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Encore: Waco | The Fire Rages On | 7

Encore: Waco | The Fire Rages On | 7

Tue, 12 Jul 2022 07:01

Eric Benson is a senior editor at the magazine Texas Monthly. In 2018, Benson wrote a series of articles that helped shed new light on the tragedy at Mount Carmel. He and Lindsay discuss how the event still shapes American life today.

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To listen to American scandal one week early and add free, join Wondry Plus in the Wondri app. Download the Wondri app in your Apple or Google Play mobile app store today. This is a special encore presentation of our series on the standoff in Waco, Texas, which originally aired in 2020. It's an investigation of a shocking story that sparked a national debate about religious freedom and the power of the federal government. We hope you enjoy. From Wondry, I'm Lindsey Graham and this is American Scan. Today we wrap up our series on the tragedy in Waco, Texas. The story began in the early 1980s with a man named Vernon Howell who rose to power in a then little known religious group called the Branch Dividians. His leadership changed the group and Howell, who eventually took the name David Kuresh and began teaching a dark vision of apocalypse. Kuresh directed his followers to begin firearms training, fortify their compound in a mass and arsenal. These activities caught the attention of federal authorities and a series of charges were brought against the group, including allegations of weapons violations. The investigation by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms led to a shootout at Mount Carmel Center, the compound that branched a Videans called home, 10 miles east of Waco, Texas. The violence that day with the start of a 51 day standoff that ended on April 19, 1993. On that morning, a fire broke out inside the compound and killed 76 branched a Videans, including Kuresh and a number of children. The fateful events at Waco have been the subject of countless articles, books, and movies, the inspiration for further violence, the subject of intense and partisan congressional investigations, and would forever change America's views about the rights of citizens and government's use of force. Today I'm speaking with Eric Benson, senior editor at Texas Monthly. In April of 2018, the 25th anniversary of the Waco siege, Benson wrote a series of articles for Texas Monthly that helped shed new light on the tragedy at Mount Carmel. We talk today about how the public viewed the events at Waco at the time, and how the federal government has since been questioned about its role in the tragedy. American scandal is sponsored by the new audiobook Killing the Legends, the 12th audiobook and the multi-million-selling Killing series from Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dewgard, Elvis Presley, John Lennon, and Muhammad Ali, three icons known everywhere in every nation across every culture. They had everything. Fame, money, the admiration of millions, but their lives spun out of control at the hands of those they most trusted. Killing the Legends explores the lives, legacies, and tragic deaths of these three legends. Each experienced immense success, then failures that forced them to change. 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Plus, earn even more with $5 worth of in-game rewards when you reach level 5. That's friends without the R. Best Fiends. Eric Benson, welcome to American Scandal. Thanks, Lindsay. It's been 27 years since the events at Waco. That's a fairly long time and the nation was different then. So could you give us an idea of where we were and how the public initially viewed the events at Waco? Yeah, so I think for a few reasons it took the public a little bit of time to catch on to what was going on at the branch to video and compound. At first World Trade Center bombing in 1993 had happened on February 26th, which was two days before the initial ATF raid on the branch of the in-compound. Most of the media attention and really the national law enforcement attention was on that major terrorist attack in New York City. That first ATF raid made the news, but it was really just as it became clear that this was not going to be something that ended in a day that was going to involve a siege that it kind of became, you know, that became nightly news. Now, of course, you're dealing with a media environment where people have newspapers and they have the television news. The World Wide Web just barely existed. There was no social media. So the kind of media that people had to find out about this event were much more limited. And how did the media shape people's narrative of what was happening at Mount Carmel? Yeah. So I would even take kind of a step back and say kind of how was the media able to cover the events at Mount Carmel? And initially, I think it was the day after the raid, the branch of audience had a way to communicate with the media on their own. You know, David Koresh gave an interview to CNN. It's kind of an amazing interview when he was still badly injured from the initial raid, you know, where he was shot twice. The anchor asked him how he's doing. And he says, fair to Midland, which is a real, real Texas kind of slangy saying. But then their contact with the outside world was cut off and just routed through the FBI negotiating team. And so the media was relegated to satellite city, which was about a mile away from the compound. And actually see the compound from satellite city. There