JONESTOWN: COULD IT HAPPEN AGAIN?
It was unthinkable. A small American religious group struck out for a new life in the tiny country of Guyana, on the northern tip of South America. Three days after a Congressman went to retrieve a small boy living at Jonestown, they all lay dead.
How did this horror happen? Could it happen again? Author, expert and survivor Laurie Efrein Kahalas re-opens Pandora’s Box to finally tell America the truth. Here are some surprising answers.
A RELIGION OR A "CULT"?
Laurie Efrein was young and vulnerable at the time she joined Peoples Temple Christian Church. Every parent will want to know what went through this young woman’s mind as she abandoned life as she had known it, to throw in her lot with the powerful leader of a controversial church. At the time, it was a thrilling breakaway from the culture at large, visionary in scope, yet pragmatic to the core in its outreach of humanitarian service. In every laudable way, Peoples Temple was doing the work of the church. Only much later on, was it labeled a "cult."
"Cult" is a highly-loaded term which may mean any number of things: a dictatorial leader, exploitation of followers (economic or emotional), strange in-house beliefs, life styles at odds with the culture, a violent bent, extreme isolation, secrecy, indoctrination, real or threatened punishment for infringement of rules, and the like.
This was one follower who suffered (primarily) emotional harm within a counter-culture group, about which she is completely honest. Yet she has taken heed of those lessons, and now cautions not to condemn, attack or oppose churches or other groups on an arbitrary or overzealous basis. Zealotry on both sides will only make things worse.
No group is a monolith or fits some set profile. If we attack people because we do not like their lifestyle, their beliefs, or their influence over our loved ones, especially if those attacks involve the law, it is likely that whatever problems that may exist will be made worse. When we do not honor people’s choices, even painful or costly ones, we jeopardize the very relationship of trust we claim to treasure.
Peoples Temple was acclaimed as a humanitarian church doing immense good within the community. It had also achieved something unknown in America: complete racial and economic equality. It was not only a great draw for people (both black and white), but it was a cultural breakthrough that most surviving members of the church value to this day, including those who turned against the church.
Many donated all their worldly goods, but before moving to Guyana (where the community was self-enclosed), that was strictly a matter of choice. Many felt peer pressure to be coercive, others Jim Jones’ personal leadership coercive. Yet the general membership had far better lives than what they knew previously, and in an atmosphere of loving and supportive community. People joined, or severed ties, peaceably without repercussions.
There are enigmas in the Peoples Temple story which were not typical for other controversial groups. This was a group that attracted political persecution for its far-left-wing stance, and had to contend with politically-motivated press smears, government plants, government harassments, investigations (all dropped for lack of evidence), mercenary threats, one actual attack, and a whole range of "dirty tricks" like anonymous threatening phone calls falsely blamed on the church. The physical isolation of the jungle community was now accented by a blatant public drive to destroy the church.
What went wrong in Guyana, and was that really the result of a "cult"?
Ironically, the people of Jonestown were put as risk at much by outside opposing forces, as they were by a destabilized Jim Jones. A mercenary attack had already been launched against the community. Joseph Mazor, the man who claimed to be its leader, later came into the community and announced that the plan had been to "kidnap children and then kill all the adults," i.e. mass extermination. The press smears were relentless, and spearheaded by people with powerful government ties. Congressman Ryan was lured to Jonestown under completely false pretenses: a knowingly false paternity claim to Jim Jones’ own young son (who had been abandoned by his natural mother), laid by the church’s former top attorney, Timothy Stoen. It was felt that if the leader’s child was given up, any child would be fair game.
This was a community that was geographically trapped, militarily defenseless and so remote and isolated, there weren’t even phones to alert the outside world or call in help. All the factors of isolation, siege mentality, and a paranoid leader, were deliberately aggravated rather than defused.
Church or "cult"? Remember people are human beings first. If you aim to destroy people, or use measures as coercive as those you claim to oppose, you may wind up with a tragedy you could never have foreseen. Talk to people. Love them. Don’t label them. Don’t trap them.
LOYALTIES: WHY WOULD PEOPLE PREFER THEIR
ATTACKERS TO THEIR OWN COMMUNITY?
Much has been written about coercion, "brainwashing," loyalties forced rather than chosen. Somehow people were supposed to instinctively side with press smearers and government agents, rather than with the community in which they had invested their hearts, souls, and enthusiastic labor.
What has never been considered is what if people’s loyalties were genuinely to Jonestown and with good cause? Peoples Temple was comprised of people who had a great deal at stake: the opportunity to break away from the inner cities, fraught with racism, drugs, crimes, unemployment, substandard housing and education.
