MASS SUICIDE: THE FINAL TABOO
Throughout the ages and throughout religious cultures, suicide has been an anathema, bringing shame, denying proper burials, splitting families apart. God gives the precious gift of life, whatever its torments or pain, and we can no more sanction the taking of one’s own life than the taking of the lives of others. A greater anathema still is a "suicide" process involving children, for children do not have the capacity to make such a decision for themselves. It is the responsibility of their parents or guardians to preserve their lives at all costs, whatever the danger, whatever the cost, whatever the future may bring.
This does not mean it has never happened, or that history has not understood. The Jews of Masada took their own lives, children and all, rather than be forced into slavery by invading Roman troops. Remnants of a tribe of Taino Indians jumped off a cliff in Puerto Rico, children and all, when Christopher Columbus’ men had already wiped out two-thirds of their numbers. Blacks being transported from Africa were known to take their own lives, rather than be enslaved in the so-called "New World."
The common elements these shared were extreme despair and imminent endangerment. Had these acts not been done, their members felt, in each case with cause, that they were facing eradication either of their physical lives, or their lives as they had known them: in other words, their way of life.
Throughout the ages people have gone to war, sacrificing thousands, even millions of lives to defend and protect their way of life, and done so proudly. The key distinctions were that a) they died trying to kill others, not willingly dying themselves; b) they had the means to fight militarily; c) they were men; d) they were cast as protectors of the weak and helpless, such as women and children; and e) the power of the state sanctioned killing.
On the latter point, why the state has sanctioned killing has only in limited instances involved the direct protection of human life. More often, men have killed for property, for natural resources, for territorial boundaries, for pride, for lust, for greed, and (not to be forgotten) for religion. This does not rule out more noble motives, such as the prevention of further genocide in World War II. But that did not inspire the American entrance into the war. It took the sneak attack against Pearl Harbor by the Japanese, and "retaliation" included the forcible imprisonment of Japanese-American women and children.
The history of the taking of life on planet Earth is a muddied morass at best. Defending one’s own interests has invariably been painted as "moral." Caring about the foreign, competing interest of "strangers," has not been subjected to the same tests. We fight for what preserves our own identity. Some have gone to even greater extremes, and been lauded for patriotism: Patrick Henry’s "Give me liberty or give me death!" Not because he or his family were facing a massacre, but because "taxation without representation" was deemed sufficient cause to wage war.
Yet suicide remains taboo. Nor am I writing to dispel that taboo – in fact, it would be dangerous to do so, as well as finding suicide repugnant personally. I am primarily putting the suicides at Jonestown in context. Who had "the moral high ground" and how would it have best been served?
PRESERVATION OF "A WAY OF LIFE,"
OR PRESERVATION OF PHYSICAL LIFE?
The community at Jonestown was both unique and unsung. Well, "unsung" in the United States, blocked out by a yellow press. The community was actually highly acclaimed by a steady stream of visitors who described Jonestown as "a paradise," "a utopia," "a superior society," and "like coming to another planet." (See RAVE REVIEWS.) It was the fulfillment of a dream of racial and economic equality, which never could have been realized in the United States. In contrast to the lies the public had been pounded with about "concentration camp," "slave colony," and the like, the reality was that Jonestown was a new way of life for its residents, a way of life that was defended loyally and fiercely by most who lived there.
Even Congressman Leo Ryan told the assembled community there, "I hear many of you saying that this is the best thing that has ever happened to you. This is all significant, worthwhile, even significant on a worldwide basis." Privately, he said in amazement that "This is one of the greatest social experiments of the 20th century."
There was every sign that these were people who wanted passionately to live. They also wanted passionately to preserve their new way of life. A way of life that was already under brutal attack by a yellow press, and government agents with connections, resources, and expertise vastly outpowering the people of Jonestown. There was every sign in advance of the tragedy that Jonestown was being lined up as "lambs to the slaughter," by elements opposed to racial integration, economic self-determination for minorities, left-wing politics, and especially, the imminent planned move to relocate the community to safety in Russia during the Cold War.
There is no doubt, as detailed in other areas of this site, that the way of life at Jonestown was about to be irrevocably decimated. The assassination of the Congressman and members of his party at the Port Kaitumna airstrip, sealed that fate with certainty. Were members of the community responsible for the assassination, the community would have been forcibly disbanded, and brought up not just on murder charges against individual (alleged) shooters, but on charges of conspiracy, both implicating and endangering everyone. Were members of Jonestown not responsible for the assassination, they were surely being framed, which would raise, not lower, the odds on military endangerment.
