The Messiahs of Death by Marissa Alessandria
Spring 2002

It has always fascinated me whenever I would read about a group of people who

committed suicide over their religious beliefs. It is not a morbid fascination but

rather one that questions my own morals about suicide. I would never commit

suicide no matter how bad anything was it is against my religion and my own belief

system. In the True Believer, author Eric Hoffer makes the statement "We cannot be

sure that we have something worth living for unless we are ready to die for it."(16)

But what does death by your own hand really prove? Death is the ultimate end it is

final. Yet cult groups and now terrorist groups of the late 20th century have chosen a

suicide solution as an answer to proclaiming their religious beliefs. One thing that I

would like to accomplish by the writing of this paper is coming to a better

understanding of why some groups feel that suicide is the only answer and no other

solution will do.


Upon starting my research of the religious cults of Peoples Temple and Heavens

Gate I did so at first with the intention of presenting a sympathetic view point of

how these groups of people were lead astray my megalomaniac madmen who

brainwashed them and compelled them to commit suicide. I longer agree with this

viewpoint completely because the people who joined these groups did so of their

own free will. Yes, brainwashing occurred to an extent but ONLY after they had

chosen to join. It is difficult to feel sorry for a person who is acting of his or her own

free will. My research with the terrorist group al-Qaeda and the recent events of

HAMAS in March 2002, started out based on hate and anger because of the events

of September 11, 2001. Through my research my hate as lessened towards the

members of these and is now directed more at the leaders of these groups who are

the directors of the actions of their suicide bombers.


When searching for the reasons why these groups were willing to commit suicide

and murder I was frustrated by the stereotypical answer that I received from both

the psychological and sociological communities. Both groups have the opinion that

the personality types of people who join these groups are in of need to belong,

have low self-esteem, are well educated and have a strong need for structure in

their life. However in my own opinion it does not really matter what type of socio-

economical background the people of Peoples Temple, Heavens Gate, al-Qaeda or

HAMAS have come from nor if they are educated, nor if they suffer from self-

esteem problems or personality disorders. What is wrong that these leaders have

managed to persuade their followers to kill themselves and others by their

command and that there is no answer of how we can stop this from happening in

the future without the use of coercion.


The novel 1984, sums up the question that needs to be answered when, Winston

Smith, asks the question "I understand HOW: I do not understand WHY "(70). This

question has yet to be answered with any rationale or substance of proof from

psychiatrists, psychologists, and sociologists alike. In Fahrenheit 451, Guy Montag

asks the question, "We have everything we need to be happy, but we arenít happy.

Somethingís missing." (82) This is an absolute truth of the mind frame of a true

believer - they have full active minds but empty souls. This is what made them ripe

for the techniques used, by Jim Jones of Peoples Temple and Reverend Do of

Heavens Gate such as: isolation from society, sleep deprivation, behavioral

conditioning, inadequate diet, and control over every aspect of a memberís life from

their sexual relations to their monetary assets. This occurs also to a certain extent

in the training camps of al-Qaeda and HAMAS: the trainees are completely isolated

during their training to become human weapons of destruction. For example in the

al-Qaeda Training Manual, the cell members are recommended not to speak or

interact with any outsiders in the community; i.e. to keep a low profile. In either

case eventually the personality becomes devoid of any individual identity. - this is

how brainwashing is achieved - when the person no longer has control over their

lives, thoughts, or death. The true believers of Peoples Temple and Heavenís Gate

fit into the categories above, in order for Jim Jones and Reverend Do to have

compelled their followers to commit suicide the individual personality had to have

little or no value. However, the true believers of al-Qadea and Hamas terrorist

groups have not been oppressed or brainwashed. Their commitment to die is for

the holy cause of the war between Palestine and Israel.


Upon joining al-Qadea and other Islamic terrorist groups the person is made aware

of the actions that will be needed achieve their goals: the murder of innocent

people and possibly the sacrifice of their own life. Although the psychoanalytical

view point is that the person who is in a cult is brainwashed and in the need of de-

programming, how do we go about accomplishing this when the techniques of de-

programming are likely to be just as coercive as the methods used by cult leaders.

