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Destroying the World to Save It: Aum Shinrikyo, Apocalyptic Violence, and the New Global Terrorism

June 6, 2017 - Comment

National Book Award winner and renowned psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton reveals a world at risk from millennial cults intent on ending it all. Since the earliest moments of recorded history, prophets and gurus have foretold the world’s end, but only in the nuclear age has it been possible for a megalomaniac guru with a world-ending

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National Book Award winner and renowned psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton reveals a world at risk from millennial cults intent on ending it all.

Since the earliest moments of recorded history, prophets and gurus have foretold the world’s end, but only in the nuclear age has it been possible for a megalomaniac guru with a world-ending vision to bring his prophecy to pass. Now Robert Jay Lifton offers a vivid and disturbing case in point in this chilling exploration of Aum Shinrikyo, the Japanese cult that released sarin nerve gas in the Tokyo subways.

With unprecedented access to former Aum members, Lifton has produced a pathbreaking study of the inner life of a modern millennial cult. He shows how Aum’s guru Shoko Asahara (charismatic spiritual leader, con man, madman) created a religion from a global stew of New Age thinking, ancient rituals, and apocalyptic science fiction, then recruited scientists as disciples and set them to producing weapons of mass destruction. Taking stock as well of Charles Manson, Heaven’s Gate, and the Oklahoma City bombers, Lifton confronts the frightening possibility of a twenty-first century in which cults and terrorists may be able to bring about their own holocausts.
Bold and compelling, Destroying the World to Save It charts the emergence of a new global threat of urgent concern to us all.

The premise of Destroying the World to Save It is terrifying: after studying the history of the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo (instigators of a 1995 nerve gas attack on a Tokyo subway), the author believes them to be only one group in a “loosely connected, still-developing global subculture of apocalyptic violence.” We ignore this subculture, says National Book Award winner Robert Jay Lifton, at our future peril. In interviews with former Aum members once led by the guru figure Shoko Asahara, it is their “familiar ordinariness” that most disturbs Lifton. Drawing parallels to his studies of Nazi psychology, he notes that–just as in Germany–practicing doctors and trained scientists were persuaded to join Aum and offer their specialized knowledge in the service of the cult’s plans. The story of Aum, says Lifton, has for the first time shown the world that not only other states but more elusive groups less open to diplomacy may be able to gain control of weapons of mass destruction.

While Destroying the World to Save It is a deeply researched and intelligent psychological analysis, Lifton’s conclusion is nevertheless unsatisfying. While surmising that those who next attempt to carry out an apocalyptic plan may be more powerful and competent than Aum, he does not really present a good suggestion for how to prevent their success, offering only a psychologist’s “plea for awareness.” One hopes his study will encourage activism against global terrorism as well. –Maria Dolan

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