible for the Branch Davidians to sleep. (As I was watching this, I was struck by the haunting realization that this exact tactic — sleep deprivation — was used as a form of torture by the US government at Abu Ghraib).

As the Branch Davidians huddled together and wondered if they would get out of this ordeal alive, there is footage of a SWAT team member lounging on the rear seat of a pick up, boasting that he is a “honed, killing machine.” (I think he was chewing on a stalk of grass. Don’t quote me on that, but you get the idea.)

After nearly two months of stalemate, the agents were beginning to choke on their own testosterone. They seemed to be champing at the bit for the chance to use their toys. A plan was hatched in the upper echelons of the FBI, to be carried out on day 51.

On the morning of April 19th, FBI operatives and Delta Force commandos staged a combined armor and infantry raid after relentlessly pumping CS gas into the Mount Carmel church buildings.

CS gas is designed to disperse crowds out of doors who are not in a confined space. It induces burning in the eyes, nose, and throat; nausea and vomiting; and incapacitation. Its use has been banned in American military operations. Yet the FBI deemed it acceptable to use on small children.

Another thing to note: CS gas is flammable. During the investigation of the Waco tragedy, the FBI repeatedly claimed that they never fired a single shot. Infrared footage taken by a plane circling overhead on the day, however, shows flashes of brilliance that look suspiciously like machine gun fire. The flashes come not only from the tanks, but also from what appears to be two agents on the ground, firing into the path of Davidians who were attempting to escape.

Around noon, a fire began that quickly enveloped the church. Seventy-six people, including 17 small children, were cremated in the fire. *

It is impossible to watch the images of the tanks advancing on the church centre, gouging huge holes in the sides of the buildings, and not feel sickened by this scene of aggression and violence, of extreme brute force, against a group who were completely overpowered and made up predominantly of women and children.

And yet isn’t this the kind of scene we’ve been confronted with again and again in the past few years?

As I watched Waco: The Rules of Engagement I began to feel like I was stuck on some kind of nightmarish news loop. Here we go again, I thought: The US government mounts a preemptive attack against a group whom they perceive to be an imminent threat. It engages in provocation, torture, and massacre. It then lies, backtracks, hides — or tries to destroy — any evidence of having done so. It uses damning rhetoric and manipulates the media to make the enemy seem less than human, and having thus dehumanized the ‘enemy’, it asserts its ultimate authority with a display of overwhelming military force.

And this is how the US government acts towards its own people.

Watching Waco: the documentary, I was reminded of the scenes from Fahrenheit 9/11 where young men, barely out of high school, were riding tanks and blaring the Bloodhound Gang’s Fire Water Burn (“the roof, the roof, the roof is on fire…”) from loudspeakers. I was reminded of the belligerent body language of George W. Bush and the way he likes to be photographed in army fatigues, spouting macho phrases like “Bring ’em on”. The way he fashions himself as a protector. A uniter. A religious man:


(I grew up a Catholic, and I know religious propaganda when I see it. And this is priceless. Bush as Jesus? Bush the saint, with his golden halo? You’ve got to be kidding me, right? This picture can be found, by the way, on the White House website).

I find myself asking over and over again: What is this empty posturing? This dangerous machismo? Where does it come from? It is so alien and foreign to me. None of the men I know act like this. And yet it is a kind of Morse code — a Morse code of the body — that I recognize instantly. Instinctively. I know to beware. It is a language we learn very early on.

It is the vernacular of the school bully.

In one of her earliest posts, on the eve of the invasion of Iraq, Beth from the wonderful Cassandra Pages talked about her anger and disgust at the invasion of Iraq by her own government:

The anger persists, and … I realize a lot of it is anger at that particular kind of high-testosterone male aggression that is fueled by revenge. It cannot see the victim, cannot empathize, cannot imagine another way other than striking out with violence. It feeds on itself and on talk with other like members of the species, enlarging, encouraging, exaggerating, moving inexorably toward a violent, cathartic release….

Thanks to Lynndie England women can no longer claim the traditional moral high ground in this debate. But hasn’t Lynndie, along with her fellow soldiers, simply been masculinized to within an inch of their lives?

Haven’t they been merely picked up, crunched, and spit out by the machine?

Is is fair to say that, where once this type of masculinity may have been beneficial to society, it is now more harmful than anything else?

In an ever shrinking world, shouldn’t we all be afraid of a system that promises protection through violence? Who exactly are those in power protecting? And at what price their protection?

