Drawing the Line: The Blame Game

On May 29, 2011, four new plaques were dedicated to the victims of the Jonestown tragedy at the cemetery in Oakland where almost half of the bodies are interred. They are four somber, elegant works of art that list the names of the 918 people who died that day. Listed are young and old, black and white, “good” and “bad.” Dignity was given to all.

For some people, the plaques are wrong because they list the “infamous” along with the “innocent.” Engraved on the plaques are the names of those who shot the members of the congressional delegation at the Port Kaituma airstrip, those who mixed the poison, those who participated in the decision for death, and even Jim Jones, who many consider to be the man who murdered them all.

I can understand these sentiments, but I have to ask why they are so vehement that these whom we believe are responsible for the events of the final day don’t deserve to be listed in memoriam? Is it because Jim Jones was a “killer”? Is it because the shooters acted on their own? Is it because those that mixed the poison acted alone?

If we are going to play the blame game, then we have some serious rethinking to do. If Jim Jones and his leadership, the assassins at the airstrip, and the medical team are guilty of murder, what about the others?

Yes, the others. The seniors. The adults who either watched their children take the poison or who may have actually administered it themselves. Are they “killers” too? We know that young mothers and fathers held their children while they were given the poison and did nothing to stop it. We know that others helped the medical team in passing out the cups of poison. Are they all “murderers”? Are we going to say that ALL of the adults are to blame for what happened that day, that they were complicit in the deaths? Where do we draw the line between victim and killer? Whom do we choose to overlook, excuse, forgive?

Yes, I agree Jim Jones bears most, if not all, of the blame for the tragedy that occurred, from the deaths on the airstrip to the deaths in Jonestown. But to label him a monster – and to strike his name from the stones – leads to a few problems.

First of all, it would be historically inaccurate to keep his name segregated. Jim Jones and the triumphs and failures at Jonestown are inexorably linked. He is a part of our history, whether we like it or not. We can not begin to try to understand Peoples Temple or Jonestown without including him in the discussion.

Secondly, and perhaps to the relief of some people, the very acknowledgment of Jim Jones denies him something that he greatly wanted. Jones would cry out often that he wanted to – and believed he would – be a martyr to his cause. His paranoia led him to his conviction that he would be assassinated, but at the same time, he was fascinated with the idea of becoming a cult of personality of the likes of Robert Kennedy or Martin Luther King, Jr. By listing him as just another victim of the tragedy, no worse or no better than any other person, we are taking away the power that he would have gained in his separation as a martyr.

Thirdly – even though it may sound like compassion gone viral to some people – Jim Jones deserves to be treated humanely. It’s just the human thing to do to recognize him among the dead. Jim Jones was a victim as much as anyone else to his illnesses, both physical and mental. Beyond his obvious mentally sickness, and those who were close to him in the last days of his life are convinced that he was so physically ill that he would have died of natural causes within a matter of weeks or – at most – months. In the end, then, Jim Jones was a sick and broken man with nowhere left to run. He was a victim of himself.

What we have attempted to do over the years is to assign blame in this tragedy, but in the end – as we accept the fact that his name is on the memorial – we are compelled to realize that assigning blame is really folly. No one benefits, no one heals in our anger in assigning blame to the people who died at Jonestown. Its destructive power is directed at us, not at the people who are beyond our reach.

It is time we all truly forgive all.

(Bonnie Yates is a regular contributor to the jonestown report. Her other writings in this edition are Again and Flying Home. Her previous writings are collected here. She may be reached here.)