MARCH 27, 1997
Recent news reports have been filled with the troubling story of a mass suicide involving a computer-related cult. At a mansion outside San Diego, police found 39 bodies dressed in black and covered in purple shrouds. The members apparently killed themselves to prepare for the arrival of a alien spaceship they say is hiding behind the Hale-Bopp comet. After a background report by Charles Krause, Jim Lehrer leads a discussion of the suicides with a panel of cult experts.
JIM LEHRER: Now, to try to shed some light on all of this. Robert Jay Lifton is a psychiatrist and writer who teaches at the City University of New York. Fred Clothy is a professor of religious studies at the University of Pittsburgh. Steven Levy is technology editor at Newsweek Magazine.
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
March 27, 1997
Charles Krause's background report on the mass suicide.
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Browse the NewsHour's coverage of religious issues .
Pathfinder saved parts of the Heaven's Gate Web site.
Dr. Lifton, why would 39 people, any 39 people, do this sort of thing?
DR. ROBERT JAY LIFTON, Psychiatrist: (New York) Well, the first thing to say is they're not dead. They achieved eternal life. That's the way they saw it. They were achieving a higher state. They were transcending the human condition. And that's a beginning kind of understanding you have to have when you ask that question: How could they do it?
JIM LEHRER: So the sheriff was right then when he said, "We may never understand it in our terms; we have to look at it from their terms," is that right?
DR. ROBERT JAY LIFTON: We have to look at it from their terms, but then we have to step back and try to understand what that means. So one way of looking at it is to say this is a kind of immortality plunge. They die. They kill themselves to live forever. And there is a lot of that in any kind of mass suicide, all the more so when it's a religious or cultic body that is bound up with millennial ideas and with a comet and a UFO, all of which are apocalyptic and speak of some vast renewal that they're part of. So they killed themselves for a vast achievement of eternal life and renewal. And that's the first understanding I think.
JIM LEHRER: But what about--what's the group--the fact that they do it together--
DR. ROBERT JAY LIFTON: Yes. That's very important, that they do it together. And you have to say that the group has a suicide theology. In that sense they, they resemble the People's Temple in 1978, where the suicide was part of their theology. They must have talked about it a lot, thought about it, maybe even rehearsed it, as the People's Temple had done.
JIM LEHRER: Down in Guyana.
DR. ROBERT JAY LIFTON: Yes, in Guyana in 1978.
JIM LEHRER: Right.
DR. ROBERT JAY LIFTON: And that was an American group.
JIM LEHRER: Right.
DR. ROBERT JAY LIFTON: You have to also be on the lookout--it looks as though this was suicide primarily--but you always have to be on the lookout for some sort of murder in the process. That really was part of the picture in Guyana. Maybe not here, but it can accompany it. And--
JIM LEHRER: Sorry. Go ahead.
DR. ROBERT JAY LIFTON: My point is that suicide is central to their existence because it's the only means, the only vehicle for achieving that higher state, and, as they say, really moving beyond human evolution. So its sounds very humble in this self-destructive act is really very bold and grandiose because one is in doing it achieving a state outside of being human and beyond it.
JIM LEHRER: And, Prof. Clothy, that is religion, is it not? I mean, you can describe it in all kinds of types but it is religion. It's a belief in something, right?
FRED CLOTHY, University of Pittsburgh: (Pittsburgh) Clearly, there's a religious dimension to this experience, and it's one of those kinds of groups of which there have been a number in North America of late which represent an alternative way of life and of thinking. Sometimes the term "cult" is used fairly loosely. It might be helpful to speak of a cult as having at least two characteristics. One is that there's a charismatic leader who's perceived to be wiser or somehow more mature than others. And secondly, there's almost always a ritual element which is central to these experiences. And one could see this final act of suicide as the ultimate ritual perhaps, because ritual is intended, if you will, to transform people, take them from one state of being to another. There's also a rhetoric, a theology, if you will, which is borrowed heavily from Christianity. There is talk of an messianic age, referenced to the birth of Jesus in 4 BCE, and therefore, ‘96/'97 is the end of the appropriate millennium when human time is over. There are also intimations of a sense that the body is to be reviled, and society, itself, is perceived to be negative and a touch of paranoia, if you will.