was a local news station in Waco that had access to a farmer's property nearby. And they were able to do some live shots, especially as the siege went on. The media was able to cover Waco through FBI briefings that happened every day. And you can imagine that's a pretty one-sided view of events. And so that really shaped how Americans heard about Waco was, you know, during the siege itself, they were getting the government's perspective on Waco and hearing a bit from some members of the branch of Indians who had left largely before the siege and largely who opposed David Kuresh. Kuresh was painted in the media as a cult leader. Was that the FBI is doing? The media is doing? What effect did that have on public perception as who was at fault in this tragedy? Yeah. Sure, it was part of the FBI is doing, it was partially the media. It was partially people who had been branched of Indians who had kind of gone through a group called the Cult Awareness Network. You know, who thought that Kuresh's leadership was manipulative and felt that he had taken over the group and kind of bent it towards his end. But Cult is obviously a very loaded term and it has very negative connotations. So when that's bandied about, people make a lot of associations with it. The Jonesown massacre had happened, you know, it was just about a decade and a half earlier. So that wasn't exactly fresh in people's mind. But this idea of cults and mass suicides and charismatic manipulative leaders was something that I think the American public was familiar with. And so it was easy to put Kuresh in that box. Do you think his painting as a cult leader and the pejorative connotations affected the government response? Well, the initial government response, you know, the initial ATF raid, I don't think that was not in response to anything that the public thought of Kuresh. The branched dividends within the community of Waco were viewed as a millennialist religious group that would come into town. But I don't think they were not viewed in Waco as people to be scared of. There were, of course, people who had left the branched of Indian community who accused Kuresh of child abuse and that played a role in the initial ATF raid. It wasn't the principal reason that they raided, but it was in the affidavit for the raid. Even though as people have pointed out, that's not a federal crime. So the ATF shouldn't have been this charge of child abuse, which was unsubstantiated, probably should not have been used in the initial affidavit for the raid. But yeah, but as it went on, sure, you can speculate a lot about why the FBI's tactics, particularly from the hostage rescue team, were what they were. And I think those tactics were overboard and probably were influenced by it being easy to make the branched of Indian seem other. And having Kuresh as this cult figurehead was easy to make that group seem other. Another group that seems other are Texans themselves. I'm a native born Texan, and it's known for its love of liberty. The Waco siege became a rallying cry for those who thought that the government was overreaching. What was Texas like before the Waco siege happened in terms of its stance towards government intervention? Yes, so Texas famously is the Republic of Texas. It was an independent country before it became part of the United States and was annexed. So yes, Texas has an independent streak. It has a strong history of gun rights. It has this kind of wary view of federal intervention. So those things do run strong in Texas. Texas has a very strong private land ownership history. Unlike most Western states, Texas is almost entirely held in private hands. And that's part of its history and how it came into the nation. So the branched of Indians had set up shop in Mount Carmel because land was cheap and they'd be left alone. And that is how it had been for a long time up until February 28, 1993. And suddenly they were not left alone at all. So let's talk about the Waco siege and how it shaped anti-government sentiment in Texas and throughout the United States afterwards. Yes, so I think what's interesting when you actually look at what was happening in real time, Waco became a really, really major event in American history. Waco was not in the headlines of newspapers for a very long after the fire. Waco was something that I think a lot of people at the time thought was an event that was going to kind of fade into a sort of a hazy collective memory. But there was a group of people for whom it was a major rallying cry. And you started to see homemade documentaries come out on the Waco siege. Most of them have wild factual inaccuracies. They're extrapolated from little bits of videotape and really go down the conspiracy rabbit hole. But they also do raise some legitimate questions about the government force that was used. And really the event that made Waco into something that we remember today was the Oklahoma City bombing. That was when Waco really came back into the news in a big way. And the Oklahoma City bombing was done by a kind of militia affiliated. He was not actually part of a militia, but kind of sensitive to Timothy McVeigh was, it was kind of a fellow traveler with a lot of people who had militia affiliation. And he blew up the federal building in Oklahoma City on the second anniversary of the Waco siege. And you see right after that attack, even before people have kind of figured out exactly who McVeigh is, that people think this has to do with the right wing militia movement. And it also causes a kind of