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
From Publishers Weekly
Lifton's book about Japan's Aum Shinrikyo cult is less an exploration of terrorism than a look at the psychological traits of the mostly educated followers of Aum's guru, Asahara. As a psychiatrist, Lifton (Death in Life; The Nazi Doctors; etc.) is well equipped to explain the siren call of apocalyptic gurus and the psychology of disaffected groups seeking to cleanse and reinvent the world. He shows how Aum Shinrikyo appropriated Eastern wisdom, American New Age elements and modern technology in order to spiritualize violence into a form of altruistic murder. In 1995, members of the group released deadly sarin gas in a Tokyo subway, killing 11 people, injuring thousands and terrifying the world. Lifton describes the "psychohistorical" past of Japan (the move from feudalism to modernism, the emperor system, Hiroshima) to show why 23,000 religious groups in Japan have a total membership of 200 million JapaneseAeven though the population of Japan is only 130 million. Though he focuses on Aum, Lifton believes that the conditions that made Aum possible exist throughout the developed world. Today's postmodern, "posthistoric" times have left many in "a kind of nothingness, in a more or less permanent postmortem" and therefore susceptible to the lure of end-of-the-world extremism. The book ends with shorter analyses of American cults such as Heaven's Gate, as well as an exploration of the "fringe apocalypticism of the radical right" (e.g., that of Timothy McVeigh). In his effort to address so many manifestations of apocalyptic intoxication, Lifton's reach slightly exceeds his grasp. The book is not as coherent as it might have been, though it does offer localized, if not systematic, insight into the apocalyptic mindset. (Oct.)
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