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Aum Shinrikyo, Apocalyptic Violence, and the New Global Terrorism

by Robert Jay Lifton

Pub Date: Oct. 12th, 1999
ISBN: 0-8050-5290-9
Publisher: Henry Holt

            A study of the historical and psychological origins and meanings of the Japanese cult Aum Shinriky?, by the noted psychiatrist and author Lifton.

            On March 5, 1995, members of Aum, at the direction of their leader, Sh?k? Asahara, released the lethal gas sarin onto five Tokyo subway trains.  Eleven died, 5,000 were injured.  Lifton has written often on the evil extremes of human action – e.g., the Nazi Holocaust, Hiroshima (Hiroshima in America:  50 Years of Denial, 1995, etc.).  Bringing his vast knowledge to bear on Aum, he finds much that is familiar, much that is unique.  As with all cults, the members of Aum were fiercely dedicated to their leader, to the point of “collective megalomania”:  an unquestioned belief in the limitless power of the self.  Add to this a belief in poa, altruistic murder, so that the victim might move to a higher level of being, and all bounds of behavior are removed.  Aum was fascinated with Armageddon.  A final cleansing of the world, but uniquely Aum had weapons at its disposal to at least plan such a cleansing.  This is the new terrorism to which the title alludes.  Lifton examines how cult members became indoctrinated, yet he has larger questions.  Why such a group in the first place?  Why in Japan?  Can it happen elsewhere?  Reaching back to Japanese history, the author searches for motivation:  similar cults, Japan’s failure to face its barbarous actions in WWII, the spiritual malaise of a rigid Japanese social system.  Even Godzilla movies come into play.  Beyond Aum, Lifton looks to the social situations that may lead to, and in fact have led to, similar cults in the US.  Lifton is evocative and erudite as usual, yet the limits of his “psychohistorical” method remain.  Understanding history through psychology suggests much and proves little.  The history of Japan may have motivated Aum members, but precisely how – how history permeates the individual – remains unclear.

            Nonetheless, this is a powerful book, suggesting how fragile both the human psyche and human decency may be.