News Events from my Childhood #1
Like most people, I don’t remember a whole lot of things from my early childhood. My first words, first steps, even my first day of school – these are lost in the mists of memory, and I have to accept that my family’s recollections of these seminal moments are accurate. There are, however, some big, national news stories from my childhood that I do remember. I was much too young to remember the moon landing in 1969, but there were some major events in the 70’s that I have at least some recollection of. First, a planned paradise goes horribly wrong:
Jonestown Massacre – Nov. 18, 1978
Recap: This was a cult by the name of the Peoples Temple where hundreds of Americans migrated to Guyana in South America to set up a communist society under the leadership of Jim Jones. When reports started surfacing of abuse at the location, US Congressman Leo Ryan decided to visit the place and see just what was going on. Paranoia set in amongst the cult leadership during this visit, which was exacerbated by several members of the congregation expressing the desire to leave. The “defectors” were then gunned down at a small airport when they attempted to board planes. Congressman Ryan was also killed. Back in Jonestown, Jones – convinced the outside world would return and ruin everything – ordered his congregation to drink cyanide-laced Flavor-Aid (a cheap version of Kool-Aid), which resulted in the deaths of over 900 men, women and children.
This mass suicide was a deeply unsettling news story. Even now the sheer number of people that died is staggering; back in the 70’s it was unheard of. Cults usually don’t involve so many people; the Heaven’s Gate suicides in 1997 had a body count of 39, and the David Koresh-Waco siege from 1993 was less than 100. But over 900 people willingly killing themselves? Nothing like that had ever before occurred to American civilians. It was made even more upsetting by further reports that many of the people apparently didn’t want to kill themselves, particularly the children. What a horrible tragedy.
I remember seeing the photos of all those dead people laid out, face-down, on dirt streets. Hundreds and hundreds of people. They had killed themselves because they were told to do it. I remember being confused by that; so many people had done what Jones told them to do, apparently because they believed what he said. Why? What exactly was it that Jones was afraid of, what did he think the outside world would do to his little society?
This was my first real encounter with how a normally sane individual could believe anything, even if it made no rational sense. It confused me even more when this normally sane person would then act in a manner that threatened their life, as well as the lives of those they loved, and all for dubious reasons. It just made no sense to me at all, then as well as now.
For more information on this tragedy:
- The Jonestown Massacre
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