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Destroying the World to Save It: Aum Shinrikyo, Apocalyptic Violence, and the New Global Terrorism Hardcover – October 21, 1999

4.6 out of 5 stars 7 customer reviews

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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.)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Metropolitan Books; 1 edition (October 21, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0805052909
  • ISBN-13: 978-0805052909
  • Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 1.2 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #270,382 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By A Customer on October 24, 2001
Format: Paperback
Dr. Lifton's work gives us an excellent academic look into cult thinking. However, if you want to see how innocently these groups can start, if you want to understand the mind-frame of a believer, if you want to experience how it is that potent beliefs can skew one's morals then also include in your reading Seductive Poison. Anyone who has ever wondered how the unbelievable comes to pass Layton's memoir of cult life has the answers. Although three years old it remains a timely, intimate and enlightening look into a world that exists along-side our own. If you want a heart pounding visceral glimpse inside another world this book is it. It is not just evil that can do the things we've experienced since September 11. It can also be idealistic, devout folks like you and me. We are all more susceptible to fanatical beliefs since war has touched our soil. Would we now even question giving anthrax to "them"? Layton's work shows how it can go both ways.
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Format: Hardcover
Robert J. Lifton has dedicated his life to explaining the phenomenon of blind faith. However, to understand the Taliban world John Walker entered nine months ago one needs to add to the list of required reading, an eloquent memoir by someone not unlike the idealistic young Walker, Deborah Layton. Dr. Lifton and Layton's words together only broaden the scope of our possible comprehension of this difficult subject and make excellent reading for theologians and society at large.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Building on his early work, this analysis by Lifton of a doomsday cult is even more insightful and nuanced. A great read for those fascinated by this particular cult (Aum Shinrikyo), as well as for those who want to see how Lifton's criteria for deciding whether a group is a cult play out in a very particular case. He also has great empathy for his interview subjects and how their differing backgrounds and dispositions, as well as their direct experiences with the guru and various stages of "initiation," affected their willingness to stick with him up to and through the sarin attacks, and their eventual disaffection.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
RJLifton really is the 'go to guy' for the thoughtful analysis of violence and cultish behavior. Probably could have done with a bit more detail on the actual day to day workings of Aum, but the interviews and insight are brilliant. Lifton presents you with some interesting ideas, but the most shocking thing about this book, is that on reflection, we are all capable of being swept up into acts of madness and violence.
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