On this day 30 years ago: Jonestown

On this day 30 years ago: Jonestown

Horrific reminders
It sounded like a great table quiz question–what was the greatest loss of American civilian life in a non-natural disaster before the attacks of September 11th?

I puzzled over this for a while, thinking about war zones, bombs and hostages but eventually, thanks to Armistead Maupin bizarrely enough, I had an eureka moment: Jonestown.

With figures like Harvey Milk, George Moscone and Angela Davis floating about this mid-Seventies San Francisco scene, it was inevitable that Maupin's Tales of the City would incorporate Jonestown into one of its complex interwoven plots.

Although it happened in my lifetime, I always felt I must have been too young to grasp the enormity of the event (over nine hundred deaths due to mass suicide). Pondering it again at this advanced age, I find that I still cannot grasp it.

In 1978 the People's Temple Agricultural Project in Guyana became a prototype cult compound of the sort that has seen many duplicates over the years and has now even entered into popular culture (e.g. The Simpsons).

The charismatic People's leader Jim Jones was a fervent communist and atheist who believed in equality and integration. He pioneered a form of 'apostolic socialism' by which the tools of religion are used to defeat religion.

This mission went horribly wrong following the cult's move to Guyana, a sort of biblical exodus, ostensibly to avoid public scrutiny. When media and political observers flew down to investigate allegations of human rights abuses they were met with gunfire. Several were killed including Congressman Leo Ryan.

Recognising that this was the end of Jonestown, Jones ordered a massive cocktail of chloral hydrate, Penegram, Cyanide and Valium to be placed in a large vat. Following his exhortations everyone simply drank it and died.

Nearly a thousand people.

While respectfully reflecting on the tragedy you may also wish to investigate the fascinating claims of CIA involvement and general conspiracy. The main points of interest are:

  • After an initial count of 400, the number of bodies increased to 900 a week later
  • Comments recorded that day by Jones suggest that he was aware of a CIA operative (Dwyer) in Jonestown
  • The drugs at Jonestown came from Larry Layton who's father ran the US Army's Chemical-Biological Weapons Research Unit–the links to the mind-altering programmme MK-ULTRA are legion
  • Jonestown is rumoured to have played host to fugitive Nazis Mengele and Bormann
  • Jones was childhood friends with Dan Mitrone a top-ranking CIA advisor
  • The parallels with Waco are undeniable

Whatever the truth, a more coherent picture may emerge soon because, since 30 years have passed, a huge number of classified documents could become available this year.

Atheist, socialist, communist or Christian, capitalist, consumerist, it matters little. The enemy here as always is blind belief.

Final question: What was the greatest loss of American civilian life due to non-natural disaster before Jonestown?