Last week we edged a bit closer to understanding the deaths in Guyana, when NBC broadcast an audio tape of the Rev. Jim Jones as he addressed some 900 followers in the last minutes of their lives. If the tape is authentic -- a question one must ask given the smoothness of the sentences -- it is a record of heartbreaking and astonishing horror: the cries of the children in the background; the sporadic shrieks of parents; and floating over all, the soft, efficient voice of Jones, like a clergyman directing a wedding rehearsal, exhorting his flock to suicide.
He tricked them; that is what we learn from the tape. This is not to say his words did it by themselves. But whatever else made those scared, susceptible people want to give up on life, Jones's sales pitch -- especially his opening remarks -- clearly pushed them along.
All he said was this:
"What's going to happen here in a matter of a few minutes is that one of a few on that plane is gonna... gonna shoot the pilot. I know that. I didn't plan it but I know it's gonna happen. They're gonna shoot that pilot and down comes the plane into the jungle. And we had better not have any of our children left when it's over 'cause they'll parachute in here on us. So, my opinion is that we'd be kind to children and be kind to seniors and take the potion, like they used to take in ancient Greece and step over quietly, because we are not committing suicide: It's a revolutionary act."
He begins immediately with a lie. Not the lie that he "didn't plan" the plane crash, which is inconsequential in terms of the purpose of his speech, and which did not come off anyway, but rather the bigger implicit lie, that the main thing that's "going to happen here in a matter of a few minutes" is a falling plane. As an opening sentence the explanation or prediction of what is going to happen in a present situation is a perfectly sound attention-getter, which in part is the way he uses it. Yet, what is really going to happen in a matter of a few minutes is that over 900 people are going to kill themselves. Therefore, telling those 900 that something else is going to happen, something far less important, creates a distance between the audience and the truth.
Now he can take them on a leap of faith: A plane is going to crash (in fact, he doesn't say "crash"; it is going to come down "into the jungle," like a bird in a primitive fable), and when it does, a chain of events will occur which, though unspecified, will be so awful, you will not wish to live through them. (He had prepared them for this leap before, having preached that the loss of Jonestown would be worse than death.) But it's not you I'm talking about; it's "our children" who ought not to be left to suffer. So, with a simple connective "and," he shifts from something in the sky to the subject of their deepest fears, the subject they undoubtedly realized was on Jones's mind when he began to speak, because of the earlier events of the day, and because of their terrible suicide rehearsals. And he doesn't pussyfoot around, which would give them a chance to reconsider. He goes straight to the heart of the matter, to children, knowing that the word is the last his audience wishes to hear, and therefore the first they expect to; and knowing, too, that if one would kill one's child, suicide takes less persuasion. His uses of "we" and "our," of course, are palliative.
His use of "my opinion" is devastating. Imagine his being available to contradictory opinions. Later in the tape a woman offers her "opinion" that "babies deserve to live," and is soon brushed aside. Nothing here has anything to do with opinion as the world normally understands the word, but rather with a god-playing man who has made his opinion the law.
The use of "my opinion," therefore, is simply one more way of keeping his audience from the truth. Just as his allusion to "ancient Greece" is a way of setting the truth of what is about to occur back in time. The suggestion is that "our children" are not about to die in the here and now of this steamy Guyana jungle, but are actually already dead in 5th-century Athens. They will "step over quietly" into the waters of the Lethe. Poison becomes "potion."
The whole enterprise, in turn, becomes "kind" -- "be kind to children and be kind to seniors." The great troublemaking bird will soon swoop down from the sky bringing unimaginable suffering. Be kind to your children by killing them. Similarly, commit a "revolutionary act," that is, an act of enormous change, by cutting off the possibility of change forever. Of course, only tormented people would swallow such lines, but these poor followers had long ago reached, or been led to a point where everything was backwards: where killing was kind; Guyana was Greece; agony was peace; opinion was law; friends were enemies; and death was life.
Jones's method, in short, was to keep his audience as far away from what he was really telling them to do as he possibly could. They bought what he was selling because they were despondent and weak, and because by the time they came to their last chance on earth, they had forgotten an essential fact of survival: Every word is an idea.