Outside the Ring: Humanity in Tragedy

by Brad Davis

On May 6th, 1995, a crowd of thousands watched Jimmy Garcia die at the hands of Gabriel Ruelas. They were fighting for the featherweight title. Garcia, at the end of the fight, fell unconscious and into a coma from which he would never awaken. What resulted was a grieving family and an ever-guilt-ridden fighter. There is no sense or happy ending to this story. People still box. People still watch.

Nearly twenty years earlier, over 900 Americans were forced to commit suicide in Northwestern Guyana under the leadership of Jim Jones. This group was known as Peoples Temple. Before traveling to Guyana, Peoples Temple was primarily rooted in San Francisco and other cities and towns in California. Then it was not viewed by the public as a cult organization; rather, it was well respected by the community and by America at large. It was one of the first fully integrated religious groups, and many of the principles on which it was founded were highly respectable. Christian ideals and both racial and socio-economic equality were the mainstays of a less widely appreciable socialist ideology. Over time, however, suspicions of Jones’ political leanings, personal drug dependency, and abuses of his leadership role emerged from the confines of Peoples Temple and attracted media attention. His eventual movement of core members to Guyana symbolized the beginning of the end, even though there were many other grotesque choices Jim Jones had made before. In Guyana, Jones’ paranoia and insanity would become even more clear, culminating in the forcing of his followers to drink from a vat of punch laced with cyanide. This story would blow up in the media with such an enduring impact that, in modern culture, the idiom “to drink the Kool-Aid” refers to a person’s willingness to go along with a blatantly self-destructive or generally harmful idea.

In the concluding section of his meditative essay on the Jonestown Massacre and Peoples Temple to which he belonged, Tim Carter, one of the survivors, writes: “I recoil at the glibness of the phrase, ‘Don’t drink the Kool-Aid’”. This essay, “Thirty Years Later,” brings up the question of what there is to be learned from this event, as well as the question of “how does one properly compute and manage the memory and repercussions of an atrocity?”

Carter is finding his own way to come to terms with this event, and, in so doing, he addresses the issue of group dynamics. He strives to make it extremely clear that, in this case, the “core of the dynamic” was the fact that the members of Peoples Temple were “common people.” This dynamic, which was abundantly clear to every member, was not the product of the individuals being mindless cult members but was, instead, a product of their own humanity. To look at it otherwise would be to rob both those lost and those who survived of their dignity as people. The members of Peoples Temple were working for something noble, and, in order to achieve it, they were able to justify decisions that could be seemingly contradictory to their personal beliefs.

In reflecting on Peoples Temple, Carter sees that “the belief that ‘the ends justify the means’ is both fallacious and dangerous.” He acknowledges that he, like the other members of Peoples Temple, had used this saying to rationalize many wrongs as acceptable under the leadership of Jim Jones. Carter now sees that the principles a group is built upon will dictate what the principles of the group will be, once it has reached its goals. The end doesn’t justify the means, but the means define the end.

Carter continues by comparing the “group mind” of Peoples Temple to that of the American public with regard to the USA PATRIOT Act. The pressure to push this bill into law forced politicians and the American people at large to abandon their principles of freedom for an end that was deemed necessary for any true patriot to accept. This example places the forces behind those decisions that led to the demise of Peoples Temple within a more familiar context, as well as illustrating that even democracies are not impervious to this thought process. Carter refers to this very human reaction as “group think,” and, as important as it is to recognize this concept itself, it is equally important to recognize where the idea originates. In the case of the Patriot Act, the fear and panic that spread in the post-9/11 landscape led to decisions that called for a violation of certain principles, even for a perceived sense of safety. There were no bad intentions here, just as there were no bad intentions in the vision of Peoples Temple, yet the demand for a common acceptance of what those in power perceive to be most important can lead people to make decisions that go against what they know is right. The demands of Leadership, itself, require expertise in presenting, reasonably and sensibly, the need for its constituents to accept, spiritually, morally, scientifically, selfishly its goals to improve their lives.

