Scott Henson

New Info on Waco 10 Years Hence

Mon Apr 21 01:05:40 2003

From: "Scott Henson"
Date: Sat Apr 19, 2003 1:41 pm
Subject: New Info on Waco 10 Years Hence

In negotiations over homeland security bills on behalf of ACLU, I
recently was informed of an amazing story related to the Branch Davidian
massacre that to my knowledge had never been reported -- that Ann
Richards improperly used Texas' quarantine laws after the fact to bar
the media from visiting the site. I recounted what I know of the
incident in the current issue of The Good Life, a local freebie magazine
where my wife and I have alternated writing a column on helathcare for
the past few years. I append the text of that column below my signature.

Scott Henson

From the April 2003 issue of The Good Life:

Homeland security no excuse
for abusing quarantine powers

By Scott Henson

What would happen if a Texas city were targeted in a bioterrorism attack,
say, involving smallpox or some other deadly communicable disease? Would our
medical system detect the attack quickly enough to respond? Under what
circumstances would responding to bioterrorism require infringement upon
individual rights? If we're attacked in such a nefarious way, what would

After 9-11, governments at all levels began preparing for how to respond to
acts of terrorism, and after the spate of anthrax attacks in late 2001, the
specter of bioterrorism was added to the lexicon of the average American and
to state government's list of things to worry about.

Most states including Texas have laws on the books empowering the state to
implement quarantines in times of medical emergency. But many of these laws
are antiquated relics. An article last year in the Journal of the American
Medical Association (JAMA) said no state in this country had implemented a
quarantine in more than eighty years.

For the most part that's because, as a medical strategy, quarantines aren't
really a tabbed page in the physicians' best-practices manual. The whole
concept is a relic of the nineteenth century, harking back to before science
had demystified illness.

In those days, communicable diseases like smallpox routinely overwhelmed the
rudimentary healthcare infrastructure that was available. The potential for
catastrophic harm justified the tradeoff between protecting the public and
potentially capturing healthy people in a quarantine area. Communicable
diseases inflicted such a heavy toll on communities that fear, frustration
and futility led to the use of quarantine as the only solution available
from a public policy standpoint.

In addition, eighty to one hundred years ago transportation was more
difficult and disease was less likely to spread quickly from town to town.
The incubation period for smallpox, for example, is ten to seventeen days.
When most travel was by foot or horseback, diseases were unlikely to travel
too far in that short a time. So a quarantine might reasonably capture most
people who were infected with the disease. In the modern world, by the time
ten to seventeen days have passed, many different folks have likely traveled
across the globe and back, making a quarantine virtually useless for disease

Since the rise of public hospitals, routine immunizations, employer-based
health insurance and Great Society health programs, notions of how sick
people should be treated have changed. The idea that they should be herded
into an isolated area and kept separated from the world by armed guards no
longer seems a reasonable option to most public health officials.

Contrary to the findings published in the JAMA report, however, the power to
quarantine has been used fairly recently-and not for protection of public
health. Maybe no other state has implemented a quarantine in the last eighty
years, but what JAMA didn't know-what nobody knew until recent revelations
by Texas Department of Health (TDH) officials-was that in 1993, Texas
implemented the only quarantine aimed at human beings in modern US medical
history. And officials did it to protect against that most odious of modern
diseases: unwanted media coverage.

According to TDH officials, in 1993 Texas Governor Ann Richards implemented
a quarantine at the site of the Branch Davidian massacre after the FBI and
Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) had finished with the area as a
crime scene.

According to TDH, the Clinton administration asked Richards to have the
Texas DPS seal off the Branch Davidian site to keep the media from combing
through the charred ruins of the Mt. Carmel site in Waco. But DPS officials
rightfully replied that they had no authority to restrict access to the area
after the investigation was over and it was no longer a crime scene.

Governor Richards then exercised her authority under the law to declare a
quarantine around the site, even though no public evidence indicates that
any communicable diseases infested the location.

So, the only time Texas' human quarantine law has been used in living
memory, it was actually misused in a fairly egregious abuse of power, solely
for political public relations purposes, not any medical reason.
The quarantine at Mount Carmel illustrates graphically the dangers of
vesting too much power in government officials in the name of homeland
security. While acts of terrorism may well arise that will trigger these
laws, it's much more likely they will be used in response to natural
disasters or more routine law enforcement scenarios.

In Waco, Texas officials abused the public trust by using powers vested in
them to protect their political allies in Washington. The same temptations
may await Governor Rick Perry in the future, or his successor. Which is why
legislation purporting to respond to bioterrorism must be carefully vetted.
These old laws do need to be updated, but they should be improved by
increasing protections for the public, not by releasing the fetters on

Scott Henson was recently appointed to a Texas Department of Health advisory
committee on bioterrorism. You may e-mail Scott at

Constitution Society 7793 Burnet Road #37, Austin, TX 78757

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