Were they deceived about what would await them at Jonestown? Did the community fulfill their dreams, or merely endanger their lives? It is possible there were elements of both? What are the lessons to be learned?
It is clear from the scores of rave reviews that survive, that Jonestown was an acclaimed, successful community (see RAVE REVIEWS), despite that these rave reviews were deliberately blocked out of the U.S. press. The author handled public relations in the U.S. headquarters while the bulk of the membership was in Guyana, and the yellow journalistic press, whose members had never visited the community, refused to do anything but print unsubtantiated lies and smears.
Even Charles Krause, the reporter from the Washington Post, who came with the Congressman’s party, said in his book "Guyana Massacre": "I rather admired Jim Jones’s goals… The Peoples Temple hadn’t stuck me as a crazy fringe cult… It seemed to me that the Peoples Temple had a legitimate purpose, a noble purpose, and was more or less succeeding… No one had offered any proof that the 900 or so people at Jonestown were being starved, mistreated, or held against their will… The hundreds of people still at Jonestown, who had chosen not to defect, seemed ample proof that they were relatively content." If an outsider pre-indoctrinated about "the horrors of Jonestown" reacted in this positive manner, what loyalities could be expected from the people within the community?
By the time the Congressman arrived at Jonestown, complete with a "media circus," the people of Jonestown felt that their lives had been lied about, threatened, invaded, and were now prey to a hoard of pre-indoctrinated reporters, busting arrogantly into a community of largely black residents when not a single one of them was even black. Surely such an endeavor was inflammatory, not helpful.
Had anyone visiting that day at Jonestown really cared about preventing a tragedy rather than forcing a productive, peace-loving community to disband, it is possible that the ensuing tragedy might not have happened at all. And certainly anyone approaching Jonestown with suspicions or doubt should have considered what the people there wanted for their lives, not what outsiders wanted to superimpose upon them.
DID THE PRESS MAKE THINGS WORSE?
The press was always a suspect component in the tragedy at Jonestown. Why was Jonestown smeared in the press before any reporter had ever visited? What was it government-connected outsiders who spearheaded the smear campaign? How many people really claimed terrible conditions at Jonestown, who were they, and who were their backers? Did anyone ever tell a different story? What reports were ignored? Why did ABC’s 20/20 show Congressman Ryan telling the community of Jonestown, "I hear many of you saying that this is the best thing that has ever happened to you"? Why did it take twenty years to put that film on the air?
We know even in an open society like America, how easy it is for the power of the press to destroy innocents. All the smears against Jonestown were the result of the affidavits of two spiteful young women, Deborah Layton and Yulanda Crawford. Both affidavits contained many lies, such as claims of barbed wire and closed circuit t.v., starvation diets, forcible evacuation from the United States, and the like.
Yet the press was so zealous that they began the smears with an article called "Jonestown: Paradise or Prison" based upon the word of people who had never been to Jonestown at all! The press, manipulated and used by outsider government agents (as detailed in "SNAKE DANCE"), was simply determined to smear and destroy a politically controversial group without giving their real, political reasons. Rather it was "fraud," "coercion," "holding people hostage" and the like.
The role of the press cannot be underestimated in the deaths at Jonestown. Especially when leadership is known to be as zealous as was Jim Jones, you will only push people to extremes when you attack them with malice, lies, and false witnesses.
SHOULD RELATIVES HAVE INTERVENED?
Pressure groups of relatives are common enough when people are concerned about groups to which their loved ones seem to be committing their lives. There are support groups in every walk of life, so on the surface of it, this may not be a bad idea. With Peoples Temple, however, the so-called "Concerned Relatives" group was a front led by people who had no legal claim to their relatives. Some of its leaders did not have relatives in Jonestown at all, but used this group as a ploy to further a hidden agenda.
Its leader, Timothy Stoen, had NO relatives at Jonestown. So why did he continually threaten to send in mercenaries to kidnap a child that he, his ex-wife, and scores of others knew was not his? Why did he deceive Congressman Ryan into believing his story? Did he have ulterior motives for bringing the Congressman to Jonestown?
Here lay another factor which is unlikely to be duplicated with another group. The whole weight of government was thrust into motion against a group of innocents on false charges. This does not mean that genuinely concerned relatives should not be involved in the lives of their loved ones. Tragically, what was done with Jonestown was a travesty of deliberate provocation, rather than any genuine "rescue" attempt. Again, every group, every case, must be considered separately. And any members of such a pressure group need be aware that they are as vulnerable to being manipulated by so-called "anti-cult" forces, as they may consider their relatives inside the "cult" to be.
