Crown Publishers Inc., 1996
On March 20, 1995, religious fanatics released bags of toxic chemicals into the center of Tokyo, Japan's bustling subway system, killing twelve and injuring more than five thousand people in the process. The attack sent an ominous message to both the Japanese people and to the entire international community as for the first time, an autonomous organization employed weapons of mass destruction against a major metropolis. It was a frightening demonstration of the growing audacity and extremism of terrorist groups operating worldwide today.
The perpetrators of the Tokyo subway attack was the Aum Supreme Truth, a Japanese religious cult founded by Shoko Asahara, a onetime con-artist and self-proclaimed messiah. The book, The Cult at the End of the World, is a well-informed exposé on the Aum. Written by two Western correspondents, David Kaplan and Andrew Marshall, the book portrays an enigmatical, sometimes macabre, image of a sect acutely disillusioned by Japan's spiritual decline following the bursting of its prosperous "bubble economy" in the early 1990's.
Early on in the book, the reader is introduced to the mosaic of influences which constituted the Aum's theology. Drawing on an amalgamation of Hindu, Buddhist, and Christian beliefs, and commingling them with the futurism of Isaac Asimov and the ancient prophecies of Nostradamus, Shoko Asahara was able to concoct a religious code espousing a Gnostic-like enlightenment as salvation from the depravity of modern society.
Relentlessly pontificating in tone, Asahara castigated the modern Japanese socio-economic system for its rigid emphasis on production and conformity over individualism. The guru was convinced that Japanese society had become a "filthy world of desires...so polluted that people who are living in it already have had the first brainwashing." His persuasive rhetoric spoke to a growing number of alienated Japanese, thereby producing a wide and willing audience for the Aum.
Beyond an ideology of hermeticism from the outside world however, lay a dangerous belief in the Armageddon, the biblical time of warfare where the forces of good and evil would battle each other for supremacy. In 1993, Asahara prophesized that the end of the world was near and that the cult must be prepared for it. He predicted 1996 would be the year when "civilization would begin its descent into apocalyptic fire."
This would serve to justify the Aum's attempted procurement of both conventional weapons and weapons of mass destruction. Handguns, semi-automatic firearms, military helicopters, deadly chemical and biological toxins, and even nuclear weapons were on the cult's acquisition list. The coming of the Armageddon would signal the commencing of the Aum's designs to overthrow the Japanese government with these weapons and to give rise to a new, "supreme" state headed by none other than Shoko Asahara himself. The planned takeover of the world's second largest economy would only be the first step towards fulfilling the cult's ultimate ambition to dominate all of mankind.
Kaplan and Marshall write moreover, that an Aum-controlled government would resemble something of "a cross between a medieval theocracy and postwar Japan." They add that the cult was "of course no democracy, nor was the state it sought to create." But they hasten to reassure us that the Aum's grand scheme to take power from Japan's long-standing bureaucratic and political establishment was wholly unrealistic. There was little mass support for the group and in any case, Japan's defense forces would have easily put down any overt moves by the militarily inferior cult.
Perhaps the most astonishing aspect of the Aum Supreme Truth was the distinguished background of its many followers (some 10,000 in Japan). The cult's highest leaders and its rank-and-file members were comprised primarily of youthful, highly-educated, highly-skilled people who gave up their professional careers, committed to the idea that they could find meaning and comfort only in the embrace of Shoko Asahara. The authors write that these people were no less than Japanese "society's brightest minds...turning their skills towards indiscriminate terror."
For his large retinue of proselytes, Shoko Asahara was godlike figure in a deluge of existential emptiness. In their obsession with the guru and his ideas, members voluntarily forfeited the entirety of their material holdings to the Aum (the main source of the cult's immense financial wealth) and entered what would become for them a world of free sex, hallucinatory drugs, and cold-blooded murder.
Much like the relationship between the ruler and the ruled in a totalitarian society, the cultists "twitched to the vibrations of one colossal ego" in venerating Asahara as their omnipotent Reverend Master. Kaplan and Marshall also write, "At no point would they (the cultists) have to think for themselves." As the absolute authority on everything from people's diets to love-making techniques, Asahara single-handedly remolded every aspect of each cultist's life in accordance with his warped convictions. Any variation whatsoever of his directives and pronouncements was treated as heresy and dealt with cruelly, and in many cases, with death.
While The Cult at the End of the World is effective in characterizing the Aum Supreme Truth as a delusion-ridden, homicidal organization, it also has a schematic problem. The text is top-heavy, needlessly burdened by the authors' overzealousness in providing detailed
information such as, for example, the monotonously superfluous explications of some of the chemical weapons acquired by the group. Accordingly, the book could have been made much shorter without losing command of the subject matter.
Generally however, readers of The Cult at the End of the World will be fascinated with, if not alarmed by, what the book has to say about the expanding dimensions of global terrorism as made evidently clear by the actions of groups like the Aum Supreme Truth.