You can count on me even if all desert you. I shall proudly die for proud reason. --From a letter to Jim Jones In a world beset by succession of crises that excite the emotions and stagger the senses, the mass suicide murders of more than 900 Americans at Jonestown a year ago stands out as a unique and inexplicable event.
For some, Jonestown became a symbol of modern day America that combines politics, religion, idealism and fanaticism. For others it represented a bizarre exercise in mass frenzy.
But although a year has passed since the grizzly events in a clearing in Guyana's rain forests about 130 miles northwest of here, the question of what prompted an entire community of American exiles to largely voluntarily chose death remains unanswered, perhaps unanswerable.
How could one explain this group of Americans, led into the jungles of Guyana by their revered leader Jim Jones, drinking grape drink laced with cyanide because he alone, had been consumed by madness? Were they brainwashed, or frightened, or frenzied into taking the deadly potion?
The macabre events of Nov. 18, 1978, have by now been reduced to a welter of lawsuits seeking to assess blame and collect more than $1 billion in damages.
At least four officials investigations are either completed, under way or planned. But all of them focus on matters other than those complex and elusive aspects of life that led to the creation by Jones of the Peoples Temple cult through his skillful exploitation of the loneliness and alienation many feel.
But there was something intensely personal -- and horrifying -- about the murders of the Democratic congressman from San Franciso, Leo Ryan, and four other Americans and subsequent suicides of the Jonestown residents.
For the approximately 100 survivors the past year involved a torturous readjustment. That is true for those who were wounded or witnessed the death of Ryan and four others at the Port Kaituma air strip near Jonestown. dIt is even more true for Peoples Temple members who escaped the suicide ritual code-named "White Night" by Jim Jones.
Most of the survivors are now in California, except for two, Larry Layton and Charles Beikman, who are held in jail here on murder charges. The two were allegedly involved in executions of seven suspected Peoples Temple defectors that brought the final number of deaths at Jonestown to 913.
The only other survivor here is Richard Dwyer, an American diplomat who accompanied Ryan on his fateful trip to Jonestown and who was wounded when Peoples Temple gunmen attacked the Ryan party at Port Kaituma.
Of the approximately 80 Jonestown survivors who live in California, about half remain loyal to Jim Jones while the others have returned to normal life.
"After an initial period of confusion and culture shock, they are doing extremely well in what for them is starting from scratch," according to Chris Hatcher, a psychiatrist at the University of California.
Of the 913 bodies that were airlifted from here to Dover Air Force Base, 247 remain unidentified. The unidentified but unclaimed bodies are buried at Evergreen Cemetery in Oakland.
For the Guyanese, who were not directly involved in the incident, the fact that it occurred on their soil has raised a host of questions. Opponents of the governement of Prime Minister L. Forbes Burnham maintained that its corruption and neglect permitted Jones to create "a state within a state."
The government's chief spokesman, Frank Campbell, responded by saying that "Guyana's involvement was not much greater, than if a Hollywood movie team had come here to shoot a picture on some aspect of American life. The actors were American, Guyana was the stage, and the world was the audience."
The Guyanese government has yet to decide what to do with the Peoples Temple property. The proposals considered include turning the Jonestown commune into a tourist attraction, an agricultural collective or a center for a government-run paramilitary youth organization.
But an opposition spokesman, Moses Gaugwan, said at a rally last night that the events of Jones's multiracial community were related to "the political environment and culture of Guyana.
"The spectre of it still haunts this society and the stench of it still fills the air," he said.
In the complex legal battles over the Jonestown, incident, a group of survivors and relatives of those who died at Jonestown are suing Ryan's estate, charging that the congress man's visit touched off the murder-suicide rituol. Roy Fraber, one of the estate's attorneys, said the Ryan family is "outraged" by the suit.
Ryan's children, however, have filed suit against the State Department, charging that its negligence led to the congressman's death. Similar suits against the State Department have been filed by the family of Don Harris, the ABC correspondent killed at Port Kaituma, and some of the Jonestown "defectors" who were wounded there.
Other suits against the assets of the Peoples Temple, variously estimated at between $10 to $15 million, have been filed by the United States (for transporting the bodies back to the United States), by Guyana (for its cost involved in the clean-up), by the survivors of Jonestown, by the relatives of those who died at Jonestown and by former members of the Peoples Temple who claim they were coerced by Jones into contributing money to the sect.
Even San Mateo County, California, is suing, asking $300,000 for the costs of a special election to fill Ryan's vacant set in the House of Representatives.
The State Department investigated its own handling of the People's Temple prior to the tragedy. The House Committee on Foreign Affairs researched and published a lengthy report on the Ryanb mission. The U.S. attorney in San Francisco has a grand jury empaneled that is still trying to determine whether, a conspiracy to assssinate Ryan existed.
Guyana supposedly will investigate allegations that its laws and personnel were compromised by Jones, although this investigation has not begun a year after the mass suicide-murder occured.
The New York State Bar Association also began a disbarment proceeding against lawyer Mark Lane, but there has been no word of the outcome. Lane was a lawyer for the Peoples Temple who accompanied Ryan to Jonestown but failed to warn him and others in his group of his prior knowledge that cheese sandwicness served for lunch shortly before the congressman died might have been drugged or poisoned.
Both the State Department and congressional investigators were critical of the performance of the U.S. embassy in Georgetown for failing to appreciate the potential seriousness of the situation at Jonestown and the danger Ryan and his party faced by going there.
Although the congressional commits tee report acknowledged as "mitigating factors" the Privacy and Freedom of Information Acts, which preclude embassy spying on American citizens abroad, the report concluded that embassy personnel "did not demostrate adequate initiatives, sensitive reaction to and appreciation of progressively mounting indications of highly irregular and illegal activities in Jonestown."
The report also criticizens Guyana for allowing its firearms, customs and judicial laws and procedures to be "compromised" by the Peoples Temple, in part because of a "strong working relationship between the Peoples Temple and some officials of the government of Guyana."
The Guyanese government refused to allow any of its officials, several of whom are believed to have had sexual relationships with female members of the Peoples Temple, to be interviewed by the congressional committee.
Despite these investigations and the thousands of words that have been prevented?
The Rev. Jim Jones was a master of deception who fooled not only outsiders who met him and spent time at Jonestown but 908 of his own followers who died with him. He was a man, some would say a dictator, who used every technique, physical, sexual and psychological, to keep his Peoples Temple loyal to him alone.
When 15 of his flock chose to leave Jonestown with Ryan a year ago today, Jones viewed them as traitors who were determined to destroy him. He chose, instead, to destroy them. And, after them, the others. And, after them, himself.
"Its too late, the congressman's dead. The congressman's aide's dead. Many of our traitors are dead," he screamed at the end. "Please get us some medication. It's simple. It's simple, there's no convulsions with it, it's just simple." He started with the babies.