The Limits of Language:
A Response from Mike Cartmell

(Ed. note: The 2006 edition of the jonestown report featured a collection of articles in which a number of writers considered the issue of whether the deaths in Jonestown were suicide or murder. One article by Michael Bellefountaine elicited a response from former Temple member Mike Cartmell. The letter follows.)

I agree with your overall theory. However, I’d like to give you a little input on your definition of murder – at least the legal definition. One does not have to “pull the trigger” to be guilty of murder. Certainly Hitler, who never actually killed any Jewish people, cannot escape the charge of murder simply because he didn’t pull the lever that released Zyklon B into the “showers”. Equally important, the law condemns as murderers those persons significantly involved in conspiracies or solicitations of murder. They are subject to the same punishments – and sometimes worse – than those who commit the physical act. Under any civilized standard, Jim is the murderer of all 913.

Similarly, under any such standard, he could not avoid punishment because of his alleged “insanity.” The traditional definitions of insanity for criminal guilt refer to the defendant’s capacity to understand the distinction between right and wrong. I genuinely believe Jim knew right from wrong. Like any psychopath, he just didn’t think the traditional definition applied to him.

I do not believe this eliminates or reduces the culpability of those who assisted him in killing the 913. However, like the examples you cite, there are times when reasonable people view death as a preferable alternative to life, and when society as a whole honors their self-execution. Consider for example:

• The deaths of the Jews at Masada. Interestingly, even though the First Century C.E. historian Flavius Josephus, who informed the world of their storied self-sacrifice, condemned these suicides/murders, theirs is now an honored legend in Israel.

• The deaths of Japanese civilians in Okinawa on the American conquest in WWII.

• The deaths of the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae. Who among us hasn’t been stirred by the memorial poem:

Go tell the Spartans, Stranger passing by, That here, obedient to their law, We lie.

• The deaths of the Jews in Germany during the first crusade.

Indeed, in these examples, as well as others – like those you cite – failure to die or to kill those one loves seems, almost, to carry the unmistakable taint of cowardice. Obviously, these are examples of people under the extreme stress of fear of personal and communal destruction. As a member of the Temple community, I ask, were we then so very different?

I know from having seen photographs of my mother and sister in death in the midst of the Jonestown carnage (so nicely printed for mass consumption in a Newsweek centerfold) that my sister comforted my mother, who was terrified of dying, as they died. I believe they both committed suicide. And I consider my sister a heroine the equal of any of the heroic examples of suicide I list above, and of those I read about in your article. I assure you she was as un-brainwashed and as kind an individual as I’ve ever known. She reasonably believed her community – indeed, the world she knew – was under threat of extreme and deadly attack against which there was no defense. She defended her community, her beliefs, and her family in a manner consistent with the highest standards of honor and dignity. She was correct in her interpretation of the facts as she knew them and courageous in her response. The tragedy was, she was simply wrong about the facts. Even so, however, given the unending stream of Jim’s lies, and in the absence of any other sources of information, her acceptance of those facts was in itself reasonable. I can only hope that when I must make a similar decision, I can follow her extraordinary example, as bravely.

Mike Cartmell