By Godfrey Wray
Jonestown! Jonestown! Jonestown!
Home of the infamous People’s Temple commune where in 1978 (November 18) almost a thousand people died in the world’s largest mass murder-suicide.Thirty-seven years had brought many changes, some distinct, some subtle. But the intrinsic beauty of the site remained a constant.
Put in place by nature, the valley was a perfect setting for the abandoned tree-shrouded camp. And with the early engineering techniques employed by Rev. Jim Jones’ acolytes, the area had been sculptured into a combination of oasis and fortress.
In normal circumstances, the closeness and denseness of the forest would have engendered a claustrophobic feeling, but instead, the crowding greenery brought with it a therapeutic effect.
The reporter felt a chill as he stood on a shaded promontory overlooking acres and acres of an amalgam of prime meadow and forest. The scene mesmerized him. Tall grass and shrub dominated the series of small, medium and large huts, their green roofs barely discernible. These structures had been strategically constructed to form a circle, possibly as a form of defence against any outside attack.
Behind them the forest was primeval and thick with hundreds of huge greenheart trees casting a gigantic shadow. Most of them over one hundred feet tall, the trees stood like colossal sentinels keeping guard over the pristine acreage. As the wind swept along and other hardy trees bent and swayed in submission, the mighty greenheart stood unwaveringly at attention, fulfilling its reputation as one of the toughest woods in the world.
But it was the oval center, almost two feet below the base of the houses and ringed with colorful wildflowers that drew his attention. Atop the lush green carpet of grass was a motley collection of animals, co-existing in a peaceful menagerie.
As he watched, two deer — a buck and a doe — darted across the meadow, cavorting and pirouetting before embracing in a soul dance that was obviously the prelude to the universal ritual of mating; two monkeys tossed a coconut back and forth, prompting unimpressed grunts from a wild hog, while a hare (or what looked like one) and a tortoise (turtle) seemed poised to re-enact the fable of their ancestors.
Dark brown water in a stream meandered lazily, flowing from a quadrant of the meadow that merged with the forest in the southeast. Every way he looked he saw nature at its verdant best. In this clime, all-year-round rain fell and cleansed. Equally shared sunshine shone and enriched. Together they combined to produce the perfect manure and everything grew in profusion. And because of the altitude, a constant, gentle breeze kept the ill-famed Jonestown cool and invigorating in the bosom of Guyana’s North West District.
He looked around once more before turning to leave. He saw a sea of green with spots of contrasting colors, the languor of the wild animals, the serenity – all of it providing a palette to paint a utopian image.
But he couldn’t help feeling a little sad for the ignominy that had been superimposed on the area.
He eventually moved off thinking that the beasts below, interacting so peacefully, seemed to know of the history and were working overtime to change it.
He knew just the bare facts about Jonestown.
The religious cult was founded in 1955 by Indianapolis preacher James Warren Jones. In 1965, the group of zealots moved to California; but after negative publicity from an I.R.S. investigation, the radical church relocated to the isolated community in Guyana’s jungle.
Relatives of cult members soon began hearing whispers of brainwashing and concentration camp-like conditions and they sought the U.S. Government’s help.
In November 1978, United States Congressman, Leo J. Ryan (California) and four members of his party were shot and killed at a small airstrip at Port Kaituma after a brief visit to Jonestown.
The charismatic Jones had then instructed his followers to commit mass suicide by drinking Kool-Aid laced with cyanide. Out of the estimated 1,100 persons at the commune, 913 persons died, almost all Americans.
The local army had then gone in for the mop-up operation.
What the newsman could not understand was how one insane religious fanatic with left-wing political ideals could be responsible for such a massive undemocratic push to death.
Benson, his guide and Guyanese connection, had told him if he were to write a book about Jonestown, the caption would be: A Mind Control Experiment Gone Crazy.”
He had asked for an explanation. What he got still resonates with him.
“After being so close to the death scene, analyzing various scenarios and later reading media and book accounts of some interesting government denials, I’ve come to my own conclusions.
“The CIA had certain target populations in mind for the experiment, programmed for both individual and mass control. Blacks, women, prisoners, the elderly, the young, and inmates of psychiatric wards were selected as ‘potentially violent.’
“According to a highly respected American media operative, there were plans in California at the time for a Center for the Study and Reduction of Violence, expanding on the horrific work of three experts in implantation, psychosurgery, and tranquilizers. The guinea pigs were to be drawn from the ranks of those target populations, and taken to an isolated military missile base in California. However, during that same period, Jim Jones began moving his Temple members to Jonestown and so that population was selected for the experiments.
“All of the population received daily medical exams and wore medical identification bracelets. The meticulous daily notes and drug records kept by the camp doctor, disappeared, but evidence did not. One man was asked to guard a metal case containing thousands of files and told to shoot anyone who tried to take them from him since they contained “highly sensitive” information. He later turned the files over to CIA agents who denied that such records existed when questioned by a congressional investigation.”
The reporter butted in. “Do you mean to tell me the CIA got away with that?”
“Yes. Reporters doggedly followed up every angle but they were stymied all the time even as they provided evidence showing that a combination of drugs, drug mixtures, electroshock and torture were being used as methods for control. The desired results ranged from temporary and permanent amnesia, uninhibited confessions, and creation of second personalities, to programmed assassins and preconditioned suicidal urges. One goal was the ability to control mass populations, especially for cheap labor.”
The journalist interjected to make a point. “The North Koreans were the first to experiment with mass mind control. They perfected it with kids on a cultural level, calling it Mass Games. One magnified whistle sound had thousands in a stadium responding unerringly to the command it signified. I saw it myself.”
Benson continued, “One doctor actually told Congress that he hoped for a future where technology would control workers in the field and troops at war with electronic remote signals. He found it hard to understand why people would complain about electrodes implanted in their brains to make them ‘both happy and productive.’
“The People’s Temple members were little more than experimental ‘rats,’ being drugged and monitored by daily medical exams and meticulous records of their health and behavioral changes. Once the terrible experiment was discovered there was nothing else to do but exterminate them and crush any links to the CIA programme.
“At Jonestown, our troops discovered a large cache of drugs. One report said it was enough to drug the entire population of Georgetown for more than a year. One footlocker was said to contain 11,000 doses of thorazine, a dangerous tranquilizer. Other drugs used in the testing were found in abundance, including sodium pentathol (a truth serum), chloral hydrate (a hypnotic), demerol, thalium (confuses thinking), and many others.
“The actual description of life at Jonestown by some survivors was that of a tightly run concentration camp, complete with medical and psychiatric experimentation. The stress and isolation of victims were typical of sophisticated brainwashing techniques. There is another level below ground and I suspect that a torture chamber existed. Torture is almost always conducted deep underground.”
An ominous rumble in the sky broke the spell reminiscence had cast on the intrepid journalist. A storm was on its way.
Soon black and grey clouds came scuttling across a tortured sky like an advancing armada of alien craft. Lightning zigzagged menacingly while thunder signalled its disapproval with a frightening clap.
Powerful forces were at work and even the dangerous beasts below hastened to seek cover until nature had loosened its transient hold. Birds — those unable to find shelter — raced under the clouds, some flying gracefully, others erratically; all conscious of the miasma beneath their wings.
Jonestown is no more. But the ghosts still remain.