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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 reflections of close to 40 persons, drawn from a larger number of interviews. Many are victims of the attack or relatives thereof; others are current or (mostly) former members of Aum. Their feelings were garnered by Murakami and his tape recorder in the year after the attack. Murakami the fiction writer does not pretend to be a criminologist, sociologist, political scientist, or judge, but in addition to the interviews he offers his own thoughts on the meaning of the attack and the public response to it.

American readers may especially appreciate the author's attentiveness to, and concern for, the survivors. It is absolutely necessary to remember the dead, as The New York Times has nobly done for the victims of 9/11. But too few studies are done, and too few stories are written, about the damaged survivors of such attacks. For decades there will be survivors of Aum's attack: the badly injured who will never move as well; the lesser-hurt who remain beset by strange sufferings; and people whose ruin was more emotional than physical. By contrast, the attacks in America left far more dead than injured. But both nations will be dealing for years with the post-traumatic stress of survivors and the desolation of the victims' relatives.

The attacks on Tokyo and the United States were in some ways remarkably similar. Both were planned by religiously motivated leaders who commanded absolute devotion. Both Shoko Asahara, the leader of Aum, and Osama bin Laden were able to attract to their cause intelligent young men with advanced technical training. The larger aim of the attack in Japan was to hurry a supposedly impending apocalypse by wrecking the ministries of state in the capital. The operation in Tokyo aimed directly at the Kasumigaseki, where stand central police offices as well as ministries of trade and industry, finance, foreign affairs, etc. The economy would also be slammed by the expected paralysis of business. In New York and Washington, D.C., similarly, the terrorists focused on key economic and political targets—but with incomparably greater success than Aum achieved.

Many of Japan's victims, from the beginning, showed the paralyzing effects that terrorism may produce on the living. For example, some seem indifferent to justice:

  • "My reaction was, 'Well, I'm okay,'" said a 41-year-old married man poisoned by nerve gas. "I'd been right at the epicenter, but instead of shuddering at the death toll, I felt like I was watching a program on tv, as if it were someone else's problem." The victim continues: "I ought to have been furious." Instead, as his pain passed, by that summer "I began to forget that there had even been a 'Tokyo gas attack.'"

  • A 26-year old woman, also mildly gassed, experienced long-term pain and limitations on sight and memory. But looking back, she recalls that only two days after the attack it already "lacked reality for me. Someone right in front of me on the platform had died, but it still wasn't real."

  • A 38-year-old import buyer wanted to relate that he was not an important victim: "Had I died, I probably could have accepted it in my own way as just a kind of accident."

He was not the only victim taken with the element of chance. A second category of victims like him takes shape for the reader. Their fascination is much less with the evil of the terrorists or the scope of the attack than with the way some were injured while others were not:

  • A lifelong Tokyo resident, 23, was able to laugh about the fact that she'd been dozing on the train; the closed eyes and shallower breaths of sleep protected her somewhat. Her sickness was thus short: "Just lucky I guess."

  • A car dealer remains amazed that all his pains began when he missed his usual bus, and so ended up riding a later-than-his-usual subway train, one of those attacked.

  • Another commuter stops to buy milk every other day, and "That day was my milk day, thanks to which, I got caught up in this sarin business. Just my luck."

A third pattern in many of the interviewees is their mild reaction to—or relative incomprehension of—the ambitions of Aum or the nature of terrorism. Virtually no one, starting with Murakami himself, says "terrorist" or "terrorism" in these pages. Many speak of the guilty as "criminals"—which of course they are. But few go further, or offer reflections on the true nature of the perpetrators' actions. The book contains more resignation than one might expect, and amazingly little indignation:

  • "[M]y eyesight's bad … my memory's a lot worse … I can barely concentrate. [But] I don't feel especially angry towards the individual culprits … I see Asahara's face on television and for some reason I'm not filled with animosity."

  • "I've already gone beyond hatred … I've no interest in the verdict or the punishment. That's for the judge to decide."

  • "I don't feel any personal hatred or bitterness toward the criminals … It feels more like I had an accident."

At first glance these testimonies may seem more "Christian" than the response of many Americans to 9/11. But is there not something deeply disturbing and morally shallow about such attitudes? Do they reflect a humble spirit of forgiveness or simply an evasion of reality, consistent with a preoccupation with chance and a reluctance to consider the preparation and calculation of the terrorists, reinforced by relief at having suffered less than some others?

Certainly the national responses of Japan and the United States to the March 1995 and September 2001 attacks have been radically different. Japan has in many respects not responded. The Japanese collectively gasped at Aum's violence, but, perhaps preferring to see it as an unaccountable anomaly, the nation has taken little corrective action. Deterrence is not markedly improved. There has not been a bevy of new laws to cope with the tactics of dangerous cults. Most strikingly, with a handful of exceptions, the Aum terrorists—many of whom are already out of jail—have been treated with a liberality that amounts to a near-denial of the seriousness of their crime and the far greater terrors they were preparing.1

The United States, by contrast, has responded more in line with the way Thomas Jefferson's administration did in the case of the Barbary pirates. That plague on the early republic was from gangs not discernibly political or religious, but "enemies of mankind" as surely as are modern transnational terrorists. That era's president, judging appeasement distasteful and futile, showed these enemies war. He succeeded.

The current war against terrorism, regrettable as all wars are, manifestly meets the stipulations of "just war." Those tenets are almost as old as Christian thought, and as recent as the good counsel the Baptist and professor of Christian ethics, Dr. Daniel R. Heimbach, was giving to President George H. W. Bush a decade ago, when Iraq had invaded its neighbor Kuwait. Self-defense is a "just cause." And this war will be brought to a close when al-Qaeda's many terrorists are defeated as thoroughly as was the Taliban's army, for just war aims at the restoration of peace.

Christopher C. Harmon writes and lectures on political, moral, and strategic aspects of terrorism. His second book, Terrorism Today, is published by Frank Cass (2000).

1. Nor was the cult's force spent: In January of this year, a Russian court convicted five members of Aum of planning terrorist attacks in several Japanese cities, intended to force the release of Asahara.

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