re-apraisal of what happened at Waco. And that's a media re-apraisal. That's also a congressional re-apraisal. The Waco fire was April 19th, 1993, but there weren't congressional hearings on what happened at Waco until after the Oklahoma City attack nearly two years later. And that's when you have these very high-profile, very partisan hearings, where everyone who was involved in the Waco siege is brought before Congress. In many ways, Oklahoma City seems to be the most important consequence of the Waco siege. But I'm interested in knowing how did right wing militia groups pick up Waco as a rallying cry? What is the overlap in the manifestos here? Yeah, it's interesting because the group itself, the branched-dividians, are not a right wing militia group. You had Sieges in the 1990s where there were explicitly kind of anti-government pro-gun right wing militia groups where there were Sieges. A year before, you had the Weaver family in Ruby Ridge, Idaho, where there was a siege in a standoff that ended really tragically, which an FBI sniper shot Randy Weaver's wife, one of Randy Weaver's sons was also killed. But that event, which we remember now, was also an event that was kind of not a big news event at the time because it happened at the same time as Hurricane Andrew hitting Florida. So that was what, Hurricane Andrew was what people were reading about in 1992 while the Ruby Ridge siege was happening. Most is at the beginning of the Waco siege, people were reading about the World Trade Center attack. For the branched-dividians were religious group and they were not extremely concerned with earthly politics. But the initial raid was justified on the grounds that there was a warrant that the branched-dividians had illegal weapons. They had automatic weapons, they had the beginning of the investigation started when a package full of inert grenade casings that was headed to the branched-dividian compounds allegedly spilled out. And that was reported to the ATF and that's how this happened. So the raid on the branched-dividian compound on Mount Carmel was a gun raid. And so that made it for people for whom the idea that the federal government was here to get your guns. The ATF raid was a raid about going into Mount Carmel and searching for illegal firearms and getting them. But Waco became a rallying cry for the militia movement during the siege. Timothy McVeigh famously came to Waco during the siege to just kind of observe. And there were right-wing groups that were around Waco. They couldn't get very close, of course, to Mount Carmel itself. But who were around is kind of self-appointed observers of what was going on to make sure that the government didn't overreach. Of course, they had no power over what the government was doing. But yeah, it was an in real-time galvanizing effort for the militia right. And to be clear, what are the issues that these militia groups stood up for and saw being trampled in the Waco siege? I think what the militia groups felt was invasion of private property and gun ownership. Probably, to some extent, religious liberty, although the dividends were obviously a religious group and a lot of militia groups had ties to both kind of right-wing Christian elements and with white supremacist elements, that's not, you can't characterize all militia groups that way. So I think really just kind of fundamental civil liberties issues that you'd find in right-wing groups for a long time and continuing it to today, gun rights, property rights. And a deep suspicion of law enforcement, but particularly federal law enforcement. Hello, I'm Florence Given, the best-selling author of the book Women Don't Are You Pretty and Girlcrush, and this is my podcast, exactly. Join me as I connect with fascinating guests from authors, cultural commentators, doctors, thought leaders to psychologists, celebrities and comedians. And guess what? We're back to do it all again in season two with the likes of the holistic psychologist, Victoria Skohn and Iona David to name a few. Season two of exactly podcast out now wherever you get your podcasts. American scandals sponsored by Credit Karma. If you've got a garden, you've got weeds, but if you're diligent and do a little light weeding often, nothing really gets out of control. 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American scandal is sponsored by Shopify and that was the chime of success. Another sale on Shopify, the all-in-one commerce platform to start, run and grow your business. Make you and everyone else on the planet. I shop online. And number two, after the merchandise I'm shopping for, I find my satisfaction with what I buy is determined by the experience of buying it. How easy was it to find, purchase and track? And I've noticed that merchants that you Shopify are easy, frictionless and it turns out it's the same on the back end. Shopify gives entrepreneurs the power to sell everywhere, synchronize online and in-person sales and stay informed. They have an ever-growing suite of channel integrations and apps including Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Pinterest and detailed reporting of conversion rates, profit margins and beyond to keep it all straight and plan for the future. 