Revolutionary Suicide –
Romantic Myth or Modern Reality?

by Michael Haag, Ph.D.

Peoples Temple: The deaths of 913 followers of Jim Jones in November 1978 shocked the world and introduced many to the concept of “revolutionary suicide.” But this idea is not a new one. “Suicide on behalf of a collective cause,” as Michael Biggs (2005) has termed it, has been around throughout much of human history. The object of this article is to explore examples of revolutionary suicide and to contrast the deaths in Jonestown with other similar events, especially the recent spate of Buddhist monks’ self-immolations in Tibet.

Jim Jones’ fascination with suicide as a political statement and tool was evident long before the events of November 18, 1978. Jim had read Revolutionary Suicide (1973), the memoir of Huey Newton, who founded the Black Panther Party and led the militant black political movement of the 1960s and ‘70s. The book’s thesis is that if blacks were going to die anyway because of their socio-economic suffering and prejudicial treatment in America, they might as well die for a reason –  a cause – and thereby make a political statement that would spark a revolution to make the world a better place. Ironically, Newton died in 1989, not as a revolutionary with courage and valor, but at the hands of a common drug dealer on the mean streets of Oakland, California.

The deaths of so many members of Peoples Temple in 1978 shocked the world and largely ended the era of public acceptance or at least tolerance of “cults” in America and elsewhere. The phrase, “Drink the Kool-Aid,” entered the English language to mean blind uncritical acceptance or following of a false prophet. Nevertheless, there is evidence that not everyone in Jonestown was a passive or obedient suicide. In fact, as Tim Carter (2006) has pointed out, many if not most of the deaths in Jonestown were coerced rather than voluntary. Children were forced to drink the poison first. This weakened the will of their parents to resist. Others were forcibly administered the poison. Escape from Jonestown was blocked by armed guards. While one Temple member outside of Jonestown – Sharon Amos in Georgetown – followed Jim’s orders to kill herself and her children, no one else did. Today there is a strong community of Peoples Temple survivors. These are individuals whose lives are testimony to the fallacy of Jim’s conclusion that death was the only option left to Temple members.

As an introductory note, it is important to differentiate examples “revolutionary suicide” from other forms of suicide that are better categorized as “acts of war” or “acts of desperation.”

Perhaps the most well-known suicides of recent times are the suicide bombers in Iraq and Afghanistan who have sought to disrupt Western military operations there. These suicides are certainly acts of war. But they also are intended to inspire and motivate others to rise up and oppose the “infidel,” as the mullahs would put it. Another example of suicide as an act of war is the hijackers of 9/11. These men, directed by Osama Bin Laden, hoped to demolish the myth of Western invulnerability and to inspire others to attack the West and the US in particular. In my view, these people – mainly young men and women – should be considered as using their bodies as weapons of war attacking populations of other nations, whether the population is military or civilian. The same consideration can be applied to the kamikaze pilots of World War II: they died for their country in attacks against a foreign enemy.

As “acts of desperation” as opposed to revolutionary suicide, I am including events such as the hundreds of Japanese at Saipan at the close of World War II who, when faced with the certainty of invasion by American soldiers, elected to throw their children over cliffs into the ocean before hurling their own bodies after them. The same is true of Jewish women in the ghettos of Europe during World War II who chose to drown their children and themselves instead of surrendering to the Nazi concentration camps. These are not acts of revolutionary suicide, but rather decisions for self-inflicted death over the torture and eventual death that they feared at the hands of their oppressors. In that regard, these deaths may have more than a little in common with the deaths in Jonestown that day: the people were told that, if they did not “choose” to die, the invading military forces would capture them all and torture their babies and their seniors.
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The Myth of Masada: Peoples Temple was not the first, nor has it been the last example of “revolutionary suicide.” The Jews of Masada are often cited as an early example of such a suicide (Wikipedia, 2012). As recounted by Josephus Flavius, a first-century Jewish Roman historian, a group of Jewish extremists overcame the Roman garrison of Masada in 66 AD. The Jews used the fortress as a base in harassing the Romans during the First Jewish-Roman War. In 72 AD a Roman legion laid siege to the Jewish garrison. After several months the Romans were able to breach the walls of the fortress, only to discover that all 960 inhabitants had committed a mass suicide rather than be killed or captured and enslaved.