JIM LEHRER: Sure. What is the religious significance of the purple shroud that each one of these people apparently had on?
FRED CLOTHY: Purple symbolizes sorrow, mourning, royalty. And it's used, for example, in Christianity during this particular week, Passion Week.
JIM LEHRER: Well, going back to your earlier point, is the assumption in some of these cases is that people who do this kind of thing are brainwashed. And the other people say, no, no, no, they're believers; they--sure, the listen to somebody, but they believed it just as much as anyone else did. It's an intellectual decision to do this kind of thing. Where do you come down?
FRED CLOTHY: Well, I think there are any number of reasons why people join groups such as this. One certainly is the need for community, a sense of connectedness, people who feel detached from society, or are in some way loners, if you will, find that being part of a community is worth giving up a lot of things, sometimes even ones life. Another aspect of this is the search for some kind of authentic leader, hero figure. There's a sense of alienation perhaps from authority figures, political, parental, and so on. So there's this willingness to be attached to a figure who's perceived to be somehow charismatic or wise.
JIM LEHRER: Dr. Lifton, would it be a mistake to assume that people who--who do what these people did are unusual, or is that potential in all of us?
DR. ROBERT JAY LIFTON: The potential is in all of us. They may be a little unusual in being a little more hungry for some sort of spiritual realization, a little bit more vulnerable to persuasion, or to influence, a little bit more dependent than others, but they can be bright; they can be curious; they can be people who ask more questions about existence than does the average person. So we gain nothing by dismissing them as some strange group that has nothing to do with us.
JIM LEHRER: Mr. Levy, the computer connection. These people were experts. They designed Web sites for a living, apparently quite successfully, for folks in the San Diego area. What does that mean?
STEVEN LEVY, Newsweek: (New York) Well, I think it means that in this case this group managed to figure out one area of the economy where the workers are very much in demand. Everyone wants to have a Web site. People who can create good Web sites are in a shortage. And they filled that need and were able to make some money.
JIM LEHRER: And is that a difficult thing to do, to create a Web site? In other words, should we assume that these were a bright group of people?
STEVEN LEVY: I think we should assume they were a bright group of people. I looked at the Web sites, and they are pretty--
JIM LEHRER: Their Web sites. Heaven's Gate and what was the other--there was Heaven's Gate and--
STEVEN LEVY: There's the Higher Source.
JIM LEHRER: Higher Source, right.
STEVEN LEVY: Yes. And they were certainly competent. They weren't inspired. They didn't have the really brilliant designers that you see from the best breed in Silicon Valley and--
JIM LEHRER: What do you mean by that? I'm not sure--
STEVEN LEVY: Well, in certain Web sites, if you look at the people who look at the leading edge of Web sites, it's almost like you're talking about people on the leading edge of magazine designer or various forms of art; you know, they're really strikingly visual and beautiful. These were workmanlike, yet, they certainly knew a lot about the technology, if you look at the things they'd offer their customers. They were some of the cutting edge things like sound and animation and, you know, commerce, secure commerce. So they certainly knew what they were doing, and one thing in particular that struck me is at the end of one of the Web sites they had a lot of words that weren't available if you looked at the Web site, but you could see when they printed out to make the Web sites come up more often when you search the Internet for various subjects.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah. Mr. Levy, there's been speculation that the--the Internet was used to recruit some of these people. Did you see anything look at that Web--I mean, how would that work? I mean, would it be like reading a book or listening to a record, it just turns you on to an idea or a belief?