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Sage took on a leadership role within the negotiating team. He wasn't in charge of the negotiating team but he was effectively the lead negotiator because the person in charge of the negotiating team was not often on the phone. He was more directing the effort. Sage was there for all 51 days of the siege and he was the one at the end who was telling the branch divisions to leave their compound when it was on fire. He had extensive conversations with David Kuresh including he had the only face to face negotiation of the Waco siege when he and the sheriff of McLean and County Jack Harwell went and met face to face with Steve Schneider and Wayne Martin actually in the middle of the Mount Carmel between the FBI post and the actual compound itself. Sage has since really the end of the siege and since it became a real flashpoint has been a very vocal defender of the FBI. He has criticized some of the tactical side of the FBI because there was a negotiating side and then a tactical side. The negotiators were on the phone. The tactical side were in armored vehicles and had their guns trained on the branch division compound. He has criticized some of the tactical tactics but his feeling is very strongly that there is nothing that the FBI could have done to change the ultimate outcome of the siege. He is most people that I have spoken to in the FBI feel the same way. I think that is part of the culture of the FBI and part of him having been there for all of that time and tried to do as much as he did to get people out. But certainly not everyone agrees with it and not everyone involved with law enforcement agrees with that. In the same series for Texas Monthly you also interviewed Sheila Martin and Clive Doyle, both branched divisions who escaped dying in the fire. Do you get a sense that the two of them have been able to move on from the tragedy or are they perhaps stuck in it defending their own side of it? Yeah. So Clive Doyle and Sheila Martin who I spent some time with, I've known Clive for a few years and Sheila I just met two years ago. But yeah, there I believe the last two kind of members who are alive of the branched divisions sect who are still in Waco and still believe that David Kuresh was a god chosen figure. They haven't rejected David Kuresh. And yeah, I don't think that either of them have moved on and how could they, Clive Doyle lost his daughter in the Waco fire and Sheila Martin lost almost her entire family. She lost, I believe, two sons and she lost her husband. So for them, it was an immense personal tragedy as well as seeing their community essentially end. But they still believe in the same things that they believed in then religiously. And so I don't think either, certainly Sheila Martin, but really in my conversations with Clive Doyle, they're not that concerned with litigating exactly what happened at Mount Carmel. They're mostly concerned with carrying on that particular religious tradition, which at this point is very small and without intervention from something that they believe in, we'll probably end with them. One of the points that was probably the most litigated of this whole thing is the very end. How did the fire start? Can you lay out to us what we know, what we suspect, who thinks what? Yes, how the fire started has been the most litigated point, both literally litigated and certainly bandied about in the media and by different stakeholders in what happened at Waco. I'll say because we talked about the media earlier, one thing that's really fascinating to me, is someone who, I'm 35 years old, I was young and not a big news consumer with a branch of idiom and siege happened. So before I was asked to look into this for a movie project actually about five years ago, I had only a very hazy view of what the Waco siege was, who David Kuresh was. But when the Waco fire happened, the polling immediately after the fire, 93% of people in it, this was in a CNN Gallup poll, thought that David Kuresh was responsible for what happened. You have by 1999, after there have been quite a few documentaries, congressional hearings, importantly the discovery that there was a pyrotechnic round used at Waco. The public opinion had almost completely flipped, 61% of people who were pulled in 1999 thought that the FBI started the fire, which was part of the reason why there was another federal investigation after the initial federal investigations and the congressional hearings, a kind of special council investigation that Janet Reno, then the Attorney General, hired John Danforth who had been a Republican senator from Missouri to conduct. So with a fire, there was a fire that started around noon on the day that the FBI was injecting tear gas into the compound. So the FBI on April 19th basically decided that the siege was over and that the branch dividends were coming out. And they brought in basically army tanks, fitted with tear gas injectors and started punching holes into the building and injecting tear gas, trying to force the branch dividends to come out. And for the first six hours, none of them came out. And then you have a fire start in the compound and very quickly sweep through the compound, burn it to the ground by an hour later. There's really not much more of the branch dividend compound and the fire of course burns for a while and kills 76 people. As far as what we know, I think I would say that they're basically three theories of the fire and I'll tell you frankly, which I what I think kind of has the most evidence. One theory is that the government intentionally started the fire either to drive the branch dividends out or to kill all of them. That's a theory that started almost immediately after the fire. I believe the first big airing of it was in a documentary called Waco the Big Lie, which is