Coerced Suicide: The Jonestown Deaths, Suicide Bombings, and Beyond

06-08-lankfordSuicide has become a dirty word. In most cultures and contexts, people are quick to associate it with cowardice and human frailty. Many assume that those who kill themselves are inherently flawed, somehow lacking the hardwired survival instinct that we should all have deep inside. Others consider suicide a selfish betrayal of one’s friends and family, who are left behind to deal with the fallout. And still others believe that suicide is an unforgivable violation of religious law – a sin against the holy creator who granted us life.

But like most human behaviors, suicide is quite complex. Those who are quick to point the righteous finger of blame should pause – at least for a moment – and reconsider. Ask yourself: is there anything which could lead you to take your own life? When philosophers tackle these types of questions, they like to start with extreme, hypothetical examples that force our values into the light. So consider the following:

  1. If someone pointed a gun at you and ordered you to kill yourself, would you do it? Or would you disobey?
  2. If you obeyed and killed yourself, would that constitute suicide?

Answers to the first question tend to differ. Not everyone would obey. Some people would try to fight back, escape, or refuse to cooperate – no matter what the circumstances. Others would give in, which might at least give them some control over their deaths, and could help them avoid additional conflict and pain. Answers to the second question also differ. Since human language is a man-made construct, we can call this decision whatever we want. But perhaps the most accurate label is “coerced suicide.”

When people are coerced into suicide, it means that they killed themselves because someone with power over them pressured them to do so. If they could have been magically transported to another place, where the coercive force was no longer present, these individuals might have lived long and happy lives. But because they felt trapped by the situation and powerless to do anything else, they ultimately chose death.

It seems likely that at least some of the people who died in Jonestown, Guyana in November 1978 were coerced into suicide. Accounts differ as to the specific coercive forces present. But we can imagine how hard it would have been to say “no,” given the forceful orders from group leader Jim Jones, the presence of his armed guards, the rumors of an impending military assault from the Guyana Defense Force, the implied peer pressure from fellow members who were also obeying, the death of the innocent children, and the limited options for escape. No doubt there were some individuals who, as they raised the poison to their lips, wished that they were instead somewhere else, where they could live out their years in peace. To a large extent, these people were victims – victims of circumstance, and perhaps victims of Jones himself – even if they technically committed suicide.

Of course, not everyone at Jonestown was coerced into suicide. Certainly Jones was not coerced. And some former group members, such as Dianne E. Scheid, have suggested that a portion may have been suicidal in a more conventional sense. As she wrote in 2006, “I think [some] were just plain tired, tired of being oppressed, tired of feeling there was no hope of ever being able to get out, just tired of being tired. So like a wolf that will gnaw off its leg to free itself from a trap, many chose the only option before them.”

In addition, some Peoples Temple members had previously demonstrated their suicidal intent by volunteering to carry out suicide bombings. For instance, one wrote a letter to Jones explaining that “I am again willing to go and get our enemies. I will make sure that each time I get one, I will be ready to blow myself up.” Another suggested that “If I could get to a conference of traitors, I could detonate myself in their midst.”

In my forthcoming book The Myth of Martyrdom: What Really Drives Suicide Bombers, Rampage Shooters, and Other Self-Destructive Killers, I suggest that there are four different reasons why people carry out suicide attacks, and that these distinct reasons for suicide may have all been present at Jonestown.

Coercion is one of them. For example, in Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, some suicide bombers have been coerced into carrying out suicide attacks – similar to the coerced victims at Jonestown. These individuals only blew themselves up because they were pressured and threatened by their leaders. For instance, a teenage boy named Ghulam was told that if he refused, another terrorist would chop off his head and he would go to hell. Others were told that their families would be harmed if they did not obey. Not surprisingly, these people came to believe that suicide was their easiest way out. As a female suicide bomber known as Nazima explained, “I began counting the days until I was going to die, because they forced me. I hate the idea of dying, I like living…[but] I didn’t have the courage to tell my father [and ask for help].”

Should coerced suicide bombers be considered victims, just like those coerced into suicide at Jonestown? It’s a difficult question. Their decisions to blow themselves up were made “under duress,” which is a legal phrase defined as “unlawful pressure exerted upon a person to coerce that person to perform an act that he or she ordinarily would not perform.” Typically, if someone signs a contract under duress, he or she is not held responsible for doing so. On the other hand, international law dictates that soldiers, for example, are responsible for all of their actions, no matter what their leaders ordered or what pressures were put upon them.

Again, it’s a difficult question, further complicated by the fact that suicide bombers create their own victims – the men, women and children whom they have killed with their deadly attacks. If anyone is deserving of sympathy, it would seem to be the innocent targets of terrorist strikes, not their attackers. But perhaps our compassion should extend to all involved. People who are coerced into suicide have carried the burden of many intimidating pressures that we have been fortunate enough to avoid.

Is there anything which could lead you to take your own life – and the lives of others?

Hopefully, most of us will never find out.

(Adam Lankford is a criminal justice professor at The University of Alabama. His research has been featured by media outlets in Austria, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Sweden, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Adam Lankford is the author of the forthcoming book, The Myth of Martyrdom: What Really Drives Suicide Bombers, Rampage Shooters, and Other Self-Destructive Killers. The book is published by Palgrave Macmillan. Dr. Lankford may be reached through his website