Rarely a week goes by without news media using an anniversary peg for stories and this week is no different. The Jonestown massacre,
a mass poisoning of over 900 members of Peoples Temple, occurred 30 years ago this Tuesday. Tim Reiterman, a reporter who has covered the story since the beginning, talks about revisiting it every five years.
Artist: Wolf Parade
BOB GARFIELD: Some stories come and go in a news cycle, some linger forever, and some reemerge periodically, like the bloom of the Titan Arum plant or the census. Tuesday marked the 30th anniversary of the Jonestown massacre, the orchestrated death of more than 900 members of the Peoples Temple, a cult led by Jim Jones.
Also killed that day was California Congressman Leo Ryan, who had gone to Jonestown, Guyana, on a fact finding mission. Tim Reiterman, then a reporter for The San Francisco Examiner, went with Ryan and was shot twice in the ambush that left Ryan dead.
Reiterman has written for the 10th, 20th, 25th and now 30th anniversaries of the massacre, trying to correct public misconceptions of the killings as he recalls that horrible day. TIM REITERMAN: Those of us covering the congressman’s trip, left in a Temple dump truck for a nearby airstrip. When we arrived and began boarding two small planes, a tractor and trailer full of Temple gunmen pulled up and they leapt out, began firing at us.
As I took cover behind one of the plane’s wheels, I was wounded, but fortunately was able to jump up and run into the nearby jungle. When I came out minutes later, I found that the congressman and three of my fellow newsmen had been killed. BOB GARFIELD: Now, this is one of those stories that captures the world’s attention and horror, and then it just eventually kind of fades away. How odd is it for you to, at least as far as Jonestown is concerned, disappear off the face of the earth for five year cycles and then return like a cicada to retell the story? TIM REITERMAN: Well, I have never been a big fan of anniversary stories. In this case, I think the event was important enough that at least the 10 year cycles were suitable. As time has gone on, it’s become more difficult, in part because you have to put the survivors through this ordeal of reliving the events again and again.
But, on the other hand, I believe it’s important to continue to write about Jonestown because the world still is operating under a number of misconceptions. One of them is that the people were simply robotic cultists, and there’s no recognition of the fact that they were mostly ordinary people from all walks of life who joined for the best of motives. They wanted to help their fellow man.
And many people still don't understand that what happened in Jonestown was not a clean-cut, voluntary ritual led by Jim Jones. It was really a mass murder that he orchestrated. BOB GARFIELD: As a reporter, putting aside what you personally experienced, to have to go back into some of these horrifying memories, what do you face opening up those wounds for others who maybe aren't that interested in going through this? TIM REITERMAN: Particularly this year, as I was working on my 30th anniversary piece for The Associated Press, I ran into people with whom I had spoken before who didn't want to be interviewed yet again. And I ran into, more often, a number who said, this is the last time I'm going to be interviewed. BOB GARFIELD: While memories of Jonestown may fade over now, three decades, it has found its way into the popular lexicon because of one particular phrase. How do you react when you hear people use the expression, quite blithely, “They drank the Kool Aid?” TIM REITERMAN: Well, I find that offensive to the victims as well as to the survivors because it’s come to mean unthinking loyalty, something less than human. What happened in Jonestown was Jones. When he started this ritual, he surrounded that community with armed guards with crossbows, and when he ordered that potion to come forward, he ordered the children to go first.
By doing that, he sealed everyone’s fate because the parents and other elders would have no reason to live once the young ones died. That was the diabolical final step in what really was mass murder. BOB GARFIELD: Tim, thank you for joining us. TIM REITERMAN: Thank you very much. BOB GARFIELD: Tim Reiterman is The Associated Press’ Northern California news editor. His book, Raven: The Untold Story of the Reverend Jim Jones and His People, was just released in paperback.