Some of the methods of de-programming include: isolating the victim, deprive

them of sleep, and yell at them day and night of how misguided and gullible they

have become. This is just the same as what happened to them in the first place

except that the first time it was voluntary. If you do convince the cultist that their

beliefs and convictions are wrong and that the beliefs they are being taught now are

correct arenít you just making them true believers yet again? The Islamic terrorist is

viewed as being psychotic because they believe that murder and suicide is the

solution to their religious conflicts. However the following questions can be posed

for both groups: How do you convince someone with the divinity of the true believer

that the methods used to get their points across are wrong?

In looking at the Islamic terrorist they are told that Islam is the only "true pure"

religion and that anyone not a part of their religion is considered an infidel and a

non-believer. They are also told that to cause harm to a non-believer is not a sin

and their god Allah will forgive them and send them to a paradise filled with virgins

and rubies. How do we get a cultist/terrorist to lose their "religious zeal" without

using coercion tactics? The answers to these questions are far from easy to answer,

and are very complex. We are not only dealing with the personís mind, but also

their cultural and sociological beliefs about religion and suicide. Sociologists theory

of why a person gets sucked into cults or terrorist groups is that they join based on

their idealistic ideas of creating the perfect world according to their leader. Their

idea of why some of these groups eventually commit suicide or murder is because it

is what is expected of them and that the individual must not go against the group



The mind frame of the cult and terrorist leaders is not as closely examined by

sociologists, as the people who belong to these groups are most important in their

studies. The type of person who join cults and terrorist groups has a misconception

of right and wrong. The individuals who join these groups are looking for an

authority figure in their lives to tell them what to do and to tell them what they want

to hear. If they have to trade in their own individuality in return for this so be it. The

leaders of cults and terrorist groups have the ability to instinctively know what

others want to hear and to influence them to do their will whatever it may be. They

also have a strong need to control others and to have power. Cults and Terrorist

groups are not simply about ideologies gone wrong ‚ they are about the leaders

need to control other peoples lives, because they feel lack of control over their own



On November 19, 1978 in Jonestown, Guyana, 913 people were found dead in this

South American jungle. They had either committed suicide or had been murdered

by cyanide poisoning. They had been part of a religious group called Peoples

Temple a small and virtually unheard of group that had originally been based in

California before this tragic event. Peoples Temple ideology was based on

abolishing poverty, racism, sexism and ageism through a socialist society. However,

Jones did not have any persons of color in high positions of authority in his church.

Jones told his members to remain celibate that to have sexual relations was selfish.

However, Jones had sexual relationships with male and female members of his

group. Members of his group were encouraged to give up all of their possessions to

the church and to let the church make provisions for them instead. However, the

church provisions for its members were inadequate despite the millions of dollars

in bank accounts around the world. Peoples Temple church had members who were

professionals - doctors, lawyers, social workers, and nurses. However, they allowed

their lives under the pretext of "socialism", to become ones of domination and

control under the leadership of Jones. They eventually shared all of his ideals and

beliefs because they had none of their own left to draw an opinion. Jones delusions

of persecution became his followers as well ‚ specifically that the CIA ‚ was going to

come in, kill Jones, the adults, and torture the children. They had regular suicide

drills in Jonestown before the events of November 18, 1978. The day they

committed suicide Jones had ordered the murder of a US Congressman, and this

was the reason for the suicides and those who refused were murdered. Most of my

research for Peoples Temple and Jim Jones came from the sociology of religion.

Some questions about suicide and cults were kind enough to be answered in an

email interview, with Dr. Rebecca Moore (two of Dr. Moore sisters and nephew died

in Jonestown). Her answer to why they would join and commit suicide was the


I think under certain circumstances we all are willing to give up some portion of our independent thinking for what might be called groupthink, that is, the thinking of the group or society around us, in spite of our personal reservations. We see this among teenagers dealing with peer pressure: they might not want to drink, but the pressure around them is great and they want to be part of the group. We see this when people tell racist or anti-ethnic jokes, and no one says anything even though nobody thinks the joke is funny. Can you think of situations you've been in where there was pressure to conform; or even better, where you just assumed

you were doing the right thing until upon later reflection you wondered why you did what you did?

(Email Interview 15 March 2002)

Although Dr. Mooresí viewpoint is bias I do agree with some of what she had to say.

