How were the great pyramids built? What happened to Adolph Hitler’s body? Who killed JFK? Whatever became of the crew of the Marie Celeste? History has many mysteries, many that can be resolved only through the speculation of the observer and the conjecture of the believer.
What about Jonestown? What really happened there on November 18, 1978? That question, like so many before us in history, may be answered only in speculation and conjecture. You see, those answers, like the truth and 918 souls, perished that day, never to rise again.
Like most of us over a certain age, we remember exactly where we were and what we were doing when we first heard the news. December 7, 1941; November 22, 1963; September 11, 2001. These dates are indelible etched into the American psyche, and in the minds of each and every one of us old enough to remember these events.
What about November 18, 1978? Where were you? What were you doing? I was not a member of Peoples Temple, knew of no one who was, nor did I have any idea as to who or what caused the events of that day. But like most of the rest of us, I simply sat in front of my television and watched in absolute disbelief and shock that such an event could happen. To Americans. In this century. On that scale.
The story unfolded slowly and with uncertainty. A US congressman machine gunned to death in a South American jungle, 300 suicide victims, 600 to 700 survivors lost in the jungle, many of them crazed zombies seeking revenge on enemies, real or perceived. A religious cult in Guyana. Jim Jones, Peoples Temple.
This was not only foreign to most of us in America, but down right nuts. Where is Guyana, who was Jim Jones, what was Peoples Temple? Suicide. Cyanide. Hundreds of Americans dead. Zombies in the jungle. This made no sense then, and to me, it still doesn’t.
At different times in the next days, weeks and months, we each realized that we were witnessing one of the biggest, most tragic and least understood news stories of the 20th century. Even as the facts began to emerge, to separate themselves from fiction – there were no machine guns, you could count the number of survivors on both hands, there were no death squads, the Jonestown tapes belie the image of zombies – the horror of Jonestown became all too clear, all too real.
What do we know? Aside from U.S. military campaigns, and very few non-military events – such as the San Francisco earthquake, 9-11 and the Galveston, Texas flood of 1900 – we know more Americans died in Jonestown on November 18, 1978, than any other single day event of the 20th Century.
But the understanding still eludes us. As tragic as natural disasters are, we understand our vulnerability to them. As tragic as the events of December 7, 1941 or September 11, 2001 were, we realize that our enemy can strike. As tragic as November 22, 1963 was, we know that the leader of any country can be cut down by an assassin’s bullet if someone was so inclined.
Somehow trying to reconcile how 900 Americans could extinguish their own lives, at the order of a madman, bent on self destruction? That will never be understood.
Of course there is one final question that also leads back to speculation and conjecture: Will there ever be another Jonestown? If George Santayana was right in his most famous quote as prominently displayed in Jonestown – “Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it” – I fear the answer to that will be, yes. We just don’t know who will lead it, or how many will join, or whether it will involve a relatively small group, an entire community, or a nation.
(Phil LaMonica can be reached at email@example.com.)