Nerve Gas and the Four Noble Truths

The New Yorker/April 1, 1996
By Murray Sayle


The trial of a blind Buddhist prophet for the nerve-gas attack in the Tokyo

The name Kamikuishiki, which means Upper Nine One Color, sounds quaintly whimsical in Japanese- along the lines of Little Diddleford, say, or some similar village setting for an English detective novel. On a recent visit to Kamikuishiki, I found nothing to explain the odd name; but no one in Japan needs to be told what it is famous for, or why it has become a connoisseurs' tourist attraction. For centuries, it was an obscure hamlet-and would dearly love to be one again-but for a four-year period ending in 1995 it was the headquarters, secret laboratory, and alleged death factory of the doomsday religious cult Aum Shinrikyo (the True Teaching of Aum). There, Aum's charismatic leader, His (self-styled) Holiness Shoko Asahara, readied his Berchtesgaden for the final nuclear battle of light against darkness-an event he forecast to take place late last year.

Asahara is due to go on trial in Tokyo on April 24th, six days after President Clinton concludes a scheduled visit to Japan. The guru is charged with the murders of twenty-five people, including eleven who dies in the sarin nerve-gas attack in the Tokyo subway system in March of last year-a terrifying incident that put more than five thousand people in the hospital, and shocked the world with its televised images of choking and vomiting rush-hour riders staggering out of the subway exits. Asahars has proclaimed his innocence, and the Japanese media are predicting the trial of the century, which, given the complexities of the Japanese legal system, it may well outlast. To the despair, their village's instant of fame seems set to go on and on.

Kamikuishiki sprawls at the lower slopes of Mt. Fuji, seventy miles southwest of Tokyo, on the side of the holy mountain which faces away from the capital. Remote from major traffic arteries, the village is difficult to reach by bus or train. Fuji is no more than a gigantic, shapely pile of cinders, so its slopes are useless for the traditional Japanese crops-rice, tea, and the mulberry trees that feed silkworms. Since ancient times, the area has been a wasteland, and the other side of the mountain is still an artillery and tank range for the Japanese military and for the United States Marines. When Japan adopted the custom of drinking cows' milk, after the Second World War, however, the side that does not get shot at proved ideal for dairy farming. The relatively cheap (by Japanese standards) land, the isolation, Fuji's sacred cone soaring overhead, and uninquisitive neighbors were attractions that persuaded the Aum cult to start buying unconnected plots from Kamikuishiki's farmers-who had no idea what the purchasers had in mind.

A visitor needs help in finding the scattered sites of the extensive Aum operation. This is available at a roadside noodle shop, newly opened for business at the turnoff for Kamikuishiki from the main road. Residents refuse to discuss the cult: they have posted the area with signs reading, in polite but firm Japanese, "We do not want to hear about Aum. You are upsetting our cows. Please go away." But the noodle vender, being neither a local nor a farmer, gladly marks maps, and has even worked up a line in black humor. "Don't get wrapped in Saran," he cheerily calls out to customers paying for their bowls of noodles. (The nerve gas and the food wrap sound similar in Japanese.) With more than two hundred cars arriving every weekend, not to mention endless busloads of camera toting tourists, Kamikuishiki's first-ever restaurant is, its proprietor told me, doing a brisk business.

The Aum buildings look like parts of a factory complex. The largest, which is three stories high, stands behind rather dilapidated canvas screens that serve to conceal the fact that it was constructed without windows. Visitors are not allowed into most of the complex-all approach roads are blocked, and the police say that the buildings still contain evidence that may be needed. But published photographs show that enormous Styrofoam relief of Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction and regeneration, which dominates the mediation hall, concealed the door to a hidden chemical laboratory, and that various basements held gas analyzing devices, machine tools and parts for making automatic weapons, and an industrial-scale microwave oven, which is widely reported to have been used for reducing human bodies to powder-thus disposing of the remains of some thirty people who allegedly died or were murdered within the complex.