In his book Sacrificing Truth: Archaeology and the Myth of Masada (2002), Israeli sociologist Nachman Ben-Yehuda points out that Masada has become an ideological symbol for the State of Israel and a shrine venerated by generations of Zionists and Israeli soldiers. It is also the most profitable tourist attraction in modern Israel. Ben-Yehuda asserts that the unsubstantiated narrative of Josephus Flavius was edited and augmented in the twentieth century to form a simple and powerful myth of heroism. He believes that this mythical narrative of Masada has been created and maintained by the modern Jewish State to promote its own aims.

One might ask if Ben-Yehuda is merely a naysayer or if Masada is really the myth he believes it to be. Perhaps the site of Masada itself can provide the answer. The site was identified in 1842 and excavated in the early 1960s. Due to its remoteness and its arid environment, the site has remained largely untouched by humans or by nature. Nevertheless, the remains of only about 55 individuals have been found at or near Masada. This calls into question the official version of events that are said to have occurred there two thousand years ago. Whether 960 people actually committed suicide, or whether the story attributed to Josephus Flavius is mostly a myth, clearly the official version today serves the needs of the powerful in the region.

Finally, Masada could be considered an example of an “act of desperation” in that the Jews knew they would be slain or enslaved by the Romans anyway.  They chose death by their own hands for this reason.  Nevertheless, Masada has served as an inspiration to countless others since that time, and I believe it deserves the label “revolutionary suicide” for this reason.
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Tibetan Buddhist Self-immolations: Since the mid-1950s China has dominated and forcibly annexed Tibet while suppressing its Buddhist religion and discouraging religious practice there. But recently the monks have begun to fight back by employing the tool of revolutionary suicide, albeit on an individual basis. Forty-nine Tibetans have been confirmed to have self-immolated inside Tibet since February 27, 2009 (Self-Immolations in Tibet, International Campaign for Tibet). These include 41 men and 8 women. Thirty-eight of the 49 are known to have died following their protest. Each individual’s photo, name, age, date of immolation, known status (deceased/other), protest location and the circumstances of their protest and self-immolation are noted on the website. For example, Dolkar Tso, age mid- 20s, date: 08/07/12, is noted to have set herself on fire at Tsoe Gaden Choeling monastery in Tsoe city. “According to Tibetan sources in exile from her home area, she called out for the return of the Dalai Lama to Tibet, and shouted that there was no freedom in Tibet.” She is noted as “deceased.”

Self-immolation in the Buddhist culture is not a new phenomenon, but rather has a long history dating back several centuries in both China and India. More recently it has become a form of radical political protest (Self-immolation, Wikipedia, accessed 07/30/12). Biggs has compiled a list of 533 self-immolations reported by the Western media from the 1960s to 2002. These accounts include the self-immolation in 1963 of Thich Quang Duc, the images of which transfixed American television viewers. Protesting the persecution of Buddhists under the Roman Catholic administration of Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem, the monk set himself ablaze on a Saigon street.

Self-immolation has not been limited exclusively to the East, however. During the Great Schism of the Russian Church, entire villages of Old Believers burned themselves to death in Russia. Jesuit priests in France in the early 17th century were known to practice self-immolation, but not necessarily intended to be fatal. Suicides by self-immolation also occurred in the United States in protest of the Vietnam War. The practice of self-immolation continues today, especially in India, where perhaps 1500 cases occurred in each year of 2000 and 2001.

Most recently the suicides by self-immolation in protest of China’s policies in Tibet have received worldwide media attention. In response to these events, the Chinese authorities have been noted to rush to the scene and immediately confiscate onlookers’ cell phones in order to delete any photographic evidence of the event. The victims of these self-immolations are then taken into custody never to be seen again. Clearly the Chinese authorities recognize the political power of self-immolations to inspire and motivate individuals as well as to sway world opinion against China’s heavy-handed rule in Tibet. China has imposed travel restrictions for Tibetans, and many Tibetan areas are out of bounds to journalists. China has also initiated “patriotic education” campaigns which are compulsory for Buddhist monks and nuns in Tibet and China.
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Anders Behring Breivik: The recent case of Anders Behring Breivik, a terrorist and mass murderer of 77 people in Norway – mostly teenagers at a retreat center – is illustrative of an individual who likely intended to commit “revolutionary suicide” in support of a philosophy espoused by far-right groups and paramilitaries opposed to multiculturalism and the integration of Muslims into European society. Breivik survived likely because of the liberal attitude towards criminals in that Scandinavian country and simple luck in avoiding death at the hands of the police.

