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The following report comes from The Guardian (UK), January 17. It is the first instance I am aware of, of a mass suicide waiting to happen (while it is at least still possible to dive in there and get the kids out...) I'll pass it on without further comment, save to describe the accompanying four photographs: (1) Shows Mount Teide - a volcanic heap without a single blade of grass, let alone a few trees to give an air of romantic quest. (2) Heide Fittkau-Garthe, the movement's guru. She looks a bit Judy Collins-ish: long-haired, cheeky sort of smile and dimple-cheeked. Your mother would approve. (3) A middle-aged lady cult member sitting in a police car, her face a picture of blissed-out abandon. She looks like a Ramster remembering "Be Still and Know that you are god. (4) A photo of a Solar Templar, dead and wrapped in a sheet.
(start of Guardian article)
> THIS WAY ARMAGEDDON
Is this the road to hell? Members of a German cult which is determined to commit mass suicide on Mount Teide have been thwarted twice. Will it be third time unlucky? Special investigation by Rory Carroll with Adela Gooch in Madrid, Denis Staunton in Berlin and Jonathon Watts in Tokyo.
'Tonight, as the sun slides into the Atlantic and casts Tenerife into darkness, the men from Policia Local will flick on their headlights and trundle towards Mount Teide. The chatter from bars and pounding disco beats will fade into silence as their white Ford and Seat patrol cars begin ascending the 12,198ft volcano. Trees quickly thin out, leaving only a barren landscape on either side of the narrowing dirt track. The policemen will keep peering into the blackening gloom, looking for signs of life, fearing they will find only death. It is here that a doomsday cult has chosen to commit mass suicide. Come twilight, 13 men, 13 women and five children, members of a German cult, could emerge from the shadows around the summit and drink from drums of poison. If all goes according to plan, they will make a clearing among the rocks, lie down, close their eyes and slip away, leaving behind 31 corpses, shattered families and a catastrophe for the authorities. That is the grim outcome the Spanish police must now try to avoid. The challenge is not a theoretical one: on January 7, after months of monitoring, they did just that. Tipped off by Interpol, they raided an organic farm in Arafo, near Santa Cruz, the island's capital and arrested 32 cult members, some huddled in tents, just hours, it is thought, before a planned mass suicide. A 'last supper' with suspected poison was removed. Then last Monday there was a second alert when reports came through that some of the cult members had phones relatives back in Germany to say a final goodbye. This time the Spanish police took no chances and rounded up the group, now reduced to 16 adults and three children, and took them into protective custody overnight. But in Spain committing suicide is not an offence, and on Tuesday morning the group, all German except for one Spaniard, were released for a second time. They promptly piled into taxis and returned to Arafo, where the eyes of the world now watch, waiting for them to emulate the departed souls of Heaven's Gate, Solar Temple, Waco and Jonestown. The police are desperate. The cult is law-abiding and entitled to go about its business without harassment. 'We can monitor the situation but we can't control people's will,' an officer involved in the case said. 'What do you do? Follow each person into bed, into the bathroom? That's impossible. But then, if they do succeed, who gets the blame...' A patrol car stand guard outside the farmhouse but 24-hour surveillance on individual members is impossible. And if they were spotted about to drink poison, what would the police shout? 'Stop or I shoot'? Not much of a threat when members believe the apocalypse is nigh and that an alien spaceship will land on the Teide volcano and take their souls to rebirth in the solar system of the star Sirius. So it has become a race against the clock. The end of the world, the cult believed, was due at 8pm sharp on January 8. It clearly didn't happen then. But how much longer will it be before the group tries, successfully, to commit collective suicide? Whether it comes to this hinges on one issue: do the 31 members really believe, without an ounce of doubt, that a spaceship will pick up their bodies? That the world is about to end? That God has taken human form in the portly body of a 57-year old German psychologist, Heide Fittkau-Garthe, their inspiration and leader? Yes, seems to be the answer. And they say it calmly, reasonably, without bulging eyes or foam at the mouth. Most are, after all, decent, university educated, middle-aged, middle-class Germans. Space cadets don't come more respectable. Their road to Mount Teide began in crowded halls around Germany where Fittkau-Garthe, a respected lecturer at Hamburg University and a TV pundit, gave seminars to captivated businessmen on management training, meditation and dealing with personal trauma. Unknown to most of her audiences, she drifted into the Indian Brahma Kumaris sect before leaving the university in 1993. Divorced, with a 21-year-old son, she developed a divine cult around her own person and called herself Aida, or the source. She recruited a hardcore of 25 disciples from her seminars and divided her time between Hamburg and Tenerife, where she owns the farmhouse at which the cult members were discovered last week. She told them the unresolved past of wandering souls was the source of all aggression. Cassettes recorded her ideas in a soothing voice against a background of synthesiser music. Neighbours in Tenerife described Dr Fittkau-Garthe as a pleasant woman who spent regular periods