Last November 18th, 2003 marked the 25th anniversary of the Jonestown tragedy. There was a memorial service and a panel discussion to mark this solemn occasion. But with time, memories will fade, feelings will wane and understanding will be lost. This outcome would be an even bigger tragedy. Everyone affected by Jonestown, whether a Peoples Temple survivor or a member of the public who heard of this atrocity, has a responsibility to help prevent its reoccurrence through education and the preservation of history.
I believe a permanent acknowledgement should be made via the restoration of a part of the original Jonestown site along with a memorial for the victims to remind future generations that – as the quote infamously displayed at the Jonestown pavilion read -“Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
This is an extremely delicate issue and deserves all the sensitivity and compassion that can be extended to it. The Gallup Poll has reported that Jonestown was the third most important International News Impact story, behind Pearl Harbor and 9/11. We cannot lose sight of this significance and are therefore obliged to preserve its lessons in an equally appropriate way.
Other historical sites of tragedy such as Masada, the Nazi concentration camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau, the Killing Fields of Cambodia, and the World Trade Center have appropriately acknowledged their tragedies and fittingly memorialized their victims. Equally, these sites have honoured a responsibility to the world community by recording a tragic historical event and by educating people in the hope that these events will never again repeat themselves. The time has come for all those touched by this tragedy – in the US as well as in Guyana – to share in a similar understanding and commit to a similar cause.
Below, I outline an elementary concept of what I envision should be an appropriate and permanent mark. This concept is still in an embryonic stage and requires much more detailed thought, refinement and revision. Ideas offered here act merely to stimulate thoughtful discussion and dialogue as opposed to an irreversible decision. Much of any change to this concept will come from those closer to the history and facts of this tragedy than I am. These are the very people whose participation will determine the success of this project.
The concept is simple. The Guyana government should offer the concession of land on which the original Jonestown community was built to an independent body established for the historic preservation of Jonestown. I suggest that this new concession be split into four parts:
First, the project anticipates restoration of some parts of the original settlement in as much detail as can be gleaned through photographs of the community, personal recollections, and other means. This recreation would include for example, the main meeting hall, Jim Jones’ residence, “The Box” (a 6’x4′ foot underground enclosure where Jonestown’s offenders were allegedly punished,) and other significant buildings which offer a glimpse into community life. These recreations will provide a sense of scale of the community and a physical sense of what it would have been like to live there.
Secondly, a separate building would be erected to serve as an exhibit hall chronicling the history of Peoples Temple, audio and visual recordings, personal reflections by survivors and family members, and academic and lay analyses which have been published over the years. This feature will serve to provide the facts to visitors and offer some explanations as to how and why this atrocity took place. Most importantly, this exhibit will allow the visitor to come to his or her own conclusion and to gain a sense of how to guard against symptoms of future possible tragedies.
Thirdly, an appropriate memorial for the victims of November 18th should be built. This memorial will serve as a tribute for the victims as well as a place for current survivors and family members to seek solace and closure.
Fourthly, I propose a large part of the original community should be left untouched as it has been over the past 25 years. The juxtaposition of the above three physical structures with the visual effect of nature reclaiming much of what was once a living, breathing community, would be a poignant reminder of how ephemeral life really is and how the passage of time can quickly dim this tragedy in our consciousness. Perhaps most importantly, this symbolism will help inspire us and provide the determination not to allow the lessons of this tragedy to ever be forgotten.
Given the nature and size of the project, it will require many people coming together to achieve success. I have no doubt it will be a long and challenging project. It will take great vision, shrewd coordination, hard work and efficient use of resources to achieve its objective. However, it all starts with a few committed persons willing to make a difference for something they believe in.
At its most basic level, Jonestown represents a struggle for human understanding. There are many lessons of human nature we need to learn from the events of 25 years ago. No doubt, this is a painful and long process. The “Jonestown community,” widely defined, has a tremendous responsibility to help record the lessons learned and to try to understand the ones yet to be learned, not only for those immediately affected, but also for a wider global community. We need to acknowledge this responsibility, begin a dialogue and consider the appropriate action.
(Roger Arjoon is originally from Guyana and currently resides in New York City. A graduate of Yale and Oxford Universities where he was a Rhodes Scholar, he works in financial services, and writes part time. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)