Aum's private heliport, hidden in a wood three miles from the main complex, is open to any visitor able to find it. It is surrounded by a twenty-foot-high stockade that is now in a poor state of repair and so is easily penetrated. Inside sits the cult's helicopter, a Soviet-built MI-17. On the day of my visit, I met a pimply, undernourished young man who was wearing a shabby purple windbreaker and a helmet festooned with wires supposedly designed to pick up the brain waves of the guru. (These helmets, which made the many Aum members who wore them look like minor characters in "Ghostbusters," are reported to have cost their pious wearers the equivalent of ten thousand dollars a month to rent.) He approached me somewhat diffidently and asked whether I had been sent to fly the helicopter (I happen to be Australian but to a hopeful eye could, I suppose, be taken for either a Russian or an American), and he seemed bitterly disappointed to learn that I was not. When I asked the youth why he stayed in the cult, and whether he had heard lately from the guru, who is now being held at Tokyo police headquarters, he said that he knew nothing and had nothing to say.

Apart from the oppressive police presence (I counted six armored buses-transport for a hundred riot police), the tourists, a few bewildered Aum members not under indictment but with nowhere else to go, and the professional garrulous noodle server, Kamikuishiki has reverted, at least outwardly, to being a sleepy village. Not far away, the pupils of a hang-gliding school provide a touch of color against the mountainside; horseback riding, hiking, and other rural pastimes unrelated to doom and death have come back. What the prosecutors say went on here seems unreal, a nightmare that fades with the light of day. Once or twice, I had to remind myself that these country roads are, according to cult members' confessions, dusted with the ashes of dead.

In the nineteenth century, Japanese officials, distributing family names to the common people as part of a modernization program-before then, only the gentry had them-were fond of the name Matsumoto (Foot of the Pine Tree), which is easy to write in simple Sino-Japanese characters, and fills columns in every Japanese telephone book. When, on March 2, 1955, a fourth son was born to a poor family of that name living ins a small town on the southern island of Kyushu, his parents gave him an equally plebian first name, Chizuo. The combination, Chizuo Matsumoto, is reassuringly unpretentious; English speaking can hear much the same folksy tone in Jim Jones. When Chizuo was an infant, his eyesight was damaged by glaucoma, which meant that the he could never follow his father into the humble job of making tatami mats. At the age of six, he was sent as a full-time boarder to a prefectural school for the blind. He never lived with his family again.

Many Japanese have speculated about how blind the guru actually is. He has been filmed playing catch with his disciples, and this has led to conjecture that his blindness is a sham; the issue will be prominent at his trial. School records say that he is totally blind in one eye, and has only thirty-per-cent vision in the other. He can read, slowly, with a magnifying glass, and he probably could have attended a regular school, but then his parents would not have received the welfare checks given to help support disabled children. Partly sighted in an all-blind school, the young Matsumoto became a leader. He escorted fellow-pupils to snack shops, for instance, on the condition that they paid for him. He also displayed a vivid imagination, and entertained fantasies about reigning over a kingdom of intelligent robots.

In the Japan of that period, the disabled had a limited choice of occupation; those classified as blind were traditionally trained as masseurs or acupuncturists, whatever their intellectual potential. Nevertheless, in 1973, when Matsumoto was eighteen, he enrolled in a cram school in Tokyo in a bid to enter Tokyo University, the gateway to a political career. But he failed to accomplish a feat all but impossible against fully sighted competitors, and resorted to his predestined trade. Drifting into a fringe world populated by mystics and charlatans, who exploited a combination of the Chinese techniques of acupuncture and herbal medicine with fortune telling and the occult, he opened his own shop near Tokyo. Around this time, the down-home, short-haired Chizuo Matsumoto became the bearded, flowing-maned Shoko (a homonym for the word meaning "an offering of incense") Asahara (an uncommon family name that, to Japanese ears, has much of the tony ring of its literal English translation, Linfield).

Asahara began developing a winning personality that was to bring him tens of thousands of adoring followers. He is short, with a tendency toward plumpness. Near-blindness gives him the vulnerability, and the quiet authority, of helplessness. He is normally affable in manner, was often seen (until he was indicted for mass murder) smiling and joking, and is described by old associates, especially women, as "cuddly"-a quality not possessed by many masculinity-obsessed Japanese men. Those who knew him as a herbalist say that he "understood human problems" and "was a good listener"-qualities that brought converts to his cult and, in time, made the subsequent confessions all the more appalling.

