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Argument of Jonestown Death as a Mass Suicide Essay

The Jonestown Massacre, which had a death toll of 918 people (Rosenberg, 2003), can in the main, be regarded as mass suicide or what in the words of the founder Jim Jones was termed “revolutionary suicide”. This is because all but one of temple members, Christine Miller, supported Jones’ suggestion of “revolutionary suicide” (Jonestown Audiotape, 1978). Jim McElvane, a former therapist, assisted Jones by arguing against Miller’s resistance to suicide, stating “Let’s make it a beautiful day”. This statement was followed by applause from Temple members. In addition to Jim McElvane, several other temple members gave speeches praising Jones and his decision for the community to commit suicide (Jonestown Audiotape, 1978). Some instances that preceded the ugly event and suggest it as mass suicide include; i. White Nights: “revolutionary suicide” rehearsals

A Temple defector Deborah Layton recalled that after work, when purported emergencies arose, the Temple sometimes conducted what Rev. Jones referred to as “White Nights”. During such events, Jones would sometimes give the Jonestown members four choices: (i) attempt to flee to the Soviet Union; (ii) commit “revolutionary suicide”; (iii) stay in Jonestown and fight the purported attackers or (iv) flee into the jungle. On at least two occasions during White Nights, after a “revolutionary suicide” vote was reached, a simulated mass suicide was rehearsed (Layton, 1998). Deborah Layton described the event in an affidavit: “Everyone, including the children, was told to line up. As we passed through the line, we were given a small glass of red liquid to drink. We were told that the liquid contained poison and that we would die within 45 minutes.

We all did as we were told. When the time came when we should have dropped dead, Rev. Jones explained that the poison was not real and that we had just been through a loyalty test. He warned us that the time was not far off when it would become necessary for us to die by our own hands” (Affidavit of Deborah Layton, 1998). From the above statement culled from Affidavit of Deborah Layton, it is evidently clear that Temple members are fully aware that a time will come when it will become necessary for them to die by their own hands. Although, they were not told when or how the “suicide” will occur (Rosenberg, 2003).

ii. Notes from non-surviving residents of Peoples Temple

Notes from the non-surviving residents of the Peoples Temple suggest that the event at Jonestown was a mass suicide. Similar to the “suicide note” usually written by individuals that commit the anti-social act, notes found at the scene of the event in Jonestown suggest it was mass suicide. Found near the body of Marceline Jones (wife of Jim Jones) was a typewritten note, dated November 18, 1978, signed by Marceline Jones and witnessed by Annie Moore and Maria Katsaris, stating: I, Marceline Jones, leave all bank assets in my name to the Communist Party of the USSR.

The above bank accounts are located in the Bank of Nova Scotia, Nassau, Bahamas. Please be sure that these assets do get to the USSR. I especially request that none of these are allowed to get into the hands of my adopted daughter, Suzanne Jones Cartmell. For anyone who finds this letter, please honor this request as it is most important to myself and my husband, James W. Jones (Letter from Marceline Jones, 1978). Annie Moore left a note, which in part stated:

“I am at a point right now so embittered against the world that I don’t know why I am writing this. Someone who finds it will believe I am crazy or believe in the barbed wire that does NOT exist in Jonestown.” Moore also wrote, “JONESTOWN—the most peaceful, loving community that ever existed.” The children loved it. So did everyone else.” The last line, Moore wrote “We died because you would not let us live in peace.” in different color ink (Last words – Annie Moore, 1978).

iii. Leo Ryan Delegation’s Report

Another evidence that characterized the death at Jonestown as mass suicide is the U.S congressman Leo Ryan’s report of his visit to Jonestown. Ryan stated that none of the sixty (60) relatives Ryan had targeted for interviews wanted to leave Jonestown, the 14 defectors constituted a very small portion of Jonestown’s residents, that any sense of imprisonment the defectors had was likely because of peer pressure and a lack of physical transportation, and even if 200 of the 900+ wanted to leave “I’d still say you have a beautiful place here” (Hall, 1989). Similarly, Washington Post reporter Charles Krause stated that, on the way back to the airstrip, he was unconvinced that Jonestown was as bad as defectors had claimed because there were no signs of malnutrition or physical abuse, while many members appeared to enjoy Jonestown and only a small number of the over 900 residents expressed willingness to leave (Layton, 1999).

Lastly, in 1978, officials from the United States Embassy in Guyana interviewed Social Security recipients on multiple occasions to make sure they were not being held against their will (Pear, 1978). None of the 75 people interviewed by the Embassy stated that they were being held against their will, were forced to sign over welfare checks, or wanted to leave Jonestown (Wessinger, 2000).

Jonestown as a Religio-political Movement Vs Collective Action

Founded in 1956 by Reverend Jim Jones, the Peoples Temple (known also as Jonestown) was a racially integrated church purported to practice what it called “apostolic socialism” (Dawson, 2003, Time Magazine, 2008) that focused on helping people in need. Jones had a vision of a communist community, one in which everyone lived together in harmony and worked for the common good (Rosenberg, 2003). This is similar to the communist movement proposed by Karl Marx and Marx followers. Thus, distinct from various scholarly views on collective behavior, Jones aligned this religious cum political ideology with the Communist Party of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, World’s renowned socialist movement. Unlike any routine or non-routine collective action, Jones purported to establish Jonestown as a benevolent communist community, stating: “I believe we’re the purest communists there are” (Pear, 1978).