not a very credible documentary. It showed kind of reflections that were happening of sunlight off the tear gas injectors and it made it look like the tear gas injectors were shooting flames into the compound. I don't think that anyone who's looked at the evidence thinks that that's credible. I think the video evidence doesn't seem to support that there were flame throwers on tanks shooting flames into the compound. So there's a sort of separate theory that FBI snipers were shooting at branch either into the compound or we're shooting branch dividends who were leaving the compound. That was something that I'm relatively sure that people in the compound were afraid of. There was a documentary that was a very widely seen documentary that used footage from a spy plane that was going overhead to support the idea that there was muzzle fire from FBI snipers. The Danforth report refuted that. I personally think that it's quite unlikely that the FBI was firing into the compound. There's another theory that the branch dividends, of course, their electricity was cut off. So they had Coleman lanterns filled with oil. That's how they were lighting the inside of the compound. There's a theory that as the tanks rolled in, they might have knocked over these fuel canisters and turned the compound into a place that was ready to light on fire. And it took almost nothing just a spark or something like that to light the whole place up that it was almost prepared for fire. It's a theory that I think some people have taken some comfort in because it makes the whole thing seem completely accidental. I'm not aware of a lot of evidence to actually support an FBI tank knocked over all enough Coleman lanterns to spread enough fuel to that a spark could have lit the compound on fire. And then there's the third theory, which is the one that the FBI has stuck to, which is that the branch dividends or group within the branch of audience intentionally lit the compound on fire. There are two big pieces of evidence to support that. One is the testimony of an FBI sniper who says he saw someone inside spreading fuel. And you can kind of take that at what it is. If the FBI had acted nefariously, certainly a member of the FBI would have a lot of incentive to lie about what he saw. But it is something that an FBI agent testified to. I think the harder piece of evidence to refute is the testimony of Graham Craddock, who was a member of the branch of audience, who said repeatedly that he saw people spreading fuel inside the compound. So exactly what happened, how it all went down, either the people who lived, the people who left the compound during the fire, either didn't see it, weren't part of a plan. They all except for Craddock seemed to have no knowledge or don't want to discuss what happened with the fire. Craddock has not kind of gone out of his way to blame the branch of audience and Kharash, but he has mentioned the fuel. So, I think that's the most likely scenario. But I don't think the mistake in saying, well, the branch of audience started the fire or some groups of the mighty men group within the branch of audience started the fire, which I think is probably true. I think the mistake with just saying that and stopping there is that it blames the branch of audience for everything that happened. And I think there's no doubt that the HRT tactics were wildly irresponsible, that there was no reason that the FBI should have gone in with tear gas on that morning. And I think that's been borne out because when there were a future, when there were seizures later on, the FBI was even more patient. It was a total disaster and a total disaster for the FBI, a total tragedy for the branch of audience community. If you're into true crime, the Generation Y podcast is essential listening. We started this podcast over 10 years ago to dissect some of the craziest and most notable murders, crimes, and conspiracy theories together, and we'd love for you to join us. Generation Y is one of the longest running true crime podcasts out there, and we are still at it, unraveling a new case every week. We break down infamous cases like the Evil Genius Bank robbery, and lesser known cases like the case of Kimberly Rico. Did she actually kill her husband after they took part in a murder mystery game? Recover every angle, breaking down theories, diving deep into forensic evidence, and interviewing those close to the case. And with over 450 episodes, there's a little something for every true crime listener. Follow the Generation Y podcast on Amazon Music, or every listen to podcasts, or you can listen ad-free by joining Wondry Plus in the Wondry app. You mentioned that FBI tactics changed after Waco, and certainly also public opinion changed. Waco has inspired militias. Waco has inspired the government to investigate itself. There are countless books, articles, movies, and now Netflix has re-releases 2018 mini-series to an even greater audience. Waco is a thing. What do you think the siege at Waco's lasting influence is on the public and the government? Yeah, so the Waco's siege's lasting influence is a really interesting question. When I think about what happened at Waco, it is like a distillation of all of these trends that have been happening in American society from the very beginning of the nation. It's this religious liberty. It's private property. It's gun ownership. It's the role of the federal government. It's really this quintessentially American event and American tragedy. It's place in the American popular