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Christopher C. Harmon


Comparative Terrorism

Al-Qaeda and Aum Shinrikyo

The date is March 20, 1995. It is a beautiful clear spring morning. There is still a brisk breeze and people are bundled up in coats. Yesterday was Sunday, tomorrow is the Spring Equinox, a national holiday. Sandwiched right in the middle of what should have been a long weekend, you're probably thinking, "I wish I didn't have to go to work today." No such luck. You get up at the normal time, wash, dress, breakfast, and head for the subway station. You board the train, crowded as usual. Nothing out of the ordinary. It promises to be a perfectly run-of-the-mill day. Until a man in disguise pokes at the floor of the car with the sharpened tip of his umbrella, puncturing some plastic bags filled with a strange liquid … —Haruki Murakami, Underground

As our triple tragedy of September 11 slips backward in time, the process of national self-examination set in motion that day has narrowed to a few well-worn themes—"homeland security," "Arab rage," "the conflict of civilizations," the alleged failures of U.S. foreign policy, and so on—retailed again and again to dwindling attention. Clearly we need some new angles to take the measure of what happened and learn from it.

One such vantage point might be found in the experience of another liberal democracy, Japan, hit by a weapon of mass destruction in March 1995. Members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult released the deadly nerve gas, sarin, at several points in the Tokyo subway system. The death toll was mercifully low—eleven people died—but more than 5,000 were affected by the gas, many of them suffering lasting physical harm, not to mention the psychological impact.

While the attack and its aftermath were widely covered in the media, most Americans will have only hazy recollections of the event. That can be remedied by a reading of Haruki Murakami's Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche, an extraordinary book by the contemporary Japanese novelist most widely known in the West.

Underground compiles the recollections and ...

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