VIOLENCE: WAS IT AVOIDED OR ESCALATED?
Did a group with an unblemished 25-year record of non-violence suddenly turn violent in the jungle? How many guns were found at Jonestown? Did the people of Jonestown have reason to fear violence against them?
Who committed the violence that tragic night? What became of the evidence cache? Why did the public never learn that the official government witness, Jim Cobb, admitted to the press that he never even had the shooters in his line of vision?
Why did Jim Jones repeatedly deny any involvement in the shootings on the final tape made at Jonestown? Why did the film of the assassination feature shooters in Army uniforms, disembarking in a professional military formation? Did the people of Jonestown have such a capacity? Contrary to press reports, this was NOT a paramilitary camp, and had no military training whatsoever.
The reality was that Jonestown was virtually unarmed. Although Temple defector Deborah Layton swore that she had seen "hundreds of guns" at Jonestown, both Guyanese and American authorities later claimed to have only found thirty-nine small weapons, mostly 22.caliber. The lies about guns only served to justify violence against the community, and to lay the pathway for a frame.
In point of fact, Jonestown was the target of violence in its short history, not the perpetrator. A mercenary attack had been launched against Jonestown a year earlier, which included an assassination attempt against Jim Jones. Mercenary threats were ongoing, brazenly recorded in both newspaper editorials and State Department logs.
Yet what of the scene at the airstrip when Congressman Ryan was killed? It was chaotic and confusing. A Temple member, Larry Layton, depressed about his mother’s recent death, and blaming his sister for leaving to work with government agents, went off alone with a gun to the airstrip. When news came back to the community that the Congressman had been killed, they assumed that someone from Jonestown had done it. The community was seven miles from the airstrip. No one reported the professionalism of the "hit," just that bodies lay dead. Denials of knowing who shot the Congressman, wanting the shooting, much less "ordering" it, are all over the final tape at Jonestown, including a comment on those who reported the event: "They saw it happen, and ran into the bush…" I.e., Temple member were not shooters, but witnesses.
This was a community that had been unerringly non-violent for twenty-five years. The shock and horror of the killings, with apparently no "suspects" but their own, sealed their fate. Jim Jones’ inherent paranoia, aggravated by grave physical illness, combined to prognosticate the community’s doom in a retaliatory strike. At the very least, this wondrous community, built of sacrifice and love, would be forcibly disbanded – a traumatic, agonizing, even violent process. Some would not have been dragged away under any circumstances.
It is long past time to recognize the tragic confluence of circumstances, against which the people of Jonestown were helpless. They could not defend their community militarily. They were sitting ducks. And still under investigation is WHO KILLED THE CONGRESSMAN. Leo Ryan was the most vocal anti-C.I.A. critic of his day, and the hatefest between him and the C.I.A. was as fierce as was the hatefest between the C.I.A. and Jim Jones. There was virtually no evidence that anyone from Jonestown assassinated the Congressman, nor was there ever any public hearing in the matter.
The people of Jonestown never had the opportunity to investigate what happened at the airstrip. The "choice" they faced at the end was barely a choice at all. Under the assumption that their own had killed the Congressman, they could take their own lives, or wait for what they believed was an inevitable military retaliation. Tragically, the "suicide contingency" had been discussed before, and elements in the community were extreme enough to follow through. Psychologically, the anathema of sanctioning the deaths of children was flat up against the anathemas of both attempting to flee while those you loved were dying, and "running into the arms of the enemy."
However, it is also clear that however tragic and extreme, there was a very REAL crush of circumstances, that was moreover, not just the work of a destabilized leader, but deliberately provoked from the outside. People who genuinely believe that a group already under siege could verge towards violence, would never deliberately force that group into a legitimate rage over lies, invasion, avowed attempts to destroy their lives and drag them away. Much less create military provocations!
There seems little doubt that Jim Jones had snapped, and the community followed his lead. But if we do want to prevent such catastrophes in the future, we must work to defuse volatile situations, not create them.
SHOULD THE GOVERNMENT HAVE INTERVENED?
Are small groups who counter the common culture an endangered species? Who draws the line in assessing whether a group is constructive or dangerous? Where are the lines drawn between investigation and harassment? Was there government interference the public never knew of with Jonestown? Was it justified? What are the lessons to be learned?
