In the past 26 years, our world has tried to make sense of the mass suicides occurring within subcultures such as Jonestown (1978), Waco (1993), and Heavens Gate (1997). More recently, the world has struggled to understand the manifestations of religious and political suicide, such as those by Palestinians in Israel, by members of Al-Qaeda against American targets on September 11, and by insurgents in war-torn Iraq.
In order for Western political leaders to effectively intervene and stop the pattern of suicide bombings by predominantly young adults and college students in the Middle East, it is essential to understand the worldview of a new recruit.
Of specific interest is how a subculture – whether religious or political, utopian or apocalyptic – advertises respect for individuality to attract members and then converts the new recruit’s belief system to identify with the greater good. Somewhere between joining and death by suicide, the member learns to identify more with the group mind and less with the need for self-expression. The higher priority to the cause itself makes suicide become thinkable, feasible, attractive and finally, seemingly necessary.
Despite the group’s goals, though, these are still individuals committing the acts, and perhaps we should consider our nation’s response in terms of an approach on an individual level. For example: What would be an intelligent and effective response and intervention if you had the opportunity to talk with an Iraqi youth who was considering becoming a suicide bomber? More dramatically, if you were facing a youth strapped with a bomb, what would you say to dissuade him/her from pressing the button?
I was a high school student when I read researcher Stanley Milgram’s study on Obedience to Authority (1962), in which student volunteers listened more to the authority in the lab then they did to their inner knowing. According to the study, almost two-thirds – 62% – of these students put an unknown and unseen person to death, symbolically speaking, because someone with more perceived power told them to.
I experienced this first hand, and promptly fell into that 62%. When I met Jim Jones, I had an immediate and negative gut reaction to him. I felt that he was untrustworthy and that I should flee the premises, but I overrode that reaction and joined the Temple because their accomplishments impressed me. I believed as a participant in this group that I would have a powerful outlet for my idealism.
And that’s what connects me to the suicide bomber: my idealism as a young political-social activist is matched by the aspirations of the religious-political youth of the Middle East. My identity with a group that I thought could express my idealism resonates with theirs.
My experience with Peoples Temple, as well as my professional training in subconscious communication as a hypnotherapist, have led me to understand the challenges our nation faces in the Middle East.
First, our superior military strength means nothing. We sends in waves of bombers, tanks, Bradley fighting vehicles and Humvees, and are battled to a frustrating standstill by adversaries wrapped in explosives in battered sedans, donkey carts, and heavy clothing.
Second, there is a logic to this which we seem to ignore. When a wealthier nation can outmatch a poor nation in war , the fighter of the poor nation will use whatever unconventional – some might say, incomprehensible – weapon he has at his command, whether it’s a booby trap on a jungle path in Vietnam, a kamikaze airplane pilot in the South Pacific, or a suicide bomber in Iraq.
Third, these individuals do not act on their own. Whether it’s to a nation-state like Japan in World War II, a nationalistic guerilla movement like Vietnam, or an Islamist group in the Middle East, they find identity with cultures or movements which reflect their members’ individual idealism and transform it into group or corporate goals. Al-Qaeda leaders undoubtedly have training guides which enable them to systematically change many new recruits’ thinking so that they fear less the physical pain as the bomb detonates, worry less about the emotional devastation to loved ones, and embrace more the unknown which has been theologically pictured as heaven, 72 virgins, eternal bliss.
How do these groups do it? How do subculture/cult programmers recruit the subconscious that, according to hypnotherapist/ psychiatrist Milton Erickson, has a mind of its own? How does a person’s subconscious which is ostensibly committed to the individual’s survival eventually become more identified with the group will or the greater whole so that the individual’s inherent need to survive becomes completely overridden? And more immediately, why have the powers that want to stop these groups not countered this message that enables so many youth to justify taking their own and others’ lives?
We need to remember the lessons from past wars – yes, including Vietnam – as we engage a growing insurgency in Iraq. But we also need to remember some of the lessons from groups on our own soil – yes, like Peoples Temple and the Branch Davidians – that provide the outlet for individual aspirations, as well as expressions for the greater good by means of individual destruction.
Speaking as a mediator, I believe all of us on the planet have a stake in finding a solution. It would be innovative for regular citizens from many nations to meet in a global forum, brainstorm ideas, and identify the best ones to implement. I remember the idea from an 11-year-old girl shortly after 9/11 who suggested we take money from our military budget, and provide food and healthcare to the people in the Middle East.
If the norm of organized financial plundering (oil interests) and the norm of organized violence (Al-Qaeda) can be replaced with true international planning for peace, then we can start working in earnest on other tasks even more essential to the very survival of the planet itself.
(Andy Silver, a former member of Peoples Temple, is now a divorce and federal mediator in Charlotte, North Carolina. His complete collection of writings for the jonestown report may be found here. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)