It’s been five years since 9/11, and the media has been full of stories about the anniversary and the nearly 3000 people who died there. Television interviews and books about the survivors of 9/11 and the relatives of those who died abound. A current movie, United 93, shows the heroism and courage of those who resisted the hijackers on that day. A memorial costing millions of dollars is being built at the site where they died in Pennsylvania. The victims of 9/11 are the heroes America will never forget.
On November 18, 1978 another “9/11” occurred in which over 900 Americans died tragically in Guyana. They were Americans just like the ones who died in New York and Pennsylvania. Some, like Christine Miller who on that fateful day courageously argued for life rather than death, tried to stop the killing from happening. Like the heroes of flight 93, they could not.
Why does America not honor the victims of this earlier 9/11? Why are millions being spent on a memorial to the victims of flight 93 while the memorial to the victims of Jonestown has never been funded and has never been built? What is the difference between the events of 9/11 and those of Jonestown that causes America to want to remember the former and forget the latter? These are questions that should concern us all. To answer them may require us to face some uncomfortable facts about our country and ourselves.
For one thing, most of the victims of Jonestown were poor and black: those of 9/11 were overwhelmingly middle-class and white. Racism has always defined America, and here is another of its endless examples in our history. Had the victims of Jonestown been white middle-class New York office workers, attorneys and stockbrokers, we might remember them differently today. Also, Guyana is far from the US, and most Americans can’t identify with people there or imagine themselves in such a place.
But the most critical difference between the people of Jonestown and those of 9/11 is that Peoples Temple was and is considered a cult. Jim Jones was the Osama Bin Laden of his era, the suicidal terrorist, the devil. Because Peoples Temple was a cult, and because it was unclear whether its people died willingly or not, the world today does not remember them kindly.
So today we must ask ourselves, did the people of Jonestown take their own lives willingly or were they brutally murdered by a madman and a few loyal executioners? Many books and articles have been written, movies have been made (mostly bad ones, with the exception of Stanley Nelson’s excellent documentary), and endless discussions have examined this issue. Yet for most people it remains entirely unclear. If they were the innocent victims of a madman and they died through no fault of their own, then they deserve to be remembered and honored as are the victims of the more recent 9/11. If they went to their deaths obediently and willingly, then they are just crazy cultists who got what they deserved. Or are they?
Perhaps the people of Jonestown cannot be so easily classified as innocent or guilty of their own deaths. Perhaps there is more to the story. Clearly there were those who resisted Jim Jones and those who did not that day in Guyana. But rather than try to assign guilt or innocence to specific individuals, I think it is more useful to look beneath the surface and to consider the situation in which the people of Jonestown found themselves. And most importantly, how their situation affected and shaped the events of that fateful day.
From the beginning of Peoples Temple, Jim Jones exercised a large degree of control and influence over his flock. In Redwood Valley and later in San Francisco and Los Angeles, the lives of Temple members were controlled and managed 24/7. What they heard, what they saw and even what they thought was highly circumscribed and adroitly managed by Jim. With the move to Guyana, Jim’s control over every aspect of life and conscious thought was complete. The isolation of Guyana and the fact that Jim’s was the only voice to be heard were potent factors in shaping the people’s thoughts and actions at Jonestown. This isolation and the elimination of any other point of view other than Jim’s are classic components of what is popularly called “brainwashing” or “thought control.”
Writes R. J. Lifton in his book Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: “Thought reform has a psychological momentum of its own, a self-perpetuating energy not always bound by the interests of the program’s directors. When we inquire into the sources of this momentum, we come upon a complex set of psychological themes, which may be grouped under the general heading of ideological totalism. By this … I mean to suggest the coming together of immoderate ideology with equally immoderate individual character traits – an extremist meeting ground between people and ideas.” What Lifton is describing is what came to pass at Jonestown in 1978.
This little understood or acknowledged phenomenon of brainwashing or “thought reform,”,’ as Lifton puts it, is the critical factor that accounts for what happened at Jonestown that day. This factor is what most importantly separates Jonestown from other tragic instances of mass death such as 9/11, and it has much to do with why the people of Jonestown are misunderstood and maligned by those who were not there and cannot possibly understand what happened to the innocents who died there.
Most of us believe we would never join a cult or allow a man like Jim Jones to control us or have power over us. We are stronger than that. We know our own minds. Only weak and foolish people would ever allow themselves to be taken in by such a person as Jim Jones. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. The vast majority of us have little experience with or appreciation for the power of brainwashing or thought control. Therefore we are inclined to greatly underestimate its potency and our own susceptibility to it. We cannot identify with the people of Jonestown because we imagine ourselves impervious to the powerful psychological forces of brainwashing.
The people of Jonestown may not have risen up as one to oppose Jim Jones’ call for death, but theirs was not the simple choice to comply or resist that most of us imagine it was. Jim had prepared the ground, so to speak, by rehearsing the mass suicide scenario many times before. All the years of consolidating his control over the people had created a psychological climate that made it impossible for the people to resist Jim. Finally, the isolation of Jonestown made the trap complete. The fate of Jonestown and its people was sealed long before that day. It was only the spark of Leo Ryan’s visit to Jonestown and the defection of several Temple members who left with Ryan, which ignited the fire that had been smoldering in Jim for a long time.
In America we are asleep. We know little outside of our mostly safe, comfortable, happy though uneventful little lives. The events of 9/11 woke us up for a short time and taught us what it is like to feel vulnerable. We didn’t like the feeling, and we are doing everything we can to go back to sleep again. We were temporarily aroused, in part by the fact that the victims of 9/11 were so easy to identify with. They were just like us: average Americans living what they thought was a safe existence in the most powerful and prosperous country in the world. That is part of our problem and part of why we cannot and do not allow ourselves to identify with others like the people who died in Jonestown. If we were to admit that we are just like them – and just as vulnerable to being influenced and controlled as they were – then we would have to accept that we are not safe. We would have to feel pain for our brothers and sisters all over the world who are suffering and who have lives much less fortunate than ours. So far we have not been willing to go there or do that. Perhaps terrorism, and maybe even future 9/11s, will someday bring us to the point of accepting our common humanity and vulnerability. Perhaps someday we will be able to honor the victims of Jonestown, build their memorial, and accept that they were good people who died trying to build a better life for all of us.
(Dr. Michael Haag is a social psychologist and widower of Temple member Patti Chastain. His complete collection of writings for the jonestown report may be found here. He can be reached at email@example.com.)