Six hours before the attacks, Breivik posted a YouTube video urging conservatives to “embrace martyrdom” and showing himself wearing a thermal sports top and pointing a Ruger Mini-14. He also posted a picture of himself as a Knight Templar officer in a uniform festooned with gold braid and multiple medals. In the video he put an animation depicting Islam as a “Trojan horse” in Europe. Analysts describe it as promoting physical violence towards Muslims and Marxists who reside in Europe (Anders Behring Breivik, Wikipedia, accessed 08/2012).

At his trial in Norway, Breivik was judged to be sane both at the time of his murders and at the time of trial. He was sentenced to 21 years in prison, the maximum possible sentence under Norwegian law.

Breivik was reportedly pleased at being judged sane. At the prospect of being sent to a psychiatric ward he stated: “I must admit this is the worst thing that could have happened to me as it is the ultimate humiliation. To send a political activist to a mental hospital is more sadistic and evil than to kill him! It is a fate worse than death.” Breivik intends to write about his political views while in prison and to continue to develop and disseminate his anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant philosophy. He hopes to encourage other like-minded individuals to join a network of violent anti-immigrant groups. Following his sentencing at trial, Breivik espoused his views in a speech and ended with the Nazi salute.

Most readers of the jonestown report would not endorse Breivik’s views, and in fact they would find his sentence to be almost a “slap on the wrist,” compared to what he should have suffered, and which he would have, had he committed his crimes in the United States. But whether we agree or disagree with a particular individual’s actions, we cannot confer or deny the label “revolutionary” depending on our own personal political persuasions. Anders Behring Breivik is as much a revolutionary as was Patrick Henry, the American revolutionary hero. Breivik intended to commit “revolutionary suicide” just as Patrick Henry did, if it would further his own particular political agenda.

Conclusion: In retrospect it seems clear that Jim Jones had hoped and wished for the deaths of his people at Jonestown to become an inspiration for others in the Temple to follow in his path. That Jones failed in this endeavor is clear and indisputable. But the failure of Jonestown to motivate and inspire others has not resulted in the demise of revolutionary suicide as a tool of political change. So long as overwhelming power is employed to restrict and restrain individual freedom, revolutionary suicide will remain a favored option employed by the powerless against the powerful.

The case of Anders Behring Breivik illustrates the fact that not all those who employ revolutionary suicide as a tool of political change will meet with our approval or support. The power of revolutionary suicide does not depend on the moral justification of our aims in employing it. But its power is indisputable nonetheless.

Currently, the acts of self-sacrifice by Tibetan monks and others in Tibet and China are having their effect. Not only are local people inspired to rebel and to speak out against Chinese repression, but also the world’s attention continues to be focused on Tibet, much to the discomfort of the Chinese and the detriment of their intentions. How this struggle will evolve and how it will end is anyone’s guess. Nevertheless it is indisputable that the monks have found a powerful tool to effectively fight an overwhelmingly powerful enemy and perhaps eventually to win their freedom and independence, emerging once again as a sovereign nation.

References

Ben-Yehuda, Nachman. Sacrificing Truth: Archaeology and the Myth of Masada (Amherst, NY: Humanity Books, 2002).

Biggs, Michael. “Dying Without Killing: Self-Immolations, 1963-2002.” In Diego Gambetta, Making Sense of Suicide Missions (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005)

Carter, Tim. “Murder or Suicide: What I Saw,” the jonestown report, vol. 8, 2006.

International Campaign for Tibet, Self-Immolations in Tibet, www.savetibet.org, accessed 08/21/12.

Newton, Huey. Revolutionary Suicide (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973).

Wikipedia entries:
Anders Behring Breivik, accessed 08/25/12.
Masada, accessed July 2012.
Self-immolation, accessed 07/30/12.

(Michael Haag is a social psychologist and widower of Patti Chastain, a former member and survivor of Peoples Temple who died in 1995. He is a regular contributor to the jonestown report. His earlier writings appear here. He can be reached at mhaag45@yahoo.com.)

Originally posted on July 28th, 2013.

Last modified on December 5th, 2013.
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