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

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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,...

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

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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.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's 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 Japanese--even 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 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
On March 20, 1995, members of the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo released sarin nerve gas into the Tokyo subway system, killing 11 people and injuring 5000. Lifton (The Nazi Doctors) provides a psychological examination of the motives of the group and its founder, Shoiko Asahara. Lengthy interviews with ten former low-level Aum members give fascinating insight into the appeal of Asahara's combination of Buddhism, New Age thinking, and apoplectic visions; daily life within Aum Shinrikyo; and their own attempts to rationalize or reject the group's actions. Lifton also discusses the characteristics of Aum that caused it to move toward violence. He closes by exploring the same themes among the cults of Charles Manson and Jim Jones, the Heaven's Gate cult, and American white supremist groups. A gripping work supplementing David E. Kaplin and Andrew Marshall's The Cult at the End of the World (Crown, 1996.); essential for all public and academic libraries.--Stephen L. Hupp, Urbana Univ. Lib., OH Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A study of the historical and psychological origins and meanings of the Japanese cult Aum Shinriky_, by the noted psychiatrist and author Lifton. On March 5, 1995, members of Aum, at the direction of their leader, Sh_k_ Asahara, released the lethal gas sarin onto five Tokyo subway trains. Eleven died, 5,000 were injured. Lifton has written often on the evil extremes of human action—e.g., the Nazi Holocaust, Hiroshima (Hiroshima in America: 50 Years of Denial, 1995, etc.). Bringing his vast knowledge to bear on Aum, he finds much that is familiar, much that is unique. As with all cults, the members of Aum were fiercely dedicated to their leader, to the point of "collective megalomania": an unquestioned belief in the limitless power of the self. Add to this a belief in poa, altruistic murder, so that the victim might move to a higher level of being, and all bounds of behavior are removed. Aum was fascinated with Armageddon. a final cleansing of the world, but uniquely Aum had weapons at its disposal to at least plan such a cleansing. This is the new terrorism to which the title alludes. Lifton examines how cult members became indoctrinated, yet he has larger questions. Why such a group in the first place? Why in Japan? Can it happen elsewhere? Reaching back to Japanese history, the author searches for motivation: similar cults, Japan's failure to face its barbarous actions in WWII, the spiritual malaise of a rigid Japanese social system. Even Godzilla movies come into play. Beyond Aum, Lifton looks to the social situations that may lead to, and in fact have led to, similar cults in the US. Lifton is evocative and erudite as usual, yet the limits of his "psychohistorical"method remain. Understanding history through psychology suggests much and proves little. The history of Japan may have motivated Aum members, but precisely how—how history permeates the individual—remains unclear. Nonetheless, this is a powerful book, suggesting how fragile both the human psyche and human decency may be.
From the Publisher
"Disturbing...sounds somber warning bells."

—Anthony Day, Los Angeles Times

"A fascinating (if frightening) investigation...valuable...ingenious."

—Daniel Berger, The Philadelphia Inquirer

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780805065114
  • Publisher: Picador
  • Publication date: 9/28/2000
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 384
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.85 (d)

Meet the Author

A distinguished professor of psychology and psychiatry at John Jay College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, Robert Jay Lifton is the author of many important works, including The Nazis' Doctors, winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and Death in Life, winner of the National Book Award.

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Table of Contents

Introduction: Ends and Beginnings 3
1 The Guru and His Cult 11
2 Imagining the End 44
3 Forcing the End 59
4 Clones of the Guru 89
5 The Ecstatic Science 115
6 Killing to Heal 136
7 Megalomania 164
8 Ultimate Weapons, Ultimate Attraction 179
9 Crossing the Threshold 202
10 Surviving Aum 214
11 A Japanese Phenomenon? 232
12 Forcing the End, American Style 271
13 Inward Aum? 303
14 American Apocalypse 326
Afterword 341
Notes 345
Acknowledgments 359
Index 361
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Customer Reviews

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 31, 2014


    And Shikage are searching for the rare hidden leaf. They know its got mysterious powers.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 9, 2014

    The gates to the Hidden Leaf

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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