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Tuesday, Oct. 19, 1999

An unnerving glance into the abyss

DESTROYING THE WORLD TO SAVE IT: Aum Shinrikyo, Apocalyptic Violence, and the New Global Terrorism, by Robert Jay Lifton. Holt/Metropolitan, 374 pp., $26.

A prominent scholar in the psychology of genocide has good and bad news for those who feel paranoid about random, mass killings by fanatics:

We may not be so paranoid after all.

In his book on the Aum cult, responsible for the deadly 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway, Robert Jay Lifton sounds a chilling alarm about an invisible new demon stalking the human race. Lifton says Aum has ushered us across a historic threshold into an age when religious zealots seeking to kill all their enemies -- if not destroy the world -- finally have the biological and chemical means to realize their age-old fantasies.

Aum's attack was hastily prepared with impure sarin, and thus the casualties were "only" 12 killed and nearly 6,000 injured, but the potential deaths numbered in the thousands.

Far more catastrophic, Lifton says, would have been a plan by Aum's guru leader, Shoko Asahara, to trigger Armageddon. Lifton says Asahara, now on trial, ordered his subordinates to produce an incredible 70 tons of the highly toxic agent to spray on Tokyo -- an amount that Lifton says "could have killed virtually everyone in Tokyo and much of Japan."

The threat presaged by Aum exists in varying degrees in several groups, ranging from rightwing fundamentalists in the United States to Muslim militants and assorted doomsday cults around the globe, he says. "Aum is now viewed throughout the world as the primary example of the extraordinary dangers posed by private terrorist groups arming themselves with versions of 'the poor man's atomic bomb,' " Lifton writes, referring to anthrax, botulism, sarin and other biochemical weapons.

Lifton is not the first to sound the alarm. It was issued in the U.S. congressional hearings following the Tokyo attack and repeated in the best-known English-language book on Aum, "The Cult at the End of the World," by journalists David E. Kaplan and Andrew Marshall. In January of this year, U.S. President Bill Clinton made front-page news when he said it is "highly likely" that a terrorist group will launch or threaten a germ or chemical attack on U.S. soil within the next few years.

But Lifton -- a National Book Award-winning psychiatrist and professor at the City University of New York -- lends new urgency to the threat by stressing how common the madness is that produces it. He identifies a psychological kinship between modern groups like Aum and Nazi doctors, Chinese Communist practitioners of "thought reform," Japan's Imperial Army in World War II and a range of other examples from history, going back to Inquisition Christians and the Thugs of India.

Though differing in many details, such groups share traits that may include a vision of racial or spiritual purity, a justification of killing as a form of healing or salvation (whether of the world, the group itself or the victims), and the members' transformation into blindly devoted followers of a charismatic, megalomaniacal leader.

The terrain is a familiar one for Lifton, whose many books on the human psyche include examinations of Nazi doctors, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Maoist China, the Vietnam War and the threat of nuclear war.

Although the Aum book links the cult's pathology to its roots in Japanese history, particularly World War II, and to the alienation of many young people in contemporary Japanese society, Lifton argues that Aum was merely a Japanese expression of "a loosely connected, still-developing global subculture of apocalyptic violence." To drive the point home, the book concludes with portraits of other contemporary violent cults in the U.S., including the Charles Manson gang, the People's Temple and Heaven's Gate.

It reserves its most ominous forebodings for the radical right, which Lifton describes as "an American milieu where survivalists, paramilitarists, neo-Nazis, white racist millenarians and a variety of conspiracy theorists mix."

Lifton's primary aim was not to uncover new secrets about Aum. While his three years' work on the project did include in-depth interviews with 10 former members of Aum, he drew heavily on previously published work for his extended account of the cult's corporate empire, anti-Semitic ideology, harsh treatment of followers, several murders, and attempts at acquiring and deploying various weapons of mass destruction.

The book's chief strength, most intriguing theme and perhaps greatest vulnerability is its psychological diagnosis, which finds broad parallels between Aum and many other groups scattered widely over time and space. It suffers from a few minor problems, including a tendency toward repetition, and some readers may tire of "ism" coinages (nuclearism, gunism, scientism, psychism, economism). A couple of assertions about Japanese history are debatable as well.

But these pale in significance when compared with the author's ambitious scope and mission. He ends with "a plea for awareness" that "Asahara and Aum have changed the world for everyone." Proclaiming the arrival of that new terror is "by no means an expression of despair," Lifton writes. "One looks into the abyss in order to see beyond it."

Charles Burress is a staff writer for the San Francisco Chronicle currently on leave as an Abe Fellow at the University of Tokyo.

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