consciousness, I think, has evden flowed since 1993. I think it had a pretty quick drop in people paying attention to it. The Oklahoma City bombing brought it back. The Oklahoma City bombing also had the inverse effect on militia membership. Militia membership spiked after the events at Waco and dropped considerably after the events at Oklahoma City. It has been through the 1990s, certainly. It was the subject that was intensely debated and culminating in the second major federal investigation, the Danforth report. I think it what happened on 9-11 and the subsequent wars and that ended the public's fascination for a while with what had happened at the branch divinity in compound. There were several different documentaries. Some of them, I think, quite excellent. The miniseries you referenced, starring Taylor Kitch as David Kuresh. I think it definitely represented a high point for the FBI's actions against militia groups. I think it fundamentally changed the way that the FBI operated. Waco was part of a series of events. It was the final in a series of events. Ruby Ridge was a major event that preceded it where an FBI sniper had killed a woman as she went outside of compound and was unarmed. There had been a few smaller incidents involving militia groups in the 1980s and federal law enforcement. After Waco ended so disastrously for the FBI, I think they decided that they would bend over backwards to avoid what had happened at Waco. You saw that right up until the kind of closest recent analog was the Aiman Bun-D led standoff in Oregon, where one man was killed. The federal government, I think, basically was going to let them be there as long as they were going to be there. To the point where I don't think anyone looking at that event thought it was the federal government was about to get tanks and storm the Bun-D compound where they were holed up in that federal land. The FBI would hopefully not do that today. I think it's not the way they operate after Waco. It was such a black eye for the agency. Many of these issues, these uniquely American issues that you identified, the Waco distilled are still obviously with us today. Clearly the government's role in protecting its citizens is still there as well. What is the frontier for the next rebellion, if anything, and what do you think the government's response will be? Yeah, that's a tough question. I think a lot of the issues around individual, the balance of individual liberties, the role of the state, the role of law enforcement are all issues that very much still face us today. I could imagine just what we've seen over this last month, two months with the federal and state response to the coronavirus pandemic and the way that certain people protested that. There has always been, and I think always will continue to be a strain of people for whom it is very, very important to assert their independence from the state and law enforcement at almost all times, often, often citing people like early writings of founding fathers and Thomas Jefferson. I don't know, I'm not smart enough to know what the next big issue will be. Hopefully, it won't be a wake-o because of the lessons that were learned at wake-o. You saw with the Bundys, it was about the federal ownership of land in the West, whether the federal government should be holding all of this land and deciding who got to use it. You could imagine it in maybe not in this pandemic, but future events where the government curtailed individual rights as they indisputably have done during this pandemic. People decide that the more important thing is the preservation of individual rights as a small, but pretty vocal group has. I think a lot of that fundamental attention in American society between very strong protection of individual liberty and a complicated and vast, modern state apparatus, you could see that conflict playing out in all sorts of different venues. And just hopefully, it won't be a deadly conflict. Eric Benson, thank you so much for coming on American Scandal. Thanks, Lindsay, it was great to be here. That was Eric Benson, senior editor at Texas Monthly. This 2018 series on the Tragedy to Wake-o and many other articles can be found at From Wondery, this is episode 7 of Wake-o from American Scandal. In our next series, we look at a fight between a rural community and one of the largest chemical companies in the world. The battle would last years and reveal a cover-up that threatened thousands of lives. And for Wondery Plus subscribers, we have an exclusive season about a police abuse scandal that rocked the city of Chicago, leading to a long and bruising fight for justice. You can listen to the Midnight Crew on Wondery Plus starting July 11th in Apple Podcasts or the Wondery app. If you like our show, please give us a five-star rating and leave a review and be sure to tell your friends. I also have two other podcasts you might like, American History Tellers and Business Movers. Follow on Apple Podcasts, Amazon Music, or wherever you're listening right now. Or you can listen to new episodes early and ad-free by subscribing to Wondery Plus in Apple Podcasts or in the Wondery app. You'll also find some links and offers from our sponsors in the episode notes. Supporting them helps us keep offering our shows for free. Another way you can support this show is by filling out a small survey at slash survey to tell us what topics we might cover next. You can also find us and me on Twitter. Follow me at Lindsay A. Graham, Lindsay with an A, Middle and Initial A. And thank you.