Robert Jay Lifton: Destroying the World to Save It

Robert Jay Lifton
Destroying the World to Save It: Aum Shinrikyo, Apocalyptic Violence, and the New Global Terrorism
Metropolitan Books

ONE DAY IN March 1995, during Tokyo's morning rush hour, Aum Shinriky¯o, a fanatical religious cult, released the nerve gas sarin on five subway trains. Eleven people died and thousands more were injured. For the majority of us, who experience a pang of guilt when sampling a few grapes at the grocery store, such events seem to suggest the existence of a batch of crazy (and possibly evil) people who are beyond comprehension. But Robert Jay Lifton, the National Book Award-winning author of Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima and a practicing psychiatrist, argues that the event is far more than a curious aberration that can be forgotten now that the head cult members are in jail. Rather, in his latest book Destroying the World to Save It: Aum Shinriky¯o, Apocalyptic Violence, and the New Global Terrorism, Lifton attempts to show how a group of previously law-abiding doctors, scientists, businesspeople, and students--people much like everyone else--were converted into a band of murderers and thieves.

From the get-go, Lifton promises not only to show us how these people came to believe that killing nearly everyone on the planet was necessary for its salvation, but to detail why they "crossed the threshold" into action. In accomplishing this task, Lifton steps beyond the story of Aum's one-eyed creator and leader Sh¯ok¯o Asahara, a history that has already been tackled in a host of other books. Rather, he applies his trademark "psychohistorical" technique to sketch out existing historical and cultural conditions in Japan (and the entire world) that were necessary for Aum's relatively traditional brand of brainwashing to take hold. Practically speaking, this involves delving deeply into Japanese history--such as the 19th-century Meiji Restoration--and then coming back up to apply psychoanalysis to the situation. In this mode, Lifton at one point calls on Freud's classic study of the paranoid schizophrenic Daniel Paul Schreber and concludes, "Putting the matter simply, Asahara was a Schreber with disciples and ultimate weapons."

Throughout all this, Lifton discourages essentialism: Some cult members, Lifton urges, were caught up in Asahara's fantastic rhetoric, while others, dissatisfied with Japanese society, merely needed a gentle push. Lifton's method of "seizing upon the paradox" is often welcome, as it recognizes the complexity of the situation. But at times, it can lead to a lack of focus as one Aum member after another reveals different reasons for joining the cult. Without a strong theory to tie these people together, their stories, collected from interviews, can read like the observational notes of a psychiatric session.

With this matter left somewhat open-ended, Lifton then sets out to show how "Aum was part of a loosely connected, still developing global subculture of apocalyptic violence." This is a broad thesis, to say the least, and Lifton's pursuit of it tends to undermine the cultural specificity that has defined the first two-thirds of the book. For example, Lifton spends much time pointing out how a post-Hiroshima Japan obsessed with world-ending narratives (such as Godzilla) fostered the perfect environment for Aum's impressive growth. Then he goes on to argue that similar elements exist in a "postmodern" American culture, citing the example of Heaven's Gate. He even suggests that such apocalyptic tendencies were pervasive throughout medieval Europe. Ultimately, the reader may be left wondering why the author has devoted so much energy to studying the influence of Japanese culture on Aum if the conditions are ubiquitous in the first place.

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