Do we need a new model of masculinity? And if so, what would it be? (Mention metrosexuality to the blokes — and gals — above and you’re likely to find your teeth halfway down your esophagus, after waking up in hospital with multiple fractures.)

But really. It’s no joke.

Machismo, the patriarchy, what have you — it’s a frightening beast.

To return to Beth (since she’s the real wordsmith here):

I believe that what we’re seeing now are the last, desperate acts of the remaining believers in patriarchal systems. Dying patriarchies reveal themselves by their insecurity and their reliance on disproportionate use of force.

The world … begins to see with clearer and clearer eyes all patriarchal systems that promise protection in exchange for economic or political or sexual submission. On this eve of destruction, perhaps we can try to look forward, far forward, seeing these terrible and tragic events as part of the death-throes of patriarchy: a crucial step in the long unfolding of God’s true plan — not of Armageddon — but of real freedom and justice for all the earth’s people.

If you could construct a new masculinity, what would it look like?

* Courtesy of here.

You can read more from Kirsten at notes from an exile.

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About Kirsten Cameron

  • NC

    Let’s see what we’ve got here.

    1. A lesson on the perils of masculinity which takes as its prime example a raid that was ordered — famously — by a female Attorney General.

    2. A photo of George W. Bush which you claim comes from “the official White House website” but which in fact comes from a notorious left-wing political site called WhiteHouse.org. Go read the first paragraph of the fake bio at the link you provided; see anything there that might make the reader suspect that he/she’s not at the real White House site?

    Here’s Bush’s bio from the real official White House site, WhiteHouse.gov.

    3. An assertion that Bush “likes to be photographed in army fatigues.” Bush was photographed once, before his “Mission Accomplished” speech, in an airman’s flight suit; to my knowledge, he’s never been photographed wearing fatigues. Ever. Not one time.

    4. Expressions of shock and dismay that young men in the middle of a war zone might tend to behave a wee bit aggressively.

    As for the rest — the sophomoric references to “the machine,” the wonder that civil order might occasionally require the use of force, and most especially the bit about “[i]ndividuals who just happened to have some deeply held beliefs that were a little different from the norm,” which has some mighty interesting implications given the analogy you’ve drawn between Waco and the war on terror — I don’t know whether to take it at face value or as broad satire of a cartoonishly dopey liberal.

    Let me ask you one question, Kirsten. If America makes you feel this outraged, you must be positively apoplectic about what goes on routinely in the Middle East (esp. re: women’s issues), China, North Korea, and South America, right? If I cruised over to your blog right now, I’d see post after post complaining about the patriarchal abuses of human rights in those countries, right?


    In closing, if I could construct a new masculinity it would involve (a) tender hugs, (b) massive wealth redistribution to anyone who’s angry for any reason, and (c) sternly worded international condemnations of rogue regimes backed by no enforcement mechanism whatsoever. I think it just might work.

  • Yep. But thanks for correcting me on the whitehouse website…I should’ve known it was way too suspect. I’ll go correct it (wonders of the interent).

    You must be positively apoplectic about what goes on routinely in the Middle East (esp. re: women’s issues), China, North Korea, and South America, right? If I cruised over to your blog right now, I’d see post after post complaining about the patriarchal abuses of human rights in those countries, right?

    But that’s exactly it: the system that promises protection in exchange for economic or political or sexual submission…whether it be in America, China, The Middle East, South America. The US is simply the biggest bully on the block.

    I was just pondering whether it might time for a new paradigm…?

  • Sfc Ski

    The US is the biggest bully on the block? Don’t get out of the country much, do you?

  • RG

    With regard to this:
    “Another thing to note: CS gas is flammable. During the investigation of the Waco tragedy, the FBI repeatedly claimed that they never fired a single shot. Infrared footage taken by a plane circling overhead on the day, however, shows flashes of brilliance that look suspiciously like machine gun fire.”

    Yes indeed, there was gunfire!

    The FBI fired an explosive flare into the compound igniting the CS Gas which had settle as dust and coated everthing.

    Needless to say there was a tremendous fireball!

    And to finish the peoples off, the government exploded a mini-nuke on top of the bunker where the women and children and were hiding; this accounts for the fireball seen at the end of the episode.

    Talk about war crime– it was indeed a war crime committed against the Davidians.

  • George Bush

    whitehouse.org is not the official website. it’s a spoof.