- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 7, 1999

Over the years much has been written concerning the banality of evil and the Nazis. But several post-World War II groups have created unprecedented savagery and barbarism within the confines of existing nation-states without state sponsorship and under the nose of otherwise competent state security mechanisms.

Aum Shinrikyo is one such organization. Many Americans will recognize the organization as the one responsible for the sarin nerve gas attack that killed 11 and wounded 5,000 in Tokyo during 1995.

Robert Jay Lifton details the history of this cult and its charismatic and reptilian leader Shoko Asahara in “Destroying the World to Save It.” Although shocked by the first use of chemical weapons by a non-governmental organization, most Americans went on to other things that spring and forgot about this cult of death. Mr. Lifton gives us some frightening reasons to reflect on this kind of threat.

Asahara is legally blind although he has some sight. Sent to a school for the blind at an early age, he began a pattern of bullying and manipulation that would extend until his arrest for instigating the subway bombings. Asahara admired Hitler, but was a practitioner of a sick blend of pseudo-Buddhist theology, ‘60s collectivism, ‘70s “est” philosophy and blatant hucksterism. He blended almost everything that has been wrong with the 20th century into a totalitarian collectivism of fanatical followers willing to do almost anything to please him.

Asahara’s cult preached redemption and a better life through Armageddon. His followers believed that their victims would be reincarnated to a better life through their deaths at the cult’s hands.

Mr. Lifton struggles, with some success, to explain why a large group of young Japanese, including a large number of affluent, middle-class people with college backgrounds, and a disturbing percentage of medical professionals, would turn to an organization with such violent motives. He finds some interesting potential answers. The lack of an ethical basis in Japanese religious tradition and Eastern religious practice in general is one potential culprit.

Eastern religion stresses following practices by leaders, gurus, or sensei/teachers. Scrupulous adherence to the dictates of these teachers is the highest virtue. Questioning whether the teacher’s values are the right ones does not receive a high premium.

Mr. Lifton also cites some diverse factors in post-World War II Japanese society that could have caused the cult’s rise. The destructive effects of defeat in the Pacific War, apocalyptic postwar media such as the “Godzilla” movies and postmodern angst all get some examination. However, the main threat seems to be low self-esteem among certain individuals in a society that values conformity above all.

Lest we Americans think we are immune from this, readers are encouraged to go to a mall and watch determinedly non-conformist American youth conform absolutely to the social norms of non-adult fashion. If there is a common denominator of the stories of the young people who joined Aum Shinrikyo, it is their headlong rush from the admittedly confining norms of mainstream Japanese society into the absolutely confining world of the cult with its doomsday philosophy.

Mr. Lifton’s book is fascinating in its description of the ordinariness of the young people who flocked to Asahara’s banner. To some extent, it becomes tedious reading as the biographies of the cult’s recruits are recounted. If banality leads to evil these are very evil people indeed. The cult had killed before the Tokyo subway incident, and Japan’s security forces were suspicious of it; however they were limited by their postwar constitution’s strict ban on appearing to persecute fringe religions of which Japan has a plethora.

Mr. Lifton is no stranger to this field. A distinguished professor of psychology and psychiatry at John Jay College, he has made a career of studying and writing about the psychology of mass badness and man’s misbehavior to other men.

If there is any good news in the book, it is that chemical and biological agents are much more difficult to turn into the weapons than many think. The cult had attempted numerous chemical and biological attacks before the subway incident. Disturbingly, some of these were aimed at U.S. military installations in the zany hope that it would cause some deadly American response. This well-researched book should give those who watch fringe groups for signs of hostile intent some good guidelines for indications and warnings of potential disaster.

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