Destroying the World to Save It: Aum Shinrikyou, Apocalyptic Violence and the New Global Terrorism, by Robert Jay Lifton

Destroying the world to save it

Destroying the World to Save It: Aum Shinrikyou, Apocalyptic Violence and the New Global Terrorism, by Robert Jay Lifton
Henry Holt and Company Inc. (1 December 2000)
376 pages
ISBN -10: 0805065113
Review by Chris Corker

‘On March 20, 1995, Aum Shinrikyou, a fanatical Japanese religious cult, released sarin, a deadly nerve gas, on five subway trains during Tokyo’s early-morning rush hour […] On the trains, in the stations where they stopped, and at the station exits, people coughed, choked, experienced convulsions and collapsed. Eleven were killed. […] Had Aum succeeded in producing a purer form of the gas, the deaths could have been in the thousands or hundreds of thousands.’ (Page 3)

New religious cults are not unique to Japan, but they are a phenomenon that is deep-rooted in its culture, and have received a large amount of publicity, especially in the case of Aum, which had already committed a host of murders and dealt in many forms of corruption. They had already released toxic gas into a city (on that occasion Matsumoto) by the time their sarin attack on the Tokyo underground gained them global infamy. New religious cults in other countries had tended to be inward-looking – keeping a tight control over their members – rather than extrovert in their campaigns of intimidation, coercion and violence. Similarly, while many groups had believed in an impending Armageddon, none had actively attempted its realisation. Aum was the first to make concerted attempts to catalyse the world’s destruction.

In this informative and chilling book, Psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton takes a look at the structure and appeal of Aum, as well as the influences that brought it into existence. Through interviews with former members, he gives an insight not only into the organisation, but into the psyche of those who joined, both before and after the Tokyo sarin attack. The interviewees are mainly low-level members, but their testimony contains more than enough substance for the reader to fill in the remaining gaps. Lifton chronicles the history of the cult, right up to the modern day, before discussing the similarities found in other destructive cults in America, including Heaven’s Gate and The People’s Temple.

Any discussion of Aum will revolve around its leader, Shoko Asahara. What is most chilling about the interviews with Aum’s former members – and this is reinforced by their testimonies in court – is that almost all of them retain a sense of fondness and even reverence for Asahara, some claiming that they still believe in his divinity. Many of the interviewees express a marked distrust of the press, amounting to the feeling that Aum was the victim of a conspiracy and unfairly accused. Lifton paints Asahara as a man whose superiority complex stems from growing up in a school for the blind when he was, at worst, partially sighted. Later in life he would have his brush-ins with the law, being convicted of assault and the sale of fake Chinese Medicines. Following a spiritual awakening, he became obsessed with the Hindu goddess of destruction, Shiva. When he felt he was losing control over his followers, he became obsessed with the idea that someone – typically the government or other cults – was trying to have him killed. Paranoia seemed to fuel his vices and his hypocrisy deepened. His driver recalls him binging and drinking while his followers fasted, chastised for their desire to eat. This paranoia also led to violence. One of his high-ranking followers, Hideo Murai, was assassinated by a member of the Yakuza, shortly after he let Aum secrets slip in a media interview.

For a cult whose members had grown up inspired by such seemingly innocent sci-fi animation as Battleship Yamato, things soon became dark, technology always intertwined with their final solution. Murder became an obsession, justified by their distortion of the concept of pao, where a higher being killing a lesser one is considered an act of mercy. Asahara was the highest, and his orders, however severe, were followed. In the book there are reports of members with doubts being strangled or injected with poison. A lawyer, about to bring a case against Aum, was killed in his home along with his wife and young son. Their bodies were separated and left in barrels, their eyes and teeth removed to hinder identification. If Aum had succeeded in their goals, these deaths would have been the tip of the iceberg; it was only the means to genocide that they lacked. Envoys were sent to countries such as Russia, with the aim of securing nuclear warheads. At home, Asahara began to talk of death rays that would evaporate people by the million. Were it not for the ineptitude of Aum’s scientists, they may have come closer than they did to their aims.

After the attacks took place and Aum was formerly investigated, the police discovered Asahara in a safe room, soaked in his own urine, surrounded by piles of money. He was given the death penalty but has yet to be executed.

The book is well-written and easy to read, avoiding many technical terms that may confuse the psychiatry layman. The intimacy of some of the confessions is intriguing for a nation stereotypically regarded as reserved. They provide narratives in themselves, and the book is, in places, hard to put down.

Lifton concludes with a look at Aum at the turn of the Millennium. The cult continues to exist under the name of Aleph, although Asahara’s charismatic protégé , Fumihiro Joyuu, has left, beginning his own faction in the hope of dispelling the taint of Aum’s reputation. He still, however, refers to Asahara as their “exalted leader” and a “spiritual being”. Lifton finishes with a worrying fact that demonstrates how deeply Aum had infiltrated into Japanese society, and the impotency of the authorities when dealing with them:

‘In late February and early March of 2000, it was discovered that a number of Aum-owned companies had created elaborate software for many of Japan’s government offices […] Aum had provided computer systems for the Defense Agency and the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department, meaning the cult could help design the patrol routes of the very police department that was supposed to be monitoring it.’


Those interested in religious cults might also like to read Cults: Faith, Healing and Coercion by Marc Galanter, a more theoretical and statistic-based look at different cults, specifically The Unification Church. Those interested in further Aum reading might find Haruki Murakami’s Underground useful. The book takes a closer look at the plight of the victims and the impact that the attack had on their lives. It is probably no coincidence that a religious cult and its enigmatic leader play a key role in Murakami’s recent novel 1Q84.

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