However, a line needs to be drawn somewhere of what you would and would not

do, and the fact is that the true believers of Peoples Temple not only killed

themselves they also killed their own children. Yes, Jones with his cunning and

diabolical deceit encouraged the adults to kill their children first so that they would

have no reason left to live, and those who refused were murdered. However, from

my review of the death tape the majority of them went willingly to their death and

took their children with them. We can ask the question of who would want to live

after seeing their child die? But how could they have fed them the poison in the first

place? That is completely incomprehensible and because of this it was hard to find

sympathy for Peoples Temple. Their deaths were not as Jones preached: that their

suicide was a way for them to make a statement to the world about their churchís

beliefs, but instead was done for his own selfish reason: to escape prosecution from

the United States Government. It is unfortunate that the psychology of cult leaders

is that while they are detaching true believers from the outside world they are also

reattaching an umbilical cord of their own making which is almost impossible to cut

through. If the leader chooses to die you die, as well. After all one cannot function

without the other, as the leader of the group has already deemed this impossible.

Suicide becomes a common factor within cult groups when their leaders feel that

they are losing control of their own circumstances. This was the case of Jonestown.

On March 23, 1997, 39 people of the religious group Heavenís Gate were

discovered dead of barbiturate poisoning and asphyxiation in Rancho Santa Fe,

California. What should have been looked upon as a tragedy was instead treated

with humor when the reason they committed suicide was released to the public.

The Heavens Gate group unorthodox approach to religion is ridiculed to this day.

Their religious belief that God was an extraterrestrial and that by their suicide it

would evolve them to H.E.L.A.H. (Higher Evolved Level Above Human). Reverend Do

was the leader of this bizarre group, his leadership met some of the same criteria

as Peoples Temple: no sex, no drugs, no alcohol, etc. Do was the beginning and the

end for this group of true believers; as their "Prime Directive" states: "My

relationship with my older member [Rev. Do] is my #1 priority ‚ NOTHING else

matters." This statement was proven in the most extreme ways, for example they

were required to go through a two-week training period where it was determined

by Do if the prospective recruit would be permitted to join. If accepted into the

group they new member would agree to give up all contact with anyone outside the

group, they were then re-educated according to the way of Do: they were not

permitted to speak for days at a time to one another but the try and communicate

with their minds to each other ‚ only Do was allowed speaking privileges full time.

He also encouraged something more from his male members - Reverend Do had

castrated himself years ago to relive himself of sexual impulses. Sex was

considered an addiction by Do and to interfere with "with their suicidal mission."

Eight of his male members agreed and went to Mexico to have this mutilation done.

Now Reverend Doís castration could have something to do with his 1973 conviction

for child molestation, which in his case is a good thing, however, encouraging his

male members to do the same had more to do with a Freudian term of "Penis Envy".

His penis did not sexually function anymore so why should his members. The rigid

requirement of membership is perhaps why there were only 39 members at the

time of the suicide.


Do based the criteria for their suicide on the Christian Bible Parable of the Star of

Bethlehem and the comet Hale-Bopp which was due to appear in Earthís skies in

March 1995. The bible parable of the Star of Bethlehem, is that it would be the

brightest star the world has ever seen and that this appearance would signify the

second coming of Christ here on earth. However, the true believers of Heavenís

Gate believed that the Star of Bethlehem was Godís own personal spaceship and

that it was at the end of the Hale-Bopp Comet. The Hale-Bopp Comet is a meteor

shower that passed by the Earth every 2,000 to 4,000 years. Reverend Doís theory

was that this time it wasnít going to just pass by Earth but instead was going to hit

Earth and kill everyone. Heavenís Gate believed that by committing suicide that God

would beam them up to join him on his spaceship while the rest of the world

perished. Although the first media reports of the discovery of the suicides were that

they were an all male cult between the ages of 18-24, it was later determined that

they were men and women with an age range of 26-72. This shows that an

Adolescent mind frame was not a factor in these suicides. The reason for the sexual

misidentification was because they were all dressed from head to toe alike, even in

death they were following Doís orders. They all had on handmade black uniforms

with a patch that said "Heavenís Gate Away Team", black Nike sneakers, and shaved

heads. They also each had a five-dollar bill for "space tolls" and rolls of quarters to

call home to their relatives. They killed themselves the following way: they took

barbiturate-laced pudding or applesauce with vodka and plastic bags over their

heads. The media described it as if these people went on an actual space mission.

After the suicide this group was ridiculed on the internet and television alike,

ignoring completely the tragedy of this event. One website, entitled Heavenís Gate

Travel Agency, has the following: Postcards from Heavenís Gate: the postcard

features two aliens on either side of the leader Reverend Do and at the top of the

card it says "Wish you were Here" beneath this it tell us to come and visit and has

the following message:

Accommodations provided by Heaven's Gate Travel.
Reservations are still being taken for the next flight.
Space fare just $5.00 (bring some quarters to keep in

touch with loved ones). All flights include complimentary

pudding or applesauce served with our finest vodka.