STEVEN LEVY: Right. Right. I think there's a fear on the Internet that this case is going to be used as a case against the Internet, saying, oh, my God, this is just a very powerful tool to recruit people for cults. Well, I looked at the Web site which described how they are going to, you know, merge with a UFO behind the comet, and I think most people, if they saw something like that, wouldn't really rush out and say, gee, that's really a great idea; I think I'll join these people. You know, click once to, you know, put a bag over your head and die. It doesn't work that way at all. I think that it's a way to get a message across, to communicate with a lot of people. And the Internet is just a communications amplifier that amplifies the message of many sorts of people.
JIM LEHRER: Professor Clothy, what do you make of the computer angle on this? Is there anything that strikes you?
FRED CLOTHY: I'm not sure that I'm able to add much to that, other than that clearly these are people who are technologically skilled to a certain level in one area, but yet, in terms of religious persuasion and religious sophistication, they're somewhat illiterate. They do represent a kind of thing that is often occurring in these alternative movements. There's borrowing from different traditions, constructing of a collage of pastiche, of a belief system which is then often overlaid with a scientific or pseudo-scientific language which tends to give it or purports to give it legitimacy.
JIM LEHRER: And makes ‘em special.
FRED CLOTHY: Yeah. It makes it modern, contemporary, if you will.
JIM LEHRER: Dr. Lifton, what do you think about the computer thing? Does that fit?
DR. ROBERT JAY LIFTON: You know, I just returned from Japan where I've been studying Aum Shinri Kyo, the fanatical Japanese cult that released the Saran gas in the Tokyo subway two years ago. They were even more ambitious. They wanted to destroy everybody on earth except themselves. And they too had a mixture of technological and to some extent scientific know-how and to plunge into wild religion, if you want to call it that. And I think that this is a sign of our times. I mean, we're technologically advanced and schooled. We're spiritually adrift and the combination can be deadly because the particular spiritual embrace can be all the more extreme and there's another dimension here, both--in both groups, Aum Shinri Kyo and Heaven's Gate. There's a kind of denunciation of the world as defiled and absolutely bad. That's a dangerous state of mind. You know, countries and societies are bad, but when you condemn the whole project, we're in trouble.
JIM LEHRER: Mr. Levy, you read these two Web sites. Now, the main one, the one that--not the one they did their business on--but the beliefs Web site. If you had read this--a very unfair question, but that's the business I'm in--if you had read that before this suicide, would you have gotten any hint about the fact that this might happen last night?
STEVEN LEVY: Well, the second Web site said very explicitly that they were about to, you know, go off and merge--
JIM LEHRER: But in a way that you--a lay person could read that and say, hey, these people are going to kill themselves?
STEVEN LEVY: I would have said these people say they're going to kill themselves.
JIM LEHRER: Right.
STEVEN LEVY: I think you could probably find a half dozen sites on the Internet where people are talking like that, but you would think, you know, here's a bunch of people who, you know, had this philosophy. But you wouldn't think that they would go through with it because some acts are really too horrible to contemplate.
JIM LEHRER: Prof. Clothy, are we liable to have more of these? Is this going to happen again?
FRED CLOTHY: Oh, I think the landscape is permanently changed in the United States. Since the last 25 years or so, there have been some 1600, 1800, maybe 2000 new religious movements. It's a time of considerable changing of the landscape, globalization, pluralism; all of these things are affecting the way in which Americans are re-thinking themselves, and, yeah, I think these kinds of movements--I don't know about religious suicide, but these kinds of movements are here for a while.
JIM LEHRER: Here for a while, Dr. Lifton?
DR. ROBERT JAY LIFTON: Yes. Here for a while, and we can expect more. And it has to do with the millennium. It also has to do with our apocalyptic sense that we can now destroy ourselves with our own technology. And this adds a kind of overall power of destruction in an atmosphere of destruction and an atmosphere of total destruction which contributes to these apocalyptic visions.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Gentlemen, thank you all three very much.