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Once again, Americans are drinking the Kool-Aid, with predictably tragic results

Michael Sneed was in Jonestown, Guyana, covering Jim Jones and the tragedy in 1978. Revisiting the massacre of more than 900 offers a lesson about blind devotion to a leader.

Rev. Jim Jones in 1978.
AP files

Nov. 18, 1978.

Jonestown, Guyana.

The time and place of what’s been labeled the largest single loss of American civilian life in a deliberate act — until America’s Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack.

The massacre 42 years ago in this steamy Guyanese commune in South America violently claimed the lives of more than 900 men, women and children — Americans who died swallowing cyanide-laced Kool Aid at the direction of a California cult leader, Rev. Jim Jones.

Now, four decades later ... I am reminded of an odd kind of personal record.

I am most likely the only journalist still working for a Chicago newspaper who covered the tragedy known as “White Night,” a midnight summons to a horrific death. I turned 35 years old just days before the poison-laden vats were ordered filled in Jonestown.

I just turned 77.

But America seems to have eclipsed into another corner of the “largest single loss of civilian life” category: indexed in the denial file in the coronavirus pandemic.

Our nation has now lost more than 247,000 people to a disease that came with little warning at the beginning of the year and a continually ineffective warning by President Donald Trump, whose troops include a battalion of cult like-believers and deniers.

The Jonestown nightmare is still the kind of story that can stop you suddenly in the middle of writing a laundry list; a remembrance of a field of bodies — one third of them children —clothed in a T-shirt rainbow of colors, bodies of babies bloating in the hot Guyanese sun.

Rotting in what had become the City of the Dead, the bodies of 900 people were tagged and body-bagged for transport back to the U.S. on jumbo military airplane transports.

Yet, it’s hard not to compare it to televised scenes of body-bagged victims of COVID-19’s tortuous death resting in cooler trucks outside our hospitals ... and the nightmare of “Mother, Mother, Mother” screams by the dying nearly a half century ago to today’s pandemic deaths without family around.

In an almost cultish fashion, millions of Americans still listen to politicians refusing to take the coronavirus seriously; refusing to issue mask mandates, stay-at-home advisories and listening to a president who rarely wears a mask in public; conducted maskless events at the White House and political rallies; and kept saying it’s gonna be OK. Follow me. Follow my instructions.

A man woman lie face down with a child between them in Jonestown, Guyana Monday following a mass suicide.
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A man and woman lie face down with a child between them in Jonestown, Guyana, two days after the massacre in 1978. At that point, at least 775 of the more than 900 bodies had been found.
AP files

Rev. Jones’ followers listened to him. He led nearly 1,000 of them to what they thought was the promised land. They wound up in a jungle in South America. And they died there.

And now we are dying.

Back in 2008, I wrote:

“Sometimes, when the night is clear and filled with stars, I hear children screaming.

“It is not a loud scream. It is more like an old whisper.

“It is the sound of children dying on a starry night in Jonestown, Guyana. It is the white noise of cyanide-induced death that inhaled the breath of innocent children and sucked the life out of nearly 1,000 cultists led by a monster named Jim Jones.”

I never really heard the children die.

But I clearly remember walking away from my typewriter, stepping onto the balcony of my squalid Pegasus hotel room where we had to haul up pool water to flush our toilets, looking up at the sky and wondering where all the screams of the children had gone.

I recall the odor of the shoes worn by my sidekick, left outdoors on the hotel balcony on purpose. His shoes were permeated with the smell of rancid human fluid after walking through the now empty death camp.

He recalled pet dogs left behind, open doors to empty houses exited in a rush to death, the hollow indents in a grassy field once occupied by the dead.

Now, so many years later, I can still see Jonestown survivor Stanley Clayton — one of only a few who survived the death march sitting between two beds in an empty hotel listening to music on a radio before dialing into the mystery of that night for us.

Clayton, who had survived by escaping through the jungle while people were dying, provided us with exclusive and copyrighted truth that what happened at Jonestown was murder, not suicide.

That guards with guns had forced people to the cyanide vats, that babies were injected with cyanide.

Jonestown has now been reclaimed by the jungle.

And the coronavirus is claiming us.

And it appears half our nation is still listening to a maskless Pied Piper whose silence is now deafening, and who believes a mandated mask is a freedom lost.

A freedom lost ... or a freedom gained?

Answer, please ... America.

And file it in the together category.