Whatever were the realities of life at Jonestown, people have the right to choose their own lifestyle. They have to right to move overseas. They have the right to establish their own economic base. In the case of Jonestown, where the evidence is so profuse that this community was acclaimed, praised, successful, and considered a role model for the region, with no hint of violence, we have to consider that if the people at Jonestown had not suffered repeated violations of their first amendment rights, fourth amendment rights, human, civil and religious rights, along with outrageous, illegal maneuvers like the cut-off of rightful Social Security stipends, NO ONE at Jonestown might have been provoked to violence against either others or themselves. No one went to investigate Jonestown to "defuse a ticking time bomb." They went to set the bomb!
This must especially be seen in the political context of its time: a far left wing group persecuted by J. Edgar Hoover’s F.B.I. and the C.I.A.’s Cold War. This was a leader who had gone to visit Black Panther leader Huey Newton in Cuba. This was a group who planned on re-relocating to the then-Soviet Union. Would this provocative move have been permitted? Did the governmental forces opposing Jonestown want these people to thrive and flourish, or to stop them in their tracks?
The anathema in the picture still remains suicide, especially involving children. Yet the key figure opposing the Temple, Timothy Stoen, had lured the Congressman to Jonestown on false pretexts, the inflammatory claim to the leader’s own son! There was not the slightest pretense of protecting life, but rather endangering it. So must we not consider that it took more than "a lone madman" to bring mass death to Jonestown? What do you do when so-called "rescuers" are in fact callous and indifferent to human life? When their motives are not the wellbeing of the group, but rather to destroy them?
If one justifies what governmental forces did to Jonestown, it gives liberty and license for unjust persecution of other groups. Is it not better to proceed on the basis of respect for human life, rather than a Big Brother intervention policy which could threaten the liberties and privacy of us all?
A SIEGE MENTALITY: JUSTIFIED?
Jonestown was ripe for a siege mentality: geographically trapped in a dangerous jungle; militarily defenseless; so remote and isolated, it did not even have a phone. Was a locale chosen for insulation and protection, instead a prescription for endangerment? Was this exploited by those who opposed the community’s ideals and goals? What elements of paranoia from within Jonestown may have been justified? What role did this play in the tragic end?
There is no doubt that Jonestown had a siege mentality. There is also no doubt that Jim Jones was willing to exploit that in the extreme, to the point of "Give me liberty or give me death!" There is no doubt that suicide should NEVER have been considered as a "contingency," especially in a community with children. But given those realities, is it not destructive, rather than helpful, to deliberately provoke an escalation of siege mentality through mercenary threats, an actual attack, lies, smears, and incessant harassments?
We may dislike groups, their leaders, their ideologies, methods, or goals, but we must recognize that siege mentality, especially in a geographically isolated community, can endanger lives. Moreover, the people of Jonestown had very real reason to feel threatened: incessant mercenary threats, an actual attack, and now the full weight of the government and media being brought to bear on a small, vulnerable group. What was worse, it was the very people claiming they wanted to "rescue" people who were advocating violence!
The siege mentality at Jonestown was, tragically, justified. And its opponents, tragically, deliberately intensified that state of siege.
SUICIDE: A MAD LEADER, OR GROUP DRIVEN OVER THE EDGE?
How can a large community, especially involving small children, "commit suicide"? Why would they even consider such an option, even if threatened, if there was ANY other option to be considered?
This is an inescapable question. From many years’ association with Jim Jones, it was clear that he would consider such an option rather than see the group go under from outside persecution. Undoubtedly, if one consulted the hearts and minds of each person individually, many would have rather fought to the death than lay down their own lives. Or be dragged away, if only to spare the lives and future of small children, however bleak their futures might seem. Yet we cannot second-guess this, and the loyalties within Jonestown were indeed fierce. People loved their home-grown community, and were devastated at the attempts to destroy it.
So what drove this group over the edge? Was it just the force and influence of Jim Jones? Tragically, this situation was more complex. This was a community that had already been physically attacked in broad daylight when they were just peaceably going about their own business, and now it was on the heels of an assassination going into the middle of the night! Jim Jones, who was known to have unusual paranormal abilities, was shouting that a slaughter was about to close in, and many undoubtedly believed him. There was no way to know one way or the other, and there was no time.
The people of Jonestown may also well have preferred to stand together in unity and love, even to the death. And since military defense was impossible, and geography trapped them, options were few.
Was it Jim Jones own personal predilection towards suicide that governed the day? It undoubtedly played a role, but that cannot discount that circumstances were indeed crushing and life-threatening that night. Further research has revealed that the shooters of the Congressman were never reliably identified (the main government eyewitness admitted to the press that he never had the shooters in his line of vision), so there are still open questions, even the factor of using the assassination to provoke the suicides.