Jonestown would become an anathema to the Guyanese overnight, and indeed, the best the people of Jonestown could have hoped for is what they were already falsely accused of: people forcibly held hostage in confinement under frightening and dismal conditions! (The irony of it.) Moreover, the factor of political volatility was such, that the obstacles to repatriation in the States, would have been a horror show.
The only question which is genuinely open, is was the threat that night to the physical lives at Jonestown. Moreover, the odds on saving lives, even in the event of a military attack. Shy of desperation about an impending massacre, suicide, especially involving children, remains an anathema whatever might have happened in the wake of the assassination. Yes, Patrick Henry said, "Give me liberty or give me death!," and for that he is revered. But who did he speak for? Himself, or everyone?
And how does one quantify the mere preservation of physical life (even, let’s say, a worse case scenario like a single infant "rescued" as a "trophy," only to be raised by "the enemy,") against the more emotional motivations that drive us all – like pride, defiance, fear, love, loyalty, passion for a miraculous new way of life?
This is only one reason why what happened at Jonestown was more complex than the public ever knew.
WAS FEAR OF SLAUGHTER LEGITIMATE AND REAL?
Jonestown was inherently vulnerable to military attack due to factors beyond the control of any of its residents. This was a community that was geographically trapped, militarily defenseless, and so remote and isolated, there was not even a phone to call in help.
Moreover, the threats to send in mercenaries were ongoing, even being recorded in newspaper editorials and State Department logs. Most of the threats were spearheaded by ex-Temple attorney, Timothy Stoen, a far-right-wing zealot who had led the Congressman to Jonestown on a crusade that was both knowingly false and volatile: a false paternity suit designed to snatch Jim Jones’ own son. That was Leo Ryan’s avowed reason for coming to Jonestown – to "retrieve Tim Stoen’s son."
It is long past time to dispel the myth that somehow the people attacking Jonestown cared about children, and the people defending Jonestown did not. Stoen and others’ disregard for the fate of children, all of them well-treated and in Jonestown legally, was flagrant. Their respect for human life, especially minority human life, was nil.
Moreover, there had been a previous attack by mercenaries a year earlier, which was frightening to the residents, and greatly exacerbated a siege mentality. Just weeks prior to the tragedy, an arch-opponent, Joseph Mazor, had come right into the community and threatened "mass extermination." There is no doubt that the people of Jonestown had reason to fear a slaughter, even shy of deadly provocations like the killing of a Congressman.
What were the odds on life that night? There is a mosaic of documentary evidence from numerous sources, suggesting that the people of Jonestown may have barely made it through a lengthy suicide process before troops clandestinely invaded the community:
State Department records now emerge from the files of independent FOIA researcher, Jim Hougan, pinpointing a 3:39 a.m. call on the morning of November 19, 1978, confirming mass death at Jonestown, moreover on "NOIWON," a C.I.A. radio channel. The assassination just seven miles away was radioed in on a non-C.I.A. channel.
Medical assistance was also arranged completely separately, the military MEDEVAC plane arriving the morning of the 19th at the Port Kaituma airstrip, but not even checking on the 900+ dead bodies just seven miles away at Jonestown! No official military personnel, much less medical personnel were allowed into Jonestown until mid-day the 20th. By the time the coroner arrived, the bodies were so badly decomposed in the tropical sun, they wanted to do a mass burial on site.
It is obvious that Jonestown was "off limits," despite the cataclysm, though it is equally clear that C.I.A. personnel were there as early as 3:30 a.m. that very night. Moreover, the last person known to leave Jonestown alive, Stanley Clayton, testified to the Matthews Ridge (a neighboring town) coroner’s jury that he had waited until the community was completely silent for "30-45 minutes," and that then, suddenly, there was a loud chorus of cheers! A short while later, he heard six gunshots. It is obvious that the suicide process was barely complete when the newly-deceased had hostile visitors!!!
Indeed, very few people were shot – Jim Jones, Annie Moore, a young nurse who had been caring for him through a terminal illness, and Maria Katsaris, the surrogate mother of his young son John. Moreover Annie was shot with a dum-dum bullet, which the community did not have at Jonestown, and it was even speculated in the New York Times on December 12, 1978, that it may have been the same type bullet from the same gun that shot Congressman Ryan at the airstrip several miles away.