on the farm. She herself claimed her visitors were patients who had come to the Canaries for therapeutic rest. Enrique Torres, her lawyer, says members of the group were on holiday and denied any intention to commit suicide. In this account, Fittkau-Garthe is a humanitarian providing safe haven for abused women and people with psychological problems. But this fails to explain why, according to relatives of disciples, some members had begun by last year to call her God. Or why she said the world would end on January 8 and that she would protect them. Inspired by the Order of the Solar Temple, whose followers carried out mass suicides on Canada, France and Switzerland, they didn't intend to be among the doomed losers left on Earth. Sirius beckoned. It was simply a question of hitching a ride with aliens via ritual suicide. Beam me up potty, as the Sun said. And they're not even mad, or even necessarily gullible. According to some mental health professionals who study cults, they are just like us: worried at the direction society is taking, not sure what they want out of life and vaguely dissatisfied with job and family. Barry Hart, a clinical psychologist, says the typical cult member was often bright and had potential earning power - which is why they were recruited. 'It's the sons and daughters of people who read the Guardian, not the Sun. They turn their backs on orthodox religion but have needs for spiritual growth, a genuine search for meaning in life. Crazy people don't usually get into cults.' Dr Hart estimates that Britain contains up to 500 cults with up to 500,000 members. The approaching millenium is likely to swell that number. Neither coincidence nor cheaper rents result in so many cults locating in remote areas. Cut off from friends, family and the outside world, members become rationed to one source of information, the leader. Often with no TV, no radio, no newspapers, there is nothing to question the increasingly doom-laden world-view they are fed. Chris Soames did not quite fit the bill when he drifted into the London Church of Christ in 1990, but the Spanish police combing Mount Teide are unlikely to take comfort from his story: 'People think you become a slave with no mind of your own; that simply isn't the case. You have to be more active and believe what you are doing is right.' Despite retaining links with his family and resenting the oppressive hierarchy, Chris, who left the cult three years ago, was at one stage willing to die for it. 'We planned to smuggle [ourselves] into Iran to seek converts. If we were caught we would've been killed, but I didn't care because I felt absolutely sure we were right.' Such cast-iron certainty among cult members is what spurs the patrols around Mount Teide and makes Dr Hart pessimistic: 'The Spanish police will not prevent people killing themselves. If they want to do it, they'll do it.' Any lingering doubts in the cultist's minds about the wisdom of suicide are likely to have evaporated the moment they were arrested. A Roman battering ram persuaded 1,000 Jews at Masada to commit suicide in AD73. Fears that visiting congressmen heralded the break up of Jonestown prompted the Reverend Jim Jones and 914 followers to turn the Guyana jungle into their graveyard in November 1978. A law enforcement siege signalled a conflagration for David Koresh and his Branch Davidians at Waco, Texas, in April 1993. Such precedents will hardly warm the hearts of the Santa Cruz police officers. The first glimpse of their blue shirts bursting in the door could have been confirmation to Fittkau-Garthe's disciples that exit from the cosmic set was finally set. The one ace held by police is Fittkau-Garthe herself. She remains in custody, charged with incitement to suicide, which is an offence under Spanish law. Unless she really is God she is not able to communicate with her cult. Conditioned to obedience and dependency, what do they do now? Stick with plan A and head for Mount Teide? Sit tight and wait? Get a good lawyer? Some reports say half of the sect have returned to Germany. But even if true the remnants, judging by precedent, remain a serious liability to Tenerife's fun-loving reputation. Jehovah's Witnesses have stayed loyal through several false Armageddons. More worrying still, many followers of the Aum Supreme Truth cult have rallied to their imprisoned leader, Shoko Asahara, since the 1995 Sarin gas attack on a Tokyo subway, and more than a third of those members put in prison have returned to the cult, fearful that they would go to hell if they remained outside it. Heaven's Gate, whose members committed suicide en route to a spaceship trailing the Halle-Bopp comet, is back in business recruiting on the Internet. So tonight policemen will resume their vigil on top of Mount Teide. Standing amid the rocks and boulders, the archipelago splayed out below will melt into the darkness from 7pm as lights from bars and discos begin to glimmer. Even in winter Sirius, a solar system away, can be seen clearly. Tenerife's tourist board says it looks very pretty.
I was also reminded of a fairly recent made-for-TV drama called 'Fire on Mount Carmel' - the inside story of the pre-seige Waco cult. How in the latter days David Koresh started calling himself the 'Dirty Messiah' - being the only one among them who could take on all the sinful desires of his followers and act them out on their behalf. (Yeah, right....)
Thus, his male followers were forced to become celibate whilst their wives (and their borderline-adolescent daughters - yuk!) were enticed to share their sexual favours with the cult boss. And they obliged.
Same compliance/obedience/conformity processes which click-in wherever you have an 'enclosed' community (physically or psychologically) whose faith in the Master is total.