Cabin size is limited so we ask that you pack light and leave

your body behind. <>


One factor in their suicide that I found completely ironic is that their ideology was

against drugs and alcohol and yet their suicide contained these ingredients. Now

this group can be ridiculed at face value for the beliefs that led them to commit

suicide; however, one could not say that their entire religious belief system is

unfounded and unbelievable.


On September 11, 2001, followers of the terrorist organization al-Qaeda hijacked

four United States airplanes. They destroyed part of the Pentagon and the World

Trade Center, and one crashed in the Pennsylvania forest, believing that their jihad

(holy war) against America was justifiable homicide and choose the kill themselves

and thousands of others according to their religious beliefs. Bin Laden is charismatic

leader for his group of terrorists and suicide bombers. His interpretation of the

Muslimís holy book the Koran has been mangled until it suited his own purposes

and intentions. He has told his followers that Allah would forgive them for their

deadly intentions, by filling their heads with visions of paradise (virgins, rubies, etc.)

that will be theirs by the sacrifice of their lives for the jihad. Bin Laden has hijacked

verses from the Koran, in his speeches and embellished his own interpretation for

his followers. However, Bin Laden is not the only Islamic terrorist leader who is

bringing terror to the world. From the last week in March 2002 thorough the

beginning of April 2002, the group HAMAS claimed responsibility for suicide

bombings in Israel for 10 days in a row. These bombings are not only encouraged

they are rewarded with not only promises of paradise by their death but the suicide

bombers families are also given money for their childrenís martyrdom. In President

Bushís speech on the Middle East crisis on April 4, 2002, made the following


"When an 18-year-old Palestinian girl is induced to blow herself up and in the process kills a 17-year-old Israeli girl, the future itself is dying, the future of Palestinian people and the future of the Israeli people".

"Blowing yourself up does not help the Palestinian cause to the contrary, suicide bombing missions could well blow up the best and only hope for a Palestinian state".


We can sympathize with the Palestinianís plight of not wanting their country taken

over by the Israeliís, but we cannot condone their tactics of murder and death, and

how the leaderís of these terrorist groups use the young as lethal weapons of war

in their jihad. We can look at the suicide bombers as "biting their noses to spite

their face", however, any way you look at it the Palestine are not winning their jihad

because the end result is the loss of life of their own people. If the leaders of

HAMAS and al-Qaeda continue to kill their youth on suicide missions proclaiming

their religious faith who will be left to create the future for Islam? The leaders of

Hamas and al-Qaeda seem to believe that they have a never-ending supply of

humans to sacrifice for their jihad but is the sacrifice of their people meeting their

goals? What are they proving to the world expect to have them appear as cowardly

murderers? What happens when members of Islamic terrorist groups are not only

the Arabic population but are American citizens as well?


John Phillip Walker Lindh "American Taliban", captured by US forces in Afghanistan,

came from what appears to be a loving and supportive family and yet choose to join

the Taliban/al-Qaeda in their fight against the Northern Alliance. His parents came

from two different religious backgrounds (his mother Buddhist and his father Roman

Catholic). He converted to Islam at age 15 and went to Yemen to study Arabic at 17.

John Walker joined al-Qaeda long before the events of September 11th and was well

aware according to his own admissions in his indictment of the events that were to

take place here in America on September 11th and did nothing to stop it from

happening. He has stated that he joined in the jihad fight because he wanted to

help their cause and his faith in Islam. Has Walker been brainwashed and misguided

as psychiatrist Dr. Russ Dewey claimed to me in our email interview or is he a true

believer of the jihad?


People who join cults do not do so with the intention to cause or do harm to others,

however, a person who joins a terrorist group does so with the intention to cause

harm because they feel that that is the only way to get their point across. What is

wrong in terrorist and cult groups is that they twist the very Holy Books they are

claiming to be preaching to suit it to their own advantage. The people who join

these groups need help in ways that psychologists, psychiatrists, and "de-

programmers" have been unable to achieve yet in the 21st century. In order for us to

have any understanding at all of the mind of a cultist, terrorist and their leaders we

need to find new answer to old problems and new treatments as well.




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