After reading Robert Jay Lifton’s Destroying the World to Save It: Aum Shinrikyo, Apocalyptic Violence, and the New Global Terrorism [New York: Macmillan (2000)] I got to hear him speak (on an entirely different topic) at John Jay College. The read was fascinating and enlightening. Lifton looked deeply into the mindset of the many of Aum Shinrikyo members that he personally interviewed, its leader Shoko Asahara, Aums’ place in Japanese culture, and its momentous signification.
At first I didn’t get it. I started out intrigued by the details, but after a while it seemed like one-after-another profiles of people with varying motivations, loyalties, doubts, and allegiances. And just as I was getting tired of the parade he put it all together in a meaningful framework.
Aum Shinrikyo did something not done before. This is not a small thing, and it marked a critical change in world consciousness. Aum was the first apocalyptic movement that embraced weapons of mass destruction on a world ending scale. Weapons of mass destruction were seen not merely as the means to alter social-political-religious structures but primarily as the means to generate the end of the world.
Lifton made clear distinctions between the motivations and personalities of Asahara and his followers. He also allows for a view of the existence of Aum Shinriko as separate from its leader and followers, with its own momentum.
As leader Asahara acted in a Godlike manner, was paranoid, and acted inside fantastic beliefs. He spiritualized world destruction, and evidenced a megalomaniacal urge to alter the world. He made sacred murder in a pseudo-Buddhist wrapper. His techno fantasies envisioned complete mind control using electronic devices which could administer loyalty tests (with life or death consequences).
His form of dehumanization of ‘the other’ held them to be too defiled to be considered worthy of compassion. Asahara exhibited an energizing paranoia that he used to justify some of the violence as defensive.
In Lifton’s view Asahara had “Bizarre fantasies converted into equally bizarre, sometimes deadly acts.” For a man who has studied murderous behaviors for over 50 years, the ‘bizarre’ label is quite an indictment.
After interviewing and studying the followers Lifton saw seekers of spiritual satisfaction in a society which historically valued spiritualism but at the same time denied it by its focus on success. There was a common Most seemed to have been able to focus on their particular task within the organization while denying the killing that was part of the master(‘s) plan. This duality was critical in order to quiet the cognitive dissonance engendered by their collective actions.
The relationship between leader and followers was a particular concern of Lifton. Asahara needed his followers as much as they needed him. He was constantly supported by their devotion, and they were constantly supported by his attention. This mutuality fed upon itself and built a momentum that served to help overcome moments of doubt. This relationship is unique to Aum and can be seen in cults and movements with charismatic leaders all over the world.
Aum’s reliance on pseudoscience to verify its tenets is mirrored in such diverse movements as Scientology and Nazism. Its embrace of Asahara’s interpretation of poa, a Buddhist concept, marks a clear distinction between Aum and Salafist justification for murdering ‘the other.’ Salafists view the enemy as deserving death because they are apostates and Allah has given instructions, in their interpretation, to either convert them or kill them. They quote selected portions of Koran to bolster their views, such as Surah al-Baqarah ‘And whoever transgresses against you, then transgress against them the like of what they have transgressed against you.’ They then liberally interpret the Surah to include innocents because a greater good is being served. Aum views the murder of ‘the other’ as justified by poa since the murdered will benefit from death. They will be reborn into higher selves. This is a gross distortion of the Tibetan concept of poa which describes a meditation practice at the moment of death (or prayer for the deceased) that enables one to experience a ‘death’ without going through the many stages required by ‘normal’ death…a transferal of consciousness. No allusion of a ‘higher state’ is connected with this practice.
Nuclearism, the deification of nuclear weapons, lies at the heart of Aum Shinriko, Asahara, and his followers. It has also become part of the world’s narrative in a dangerous way as part of our intense relationship with the newest technologies of death. They are developed for and seen as the solution to immediate crises and then cross over to being accepted as solutions. These ‘solutions’ then become part of the arsenal of peace and stability and also get adopted by those who seek mass destruction in the pursuit of Armageddon.
Aum Exposed the Absurdity of ultimate weapons: an illusion of sanity in which ultimate destruction is seen as ultimately constructive. It also serves as a mirror of feelings that are ubiquitous in a world forever altered by the invention and actual use of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction. The fantasy of world ending cataclysm is at hand, and somewhere within us, we all know it, fear it, and deny it to some extent.
That Aum persists, as Aleph, is worrying. At some point they formed software companies that installed systems widely; even in the police department that is monitoring them.