The most likely explanation for the atrocity of these three having their heads blown off by the military, while the others died more "peacefully" by poisoning, was that extreme violence against Jim Jones and his closest followers would create "evidence" that Jones was a brutal murderer who must have "ordered" the killing of the Congressman. It is doubtful that those head wounds were self-inflicted.
The Guyanese coroner reported "hundreds" of bodies forcibly injected, but, he hastened to add, in ways that only skillful medical personnel could accomplish – a bizarre scenario which did not tally with the capabilities of the community, and strongly suggests post-death desecration of bodies.
Scientology uncovered an ex-Green beret named Charles Huff, who claimed he was "first in" to Jonestown, within five or six hours, so C.I.A.-controlled troops had Jonestown all to themselves for well over 24 hours before other personnel arrived. By the time people were "officially" let in, like the coroner, they found bodies massively desecrated and Jonestown looted, and also a massively wrong body count! It is clear that the invading troops were not there to count bodies, much less to assist medically, but purely for nefarious purposes.
The question must be posed: What would have happened were the people of Jonestown still alive when the troops arrived?
Shy of a confession from a military insider, we may never know. But we do know one thing: They had to protect a frame. (See THE TRUTH.) Protecting a frame, and protecting the human lives you are implicating in the frame, is a deadly business at best. We may never know the odds on preserving physical life at Jonestown that night, even if the community had done nothing but wait, though common sense dictates that the community was a military target even had they not taken their own lives.
IS SUICIDE EVER JUSTIFIED?
The resounding verdict of a horrified world has always been "No!," and I am not here to contest that. If I, or anyone, could have known for absolute certain that invading troops would have murdered the people of Jonestown to cover up a frame, I might have preferred my friends die in peace rather than in a slaughter, yes. But I would still not defend or justify suicide, a horrifying and irrevocable process to circumvent odds that no one can second-guess.
Suicide is an anathema, and I very much wish it to remain so. Even beyond addressing the realities of those who died, there is no way to quantify the grief, the abandonment, the unanswered questions that suicide leaves for those who are left to mourn. When loved ones suicide out on us, whatever the provocation, rarely do people "understand." Mostly they feel betrayed.
The people of Jonestown, many of them at least, probably did believe what Jim Jones said on the final tape was true, namely "Now we have no choice. Either we do it or they do it." They had well-founded reasons to be terrified of an impending slaughter.
But death is still too irrevocable to take it into our own hands based upon what we believe. Not that people all over the world, for aeons, have not done just that: taken life and death into their own hands based upon what they believed. Even exploration of psychosomatic medicine has revealed that many people, in effect, "kill themselves" by superimposing their own mental and emotional belief systems upon their own physical bodies.
But suicide of healthy people, especially children, is and should remain an anathema, whatever the perceived threat. Moreover, in a group situation, factors ranging from peer pressure to overt coercion are always suspect. Hence my concern is not the disruption of this taboo for civilized society, but comprehension of the plight of people who were both defenseless and trapped in extreme peril. To understand that not only did the people of Jonestown die, but that Jonestown itself was "a death trap," for reasons beyond their control. That this went beyond the fanatical, destabilized personality of Jim Jones, into real and present danger from outside elements.
The suicides, whatever their motivation, marred any claim of humanity for the people of Jonestown in the eyes of the world. And no people could more richly deserve the honor of humanity than those people. If you peruse through RAVE REVIEWS on this site, you can see how passionately the people of Jonestown loved life, and what their community meant to them. They were not "victims of brainwashing." They were legitimately terrified. Their leader was fanatical, yes. But he was not responsible for the ghastly, high-powered, a-moral pressures closing in from the outside.
Is suicide ever justified? As we struggle with questions of "assisted suicide," capital punishment, plus the ongoing furors about abortion, I quaver to be the judge. Life is too precious even to let laws and customs be the final counsel. Ultimately, men will not judge. God will judge, but we should not presume to judge for Him. Ultimately, it may not be "one size fits all."
But I must go on record about mass suicide: Whatever you face, whatever you perceive you are facing, whatever threats have been made, whatever threats you believe will be carried out, whatever…. Don’t do this. Don’t pre-empt fate’s hand. Only God knows what efforts, what love, what universal design it took to bring you or I into being, or when our purpose shall be spent or the journey end. Allow suicide to be "the final taboo."
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