“The weaker are always anxious for justice and equality. The strong pay no heed to either.”
What makes people feel the need to slow down in the fast lane to view the destruction of a traffic accident, even to the detriment of their own safety? We’ve all done it. It’s no coincidence that the news media sells death and suffering as its primary stock and trade. Just turn on the news on any given day and you’ll see what I mean: the more bizarre and horrific, the better the story. You’ve got to keep the ratings up, after all!
I believe that this is a survival reaction. We are compelled to face the un-faceable, perhaps to gleam some level of knowledge of some new threat or more simply as a process of mental maturation, to provide a coping mechanism. Either way, we all do it.
This is what led me to this website and to the audiotapes which are available through it. But that was only in the beginning. I’ve come a long way – at least it feels that way – since I tentatively typed the words “Jonestown tapes” into my search engine, although I will admit, each time I think I have a handle on it, it’s only to discover I have only scratched the surface.
The road to Jonestown, much like the road to hell, was paved with good intentions. The majority of the victims were those who wanted and needed to effect positive change in a world that, on the whole, had disenfranchised them. The perspective that so permeated the groupthink blinded them to what really stood in front of them. It gave them the will to forgive the many-headed hydra that declared itself a socialist god, that in any normal circumstances would have been unthinkable. The theme is seen all through this story, right up to its tragic and inescapable conclusion.
This is not to say that it could not have been avoided. Many people made many decisions, each for their own motives and reasoning, that would facilitate their own ultimate destruction. As hideous and complex a maze of deception and human frailty this was, it was not a unique situation. Every heroin addict (of which there are millions) faces the decision of the first hit, knowing that each following dose is yet another nail in the coffin. It’s a complex subject but with a strangely simplistic cause: need, plain and simple. The great mother of necessity guides our every waking minute, controlling and motivating every choice we make, big or small. For the members of Peoples Temple, it was the need to change, the need to belong. That’s exactly what Jim Jones offered. I believe it’s what made the Temple so successful at helping addicts to “reform.” It’s simple enough to replace one addiction with another, whether the opiate is religion, socialism or pentobarbital. Jones was particularly adept at this. He could be whatever you wanted him to be, whatever you needed him to be.
It may be fair to argue that, had Jim Jones had not been a paranoid narcissist, he may have gone on to be counted among the great humanitarians of his time. But then you may equally argue that, had it not been for his narcissistic tendencies, he may never have gone on to view himself in that way at all. The possibilities boggle the mind. A truer view can be gained by the fact that Jones died the way he did, so unlike the great leaders before and during his time – Lincoln, JFK and Martin Luther King – who died as a result of their progressive, humanitarian beliefs. In contrast, Jones’ end has more in common with Adolf Hitler, driven back into his final bastion of safety, dead from a single gunshot to the temple not far from his cyanide poisoned spouse.
This drama has been played out many times, to larger and lesser degrees, throughout human history. And as always, the majority of the victims were the innocent, the good people, the people who felt they needed to effect change, people who aimed to rise above the strictures of the world they lived in and create something better, not just for the group but for all. People like you and me. This is what Jones offered, what he represented. Much like the predation of a carnivore, he presented them with the opportunity to fulfill their needs, only to devour them in the name of his own desires.
Nevertheless, we must always keep in mind that Jones did not alone instigate this betrayal. As at Auschwitz, it took the complicity of many to perpetrate, not to mention the naiveté and complacency of the victims. But unlike the death camps, the evidence of which was systematically destroyed by the perpetrators, Jones, in his irrepressible arrogance, did just the opposite: he recorded it. The records left behind by the fall of Peoples Temple stand alone as an example of what can go wrong when good people stop thinking for themselves and give their will over to another. It is for this reason I have come to believe that this story should be analysed, so that we may tear away the web of lies and misrepresentations Jim Jones left behind. In the way, the next time that many-headed monster raises its head, be it our need or not, we will have the knowledge – and from it, the power – to resist its call.
“Someone should have told what they knew years ago…”
Jim Jones, of Father Divine’s ministry, Q 955
(Mark Williams lives in Great Britain. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)