Aum Shinriko is only one of many cults, some who espouse terrorism as a tactic, who believe they can help push the world to its ultimate apocalyptic end. Lifton presents representative examples such as the Charles Manson family, Heaven’s Gate, the Oklahoma City bombers, and Aryan Supremacists on America’s extreme right. But Aum uniquely combined ultimate fanaticism plus ultimate weapons in a project to destroy the world. They were the first, but in doing so have exposed the possibility of more to come.
Just as al-Qaeda’s Global Narrative ties many disparate groups together, there is an apocalyptic narrative that is growing. Each al-Qaeda-linked operation builds confidence in like-minded groups and generates parallel operations. This is a mirror of the linkages between violent apocalyptic groups. Coupled with the increasingly available weapons of mass destruction that might fall into their hands this presents a great potential for large scale violence far beyond what we have experienced to date. It is only proper that we pay attention to these movements.
Robert Jay Lifton sits, a silver haired sage, with a faint smile as Professor Strozier reviews his distinguished career….a psychologist who delved into survivor, brainwashed, veteran, cult, Nazi, etc. mindsets. He is at the forefront of understanding nuclear threat and other forms of apocalyptic dangers. The two have a long and obviously close bond.
Lifton’s subject, Mind and Technology was a reflection on drones and how they require us to ponder the relationship between our technologically advanced methods of killing and how this affects our thinking. The main danger being how revolutions in technology seem irresistible in the promises they offer. His mantra for the talk: “Beware our extreme reliance on technology,” especially, he added when they suddenly emerge in our consciousness. Technology offers the illusion that we can completely manipulate our environment; that we can fix anything by the application of more technology. We are witnessing, with drones and excessive surveillance, the lure of a new technology that is barely understood.
He offered ten reflections on drones, each illustrating a facet of how our thinking is changed, or tricked, by our ideas about drones.
• Using machines to kill, and not people, suppresses our own feelings with relation to the killing and so eases the path to psychic numbing, and makes killing easier.
• It is Illusory to think that we can fight war without our own soldiers and people dying. People do die, and many are affected by PTSD. The idea of ‘surgical killing’ is another illusion buried in this mythology carrying with it the distortions of how we name targets (by sex and age and proximity).
• The illusion of humane killing is both oxymoronic and, perhaps, just moronic! It allows us to ignore the effects of constant threat, which increases paranoia, communal and anticipatory anxiety which take a heavy toll on innocents. The very claim of ‘humanity’ can easily lead to more ‘clean’ killing.
• Illusion of ownership of drone technology, a proprietary feeling, blinds us to the ease with which others can gain drones for themselves. It feeds off, and feeds the Super Power Syndrome, an illusory mindset that is temporally limited, and ignores the ebbs and flows of history.
• Policy has ignored blowback which increases recruitment, anger, and humiliation. This last is the most powerful emotion in creating violence. We saw it in 9/11 as our great humiliation resulted in striking out with violent revenge.
• The illusion of a rescue technology that can fix things. “Drones are the answer/solution to counterinsurgency warfare.” This fosters the creation of military policies that create an atrocity producing situation.
• Drones raise new questions about the part that professionals play in the killing. It reminds him of his work with the Nazi doctors who colluded in torture. The operators kill all day and then go home to a ‘normal’ life. This doubling (I think it is his term) is an important factor. We need to look at the ethics of professional engagement.
• There is the problem of fallibility: no technology is infallible. We should consider what will happen when the infallible is discovered to be fallible.
• There is an ultimate issue of human vs. non-human agency…we are now sharing agency with a robot.
• The independence will increase so that there won’t be time for human decisions, so the decision making capability will d/evolve to the robot. There is a conflict between the psychological impulse to control the technology and the impulse to give agency to the technology so that we are relieved of responsibility.
• And finally: We are stuck with our own psyches and brains, for better or worse. Drones, etc. won’t relieve us of our paranoia, and mechanisms. So all this [these ideas] is in the interest of starting the new technology conversation…and a call for restraint.
In the Q&A after the talk Lifton revealed what can only be characterized as a mild optimism. When asked if we were doomed to failure he responded by saying that ‘We are not doomed to anything, but you’re not wrong. We are reluctant, for sure, to do the hard political and ethical work. It’s extremely difficult to bring about in U.S.; the politics of which are clogged, static, and unedifying. It’s possible we may be able to bungle through. He noted that popular movements have modified nuclear policy, “but real solutions have escaped us.”
It’s a matter of logic and ethics. We must keep at it, although it will never be ‘solved’ in the sense of Sartori, but there will be efforts that add up to progress; some impact of a limited kind, and that’s the best we can do. “It’s possible we may be able to bungle through.”
When I asked him if he thought we should fight all wars with only knives and swords he paused a moment and then said, “Perhaps that would be best,” and shuffled off.
December 14, 2013 by Bruce Wallace, 121Contact