Given that it was known that Jim Jones could resort to such a ghastly suicide plan, was he and the community deliberately pushed in that direction? And if so, was there not more than enough responsibility to pass around?
MASS SUICIDE AS A POLITICAL TOOL
Motives for mass suicide are not unsimilar to those for personal suicide. Insanity, despair, powerlessness, alienation, also more aggressive motives, such as spite, coercion, disempowered rage, and a leading group motive: political.
The historical prototype is the Jews of Massada, who fell on their swords, men, women, children and all, rather than be dragged away to slavery. Lesser known is that the remnants of a Taino Indian tribe in Puerto Rico jumped over a cliff once two-thirds of their tribe was already wiped out by Christopher Columbus. In more recent history, Buddhist monks immolated themselves in protest against the Vietnam War. Polish miners, in the formative days of Solidarity, threatened mass suicide to have their demands met. As recently as last year, the U’wa people of Columbia, 4000 of them, threatened mass suicide to protest destruction of the environment by oil exploration and drilling. Very nearly yesterday, February 17, 1999, the New York Times reported that a Kurdish group threatened mass suicide to protest the capture of their rebel leader, Abdullah Ocalan.
Other groups have committed mass suicide for apparently, less worldly reasons: The Solar Temple in Switzerland in 1994, and Heaven’s Gate, allegedly to meet a spaceship, in March of 1997.
Wherever the phenomenon (or its threat) occurs, if there is a real or correctible cause (and there may not always be), efforts should be made to correct and defuse, not aggravate and escalate. Perhaps the most despicable cases of threatened deaths are those of hostage-takers, threatening to kill innocents if their demands are not met. Yet even experienced negotiators know that tactics to defuse violence achieve far more than macho tactics of escalation or provocation.
What is saddest about Jonestown, shy of the loss of human life, is how little the world learned, and how much was done to drive these people towards their deaths rather than to ensure their wellbeing and lives.
WHO WILL SPEAK FOR THE PEOPLE?
Twenty years ago, the world was obsessed with demonizing Jim Jones. Now a voice emerges to humanize the people of Jonestown. What were their hopes, their dreams, their human instincts and vulnerabilities? Who will speak for them, and redeem them from labels like "robots," "brainwashed," even "psychopaths"? Can the pathway of condemnation become the pathway to forgiveness? Can the entire truth finally be told?
COULD IT HAPPEN AGAIN?
We live in uncertain times, and there is still "millennial fever" to come. Not all catastrophes can be prevented, but most endangering situations can be handled better than they are. If you feel that someone you love is involved in a group which could turn dangerous, or even suicidal, your best tool is communication. Consider the strength of the beliefs of the questionable group. What do they believe is at stake? Try to talk with people in authority in the group, and test whether they are willing to be fair and open before launching hostile assaults. Reduce their sense of isolation rather than aggravating it. Don’t threaten violence if you have reason to believe that it will be met with equal force. Consider any legitimate factors of despair or paranoia, like an unstable or physically ill leader, or real factors of persecution from the community, government, or press. Never stop letting them know that you love them, and that you would be heartbroken if anything happens to them. Don’t resort to subterfuge or allow outsiders to manipulate you into a posture that will endanger people you care about.
Could Jonestown happen again? No circumstances will be exactly duplicated, but there is no way to say that more mass suicides will not happen. We have already had tragic repeats in recent years with the Solar Temple in Switzerland and Heaven’s Gate in California. These were very isolated groups, cut off from the world, rather than open to the world, as was the relatively heavily-trafficked community of Jonestown. There were no known factors of press or political persecution, as clearly dogged Jonestown.
Yet the factor of mass suicide was in common. So we might also suggest that the factor of despair was common. Groups who commit suicide believe they have no hope, and they also believe that they have no time. Anyone who deals with such a situation directly must be prepared to do so with commitment, compassion, and a steady hand.
Relate to the human factors. Remember that every situation, every group, is different. Don’t let your fears or apprehensions overcome your intelligence, or your capacity to reach out to your loved ones, even when you are the most uncertain as to whether they love or need you. Don’t let outsiders move in to manage and manipulate you into volatile actions you may regret. Consider carefully whether you are working to defuse hostilities or to escalate them. Don’t assume that your relatives have lost their sanity or human feelings if you do not have personal contact so you can know for yourself.
The more you treat perilous situations as human outreaches, and desperate human beings as fully human, the better you will be able to prevent human tragedy!
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