As Carter admits, he bought into Peoples Temple. Despite “red flags,” he remained a loyal supporter of its leader by rationalizing their justification. In this essay, he tries to justify the mass murder or mass suicide from which he escaped by addressing the humanity of the victims. In his novel Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut explores his own reaction to witnessing the horrific Dresden bombings during the Second World War through the lens of a fictional character whose experiences in part relate to his own. Before the story of the fictional character Billy Pilgrim begins, Vonnegut outlines the extremely arduous process it was to write this novel. He even refers to an early version of the book in which he states: “It is so short and jumbled and jangled… because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre” (24). This is, in one sense, a joke, as Vonnegut proceeds to write an entire novel about a massacre, but it also highlights the fact that his focus is not the massacre but, instead, the humanity that surrounds it. Even when discussing the layout of the novel with one of his old war friends, he decides upon the irony of having one of their buddies being executed after taking a teapot from the wreckage of Dresden as the perfect climax – instead of the tragedy itself. In many ways, this serves as a greater metaphor for the novel: trying to grasp for rationality and justice while representing humanity in a world of chaos. Likewise, Carter recognizes the absurdity of finding meaning in the Jonestown Massacre. He admits that “the more I have learned, the more I realize how little I truly know.” He frames his perspective as a snapshot of how he currently perceives this event, and he understands that the complexity of the story makes it hard to see any lesson or statement gathered from it as concrete.

The complexity of Jonestown was lost in the media coverage of this event. When it occurred in 1978, it was the largest single loss of American civilian life in a deliberate act at the time (Rapaport). In 2001, 9/11 would be the first event to surpass this number of civilian deaths. The media coverage of 9/11 would demonize terrorists and, by extension, much of the Middle East. This demonization would in one sense simplify 9/11, for the terrorists described in the event were no longer considered human. Their motivations were boiled down to a sort of Islamic-based insanity that could only be guarded against by heightened security. There is a similar dehumanization of those who were lost in the Jonestown massacre. The people of Jonestown were disconnected from their dreams of socio-economic equality; they were now “whacko cultists” led blindly to their deaths. This dehumanization of a story morphs it into a much simpler event, ideal for the mass comprehension of a society. In the aftermath of 9/11, the presence of the U.S. military in the Middle East increased, and U.S. security measures – now referred to as “security theater” – were put into place, highlighting our perceived sense of security while proving ineffective in protecting the American people. The simplification of Jonestown made the event more meaningless. No longer could one look at Jonestown as a horrific example of the human capacity for evil in the pursuit of the greater good. Like a death in a boxing ring, Jonestown, for many, has become a spectacle of inhumanity.

After returning from Guyana to a nation in shock from Jonestown, Carter had to re-evaluate what he believed spiritually. He recognized that he had lost himself in his quest for a better life and that he had lost God, as well. He had allowed Jim Jones to take His place, and that had been a grievous mistake. Carter concludes his essay by stating that he wants to put the event of Peoples Temple behind him. He ends his text with a list of the loved ones who were lost and states, “I am at peace knowing that nothing is lost in God.” Carter finds solace in the fact that this viewpoint recognizes the humanity of the situation. Unlike the media or even Carter himself, who can only look at so much information about the event, God knows the whole story, and only God’s judgement will matter in the end.

No person has the luxury of a purely objective and emotionless judgment of the world. Humanity is framed by confusion, misunderstanding, fear, and darkness. Cults, politicians, organized religions, and even advertisements sustain themselves on these traits that characterize life and the spiritual search for meaning. Carter and those who took part in Peoples Temple were looking for fairness and sense. They were, perhaps willingly, tricked by the promises of a charismatic man, but what is worse is that many lost themselves. They lost their guiding principles, and, in the end, those principles are the only flashlights that people have to illuminate the darkness.

Ten days after the death of fighter Jimmy Garcia, his mother, Carmen Garcia met with Gabriel Ruelas. The conversation started with Carmen Garcia pointing to Ruelas’ fists and saying, “I want to see you, but it’s been hard for me, because those hands killed my son.” The meeting ended with a hug and Garcia’s gracious farewell: “Whenever I see you fight, I will see my son in you. And I will pray for you too.” For one to only look at the ring would yield no conclusion to this story, only more darkness. These are the survivors of these events. They are the ones that complicate what the media simplified. They sometimes raise questions and at other times challenge answers, but, either way, they represent the only hope for the aftermath of massacres – the humanity of the victims that would otherwise be lost.

Works Cited

Carter, Tim. “Thirty Years Later.” 21 Jan. 2015.

Rapaport, Richard. “Jonestown and City Hall Slayings Eerily Linked in Time and Memory / Both Events Continue to Haunt City a Quarter Century Later.” SFGate. 16 Nov. 2003. Accessed 03 Apr. 2017.

Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse-five, Or, The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-dance with Death. New York: Dial, 2015. Print.

(Brad Davis is a sophomore student in the College of Arts and Sciences at New York University. He can be reached at bcd296@nyu.edu.)

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