Compare and Contrast Crime and Terrorism
When Aum Shinrikyo became a legally registered religion in 1989, it had about 4,000 members. By 1995 it had about 10,000 members, twenty-five centers in Japan, and about 30,000 members in Russia. The devotees in Japan included 1,247 shukkesha (renunciants). In Japan, about 75 percent of the devotees were in their 20s and 30s. Nearly 40 percent of the shukkesha were women (Trinh and John 60). Aum’s extreme ascetic practices were acts of violence, and they prepared the members to commit increasingly violent acts. Asceticism was practiced either voluntarily or involuntarily, as members were coerced into enduring arduous experiences. Thus, ascetic practices became rituals of violence that bonded the most committed Aum members to each other. They shared the suffering of the ascetic experiences and some of them shared the experience of coercing others to endure the practices. These shared rituals of violence prepared a number of Aum members to commit escalating and more frequent acts of violence.
The Japanese sect Aum Shinrikyō, founded by self-appointed guru Asahara Shōkō in the 1980s, differs markedly from, for example, Peoples Temple and the Branch Davidians. The two American groups killed protagonists and then died themselves. Aum Shinrikyō went much further; it perpetrated an unprecedented act of indiscriminate murder. How and why, on 20 March 1995, did this religious movement launch its deadly sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subway system, killing twelve people and injuring thousands?
After the subway attack, two main hypotheses emerged in Japan. In the “ideological” scenario, Aum Shinrikyō was trying to destabilize the state by eliminating as many officials as possible. In this view, releasing sarin gas in the subway amounted to a purely political act of terrorism, prosecutable under Japan’s antisubversive law of 1952. The second hypothesis-“brainwashing”-was based on the analysis of psychiatrists who studied several ex-disciples treated in hospitals. They concluded that a pathology of collective madness had prevented individuals from controlling their own actions.
It is worth revising and supplanting these with a third hypothesis, namely, that the trajectory of Aum Shinrikyō can be explained by the model of apocalyptic religious violence. In this hypothesis, violence came to serve as a catalyst to determine who would survive the day of the Last Judgment. Aum Shinrikyō initially was supposed to save all humanity. Eventually the group did not simply await an Apocalypse; it used violence to create one.
Whatever the sensitivity of the Japanese police to religious freedom, with hindsight it seemed obvious to many observers that they should have targeted Aum Shinrikyō before the Tokyo subway attack. For one thing, 20 March 1995 was hardly the first occasion that Japanese people had found themselves subjected to suspicious toxic fumes. On 2 July 1993, about one hundred residents of Tokyo’s Kōtō area complained about noxious white smoke escaping from buildings belonging to Aum Shinrikyō. Aum staff refused to allow the authorities to enter the compound and the authorities did not force the issue, perhaps because the buildings belonged to a religious organization (Trinh and John 56).
The authorities were no more effective in dealing with a far more dramatic event that took place in Matsumoto. On 27 June 1994, a specially equipped truck dispersed poisonous gas in the parking lot of a neighborhood supermarket, killing seven people and injuring 200 others. The chemical used in the attack was later determined to be sarin, a substance developed by the Nazis in 1938, but never before known to have been deployed as a weapon. Sarin remains liquid in a closed container, but when exposed to the air releases highly toxic fumes. Extremely small doses can cause serious respiratory troubles, and as little as 10 milligrams can result in paralysis and death. The police were not able to identify the perpetrators of the Matsumoto attack, but they did have the name of a certain Kōno Yoshiyuki who had given the alert. By coincidence, Kōno worked for a chemicals business, and he had brought some chemicals home for use in his garden. Despite the fact that the wife of Kōno had been asphyxiated and remained in a coma, the media immediately named him as the author of the event. Only later would the authorities establish Aum Shinrikyō’s culpability.
While Japanese law enforcement agents were oblivious to the criminal activities of Aum devotees, Aum Shinrikyo acquired the means and the will to carry out armageddon. The sarin gas attacks in Matsumoto on June 27, 1994, and on the Tokyo subway on March 20, 1995, had the shortterm aims of neutralizing Aum’s enemies and protecting Aum’s mission of creating the Shambhala kingdom. Therefore, the violence committed by Aum devotees was motivated by the organization’s fragility and the endangerment of the ultimate concern. Fortunately, Aum devotees did not have the opportunity to carry out their revolutionary plan to fight armageddon in November 1995 (Trinh and John 45).
Terrorism and violence grounded in the religious beliefs of groups have been present in the world in many circumstances. Such actions are likely to continue. In addition to having millenarian visions, they are often unwilling to compromise or reach accommodations with their opponents (Lifton 12). Such compromises are not possible since the agreements would run the danger of violating key religious beliefs held by the dissidents. To the extent that such violence is a reaction to changes in the world, it will continue because change will continue. Change and globalization will challenge religions throughout the world, and violence is one form of response to these challenges. The clash of civilizations idea has relevance as well, and the differences between different areas are unlikely to disappear in the immediate future. The fact that state support has been limited in at this case is one sign that there might be at least a reduced level of religious violence in the future.
Lifton, Robert J. Destroying the World to Save It: Aum Shinrikyô, Apocalyptic Violence, and the New Global Terrorism. New York: Henry Holt, 1999.
Trinh, Sylvaine, and John Hall. “The Violent Path of Aum Shinrikyô. ” In Apocalypse Observed: Religious Movements and Violence in North America, Europe, and Japan, edited by John R. Hall, with philip Schuyler and Sylvanie Trinh. New York: Routledge, 2000.