Namo amitabha Buddhaya, y'all.
This here's a religious establishment. Act respectable.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Nightmare in Guyana

Meters swum today: Zero.
Playing in the background: The soporific sounds of the dryer

This has been a strange day. I mean, it was pretty ordinary as far as I went to work, did work, came home, made dinner and all that. The strange part is that thirty years and a week or so ago, I came across an issue of "Time" Magazine that had this photo in it.
Granted, there were other photos. There was even that one dramatic aerial shot of hundreds, almost a thousand bodies. But this is the one I remember. This group of people, maybe a family, that look like they all lay down on the ground to take a nap, with their arms around each other.

It was a strange day to be alive. I was nine, and concepts like "mass cult suicide" (actually more like "mass cult murder") had yet to make their way into my brain. As clearly as this photo stands out, though, I don't remember the adults talking about it. I don't remember it getting discussed during Current Events in school. I wonder why. I lived in Salt Lake City and Jonestown came right on the heels of the Emmanuel David murders. 1978 was a great year for mass cult suicide/murders all the way round.

Which led me to think about the unthinkable. If there's a good definition of "unthinkable" in the dictionary, it probably mentions Jonestown. And 9/11. And -- well, things that are unthinkable, so I can't think of any more. Back in 1993, during the seige of the Branch Davidians in Waco, one journalist after another kept mentioning that "nobody wants this to turn into another Jonestown." The unthinkable had become thinkable. What's more, it had become a household word, bandied about in every weird story of cult activity from the Mormon compound in Eldorado to the sarin gas attacks in Tokyo, Japan.

9/11 was a little more recent and unlike Jonestown, I remember where I was when all that went down in New York. I'd heard something about a plane crash on the way to work but that was all. Somebody in my building lobby told me what had happened (I was in San Diego and there was a three hour time delay) and I remembered thinking, "He must have that wrong. When I get to my desk I'll log in to CNN and find out what happened." Only when I got to my desk I couldn't get on to CNN because everyone else was on CNN and - well, then my building got evacuated, as did all of downtown. No airplanes flew overhead for days.

In our most recent election campaign there were dire warnings about what might happen if one candidate or another was elected. "What would we do in another 9/11 if so and so was in charge?" ran the tag line of one scary ad. Another 9/11. Even typing that gives me pause. Because of course there could never be another 9/11. 9/11 was unthinkable.

If I think about it long enough, though, I come up with a whole long list of unthinkable things that have happened in my lifetime. A secret prison on a remote island in which torture and abuse are routine, where no charges are filed and the so-called trials are rigged, perpetuated by my people, in the name of my so-called safety, and supported by elected officials of my own party. A nonwhite nonold person being elected President (because it's totally cool doesn't make it any less unthinkable; move back in time ten years and ask if it could have happened then and you'll see what I mean). A little girl in Austria, locked in a cellar by some whacko for eightyears. And as soon as something unthinkable happens, something else happens that makes you realize how thinkable it really was all along.

Less than a year after the little girl bolted for freedom, another little girl in the same country emerged from a different cellar after 24 years and 7 children, forced on her by her own father. If that's not unthinkable, I don't know what is. But just wait. People who can think the unthinkable end up on the side of history. Something else like this will happen. There's another little girl locked in a cellar somewhere, waiting to be found. And another mass cult suicide/ murder brewing somewhere, somewhen. It's thinkable now.


David Isaak said...

Being a gloomy sort of guy, I always assume there's plenty of other things that never come to light.

And there's always Africa. Something charming's always happening there.

(The little Word Verificiation thing this time is "sphintme". That sounds suspiciously as if it means something.)

Jen Ster said...

My little word verification thingy is "uncalsto." Maybe that's what you are if you don't do your sphintme.