Marceline Jones (wife of Jim Jones) described Jonestown as “dedicated to live for socialism, total economic and racial and social equality. We are here living communally” (Dawson, 2003). After the day’s work ended, Temple members would attend several hours of activities in a pavilion structure, including classes on socialism (Layton, 1998). Discussions around the topics raised often took the form of Jones usually portraying the United States as a “capitalist” and “imperialist” villain, while casting “socialist” leaders, such as North Korean leader Kim Il-sung, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and Joseph Stalin, in a positive light (Hall, 1987). Another factor that distinguished Jonestown from collective action is that it lacked some elements of collective actions identified by Useem (1998) such as riots, rebellion, and civil violence, planned and unplanned protests, destructive barricades, peaceful and violent demonstrations, aggressive display of grievances, and so forth.

Furthermore, unlikely of collective actions, Jonestown participated actively in politics. Founder Jim Jones was appointed as the Chairman San Francisco Housing Authority Commission (Reiterman and John, 1982). Both in theory and practice, Jonestown is a religio-political movement. Jonestown strongly supported communist movement of the Soviet Union and identified with them. Prior to their eventual death, Jones wrote a letter, on behalf of Peoples Temple (‘apostolic socialism’ church) , to the Embassy of the Soviet Union in Guyana in which he instructed that all their assets be given to the Communist Party of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. However, it is intellectually instructive to conclude by bringing to mind that Jonestown ended as a collective action sequel to their “revolutionary suicide” which has been severally argued as a collective decision of the Peoples Temple resident members at the time of the event.

Theoretical Explanations of Jonestown Event

i. Social identity theory: One theoretical tradition that provides sufficient explanation to the Jonestown event is social identity theory. Developed by Henri Tajfel and John Turner in 1979, the theory was originally developed to understand the psychological basis of intergroup discrimination, and to identify the minimal conditions that would lead members of one group to discriminate in favor of the in-group to which they belonged and against another out-group (Tajfel et al., 1986). Generally, a social identity is the portion of an individual’s self-concept derived from perceived membership in a relevant social group. Social identity theory asserts that group membership creates ingroup/ self-categorization and enhancement in ways that favor the in-group at the expense of the out-group. This quest for positive distinctiveness means that people’s sense of who they are is defined in terms of ‘we’ rather than ‘I’. This is exactly what transpired in Jonestown.

In application, it is obvious that at various forums, statements like “I believe we’re the purest communists there are” (Pear, 1978), “We are here living communally”, “Let’s make it a beautiful day” (Dawson, 2003), dominated Jones, Marceline and other Temple members’ discussions. ii. Social Solidarity Theory: Another theoretical paradigm that dominated the terrain of the study of movements and collective actions in the 1960s is social solidarity theory. The theory is an off-shoot of Emile Durkheim’s functionalist theory on 1938. According to Durkheim, collective conscience and social solidarity constitute common belief and sentiments. “solidarity, rather than insufficient integration, provides the necessary conditions of collective action, and rebellions, protest, collective violence, and related forms of action result from rational pursuit of shared interests”(Useem, 1984).

Without this common sentiment or agreement, solidarity would be impossible. Citing Tilly and others, Useem (1998) opined that solidarity refers to dense social networks and a strong collective identity. This shared sentiment, solidarity and group consciousness characterized the underlying principles for the formation of Jonestown. Members see themselves as the same and they stood pungently against the U.S capitalism and imperialism. As such, Rev Jim Jones and Temple members moved to establish a community where communalism, egalitarianism and equality will dominates.

References
Catherine Wessinger (2000) “How the Millennium Comes Violently: From Jonestown to Heaven’s Gate” ISBN 978-1-889119-24-3, p. 31-34. Dawson, Lorne L. (2003). Cults and new religious movements: a reader. Wiley Blackwell. pp. 194. ISBN 1-4051-0181-4. Annie Moore (1978) “Last Words from Annie Moore” Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and Peoples Temple. Jonestown Project: San Diego State University. Retrieved from www.wikipedia.com on 24th October, 2012. Layton, Deborah (1998) Seductive Poison. Anchor, 1998. ISBN 0-385-48984-6. p. 53. Retrieved from www.wikipedia.com on 24th October, 2012. Layton, Deborah (1999). Seductive Poison. Anchor, 1999. ISBN 0-385-48984-6. p. xix (Krause forward) Retrieved from www.wikipedia.com on 24th October, 2012. Marceline Jones (1978).”Letter from Marceline Jones” Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and Peoples Temple. Jonestown Project: San Diego State University. Pear, Richard. “State Explains Response to Cult Letters.” Washington Star News. November 26, 1978. Reiterman, Tim and John Jacobs. Raven: The Untold Story of Rev. Jim Jones and His People. Dutton, 1982. ISBN 0-525-24136-1. p. 485. Rosenberg Jennifer (2003) “The Jonestown Massacre” retrieved from http://history1900s.about.com/od/1970s/p/jonestown.htm on 24th October,
2012. Tajfel, H. and Turner, J. C. (1986). The social identity theory of inter-group behavior. In S. Worchel and L. W. Austin (eds.), Psychology of Intergroup Relations. Chigago: Nelson-Hall Time Magazine, “Mass Suicide at Jonestown: 30 Years Later”, 2008. Retrieved from www.wikipedia.com on 24th October, 2012. Useem Bert (1998) “Breakdown Theories of Collective Action” Annual Review Sociology 1998. 24:215. Useem B. (1997). “The state and collective disorders: The Los Angeles riot/protest of April, 1992. Sociology Forces 76:357 -77


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