In 1982, Asahara was investigated for selling a worthless infusion of orange peel, an offense that resulted in the revocation of his herbalist's license. He told a woman assistant, "I believe that the future lies in religion." Forced to close down his shop, Asahara left for India, in search of enlightenment. By his own account, he attained it in the Himalayas sometime around 1984, when he was twenty-nine. The Japanese media have reported that, during the same period, a long-haired, bearded young man of Oriental appearance was forcibly removed by guards from an enclosure in India where he was trying to have his photograph taken beside the sacred fig tree under which the Buddha himself achieved enlightenment, in 528 B.C., at the age of thirty-five. Asahara returned to Japan and founded a small publishing house and a yoga and meditation circle with half a dozen followers, who met in a rented room. He called his group the New Society of Aum-the word "Aum" (more commonly rendered in English as "OM") being a Sanskrit mantra that represents the three major Hindu gods, Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva-later changing the name to Aum Shinrikyo, the True Teachings of Aum. Guru Asahara's breakthrough into the paranormal big time came in late 1985, when the Japanese occult magazine Twilight Zone ran a photograph of him meditating in the lotus position while apparently floating in midair.

One of his earliest followers, a former insurance-company employee, turned out to have a head for business, and the guru himself, who was in theory above worldly matters, also showed a keen interest in commerce. In August of 1989, after much rowdy agitation by his followers, Aum Shinrikyo was recognized as a religious corporation by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government-a move that conferred upon it tax exemptions or tax reductions in a number of business enterprises. Within a year and a half, Aum, financed by gifts from followers of as much as half a million dollars each, owned and operated an empire of labor-intensive, low-startup-cost businesses: computer retail outlets, noodle shops, health clubs, a telephone dating club, and, incredibly, a babysitting service.

Who staffed these lucrative enterprises? Mostly, enthusiastic young volunteers from Aum-run communes that opened all over Japan. Changes in Japanese society had given the guru a source of cheap, endlessly renewable, highly motivated labor. The conflict between generations is a worldwide phenomenon, and Japan is no exception. The generation of Asahara's parents had never known anything but drudgery, war, defeat, hunger, and more drudgery, but by the nineteen seventies Japan had become a great economic power, with the basics of life guaranteed to all. A number of young Japanese began to view the standard means of establishing security-namely, signing on for lifetime employment with some stuffy company; living with your out-of-touch parents until marriage, often arranged; and mortgaging your own and your children's futures to pay off a huge loan on a tiny "rabbit hutch" house-as kind of death-in-life. With a slowing economy, low starting wages, and some of the world's highest rents, it is still all but impossible for young Japanese to move away from home, much less try out various life styles in search of self-fulfillment.

Asahara offered these restless youngsters not only jobs but also a Japanese variation on the nineteen-sixties' innovation of discontented American youth: communal living. The Aum members were overwhelmingly young; many of their leaders joined when they were in their late teens or early twenties. Their retreats were decorated with Indian motifs, which were fashionable among young Japanese, and buildings were given Sanskrit names. One former convert summarized his initial impression of Aum as "curry and yoga." Aum dropouts as well as those members who retain their Aum faith describe life in the communes as resembling an Asian version of Woodstock, complete with music, dancing, drugs (mostly LSD, which the police say Aum clandestinely manufactured to brighten up its meditation sessions), and endless, drowsy late-night speculation about the meaning of life.

Traditionally in Japan, such speculation has been regarded as the province of the aged. But television, which was first seen in 1953, two years before Asahars was born, broke the bonds of centuries. Japanese TV, like TV in the West, mostly features a youthful world in which age and parental authority are not respected. Japanese TV stars are young, and are replaced by new talent every few years. Many find fame in the science-fiction serials that, to the despair of parents, clog early-evening TV and remain popular with the young adults raised on them. Descended from the venerable lizard Godzilla, these serials, as Professor Helen Hardacre, of Harvard, writes, draw on a set of stock characters and situations; an evil power from outer space, whose aim is to subjugate all humanity, using ordinary people who have been turned into robots by drugs (the mind-altering, not the mind-expanding, kind), telepathy, and perverted science; and, opposing this monster, the always young "warriors of truth." The action is mostly special-effects combat involving laser beams, plasma rays, and the like. The warriors of truth, who sound a lot like Japanese teen-agers, submit unconditionally to the will of a leader of superhuman courage. Obedience to his orders is the only justification needed for action, however violent; compromise or the peaceful resolution of conflict is never considered. The killings goes on, at the leader's command, until the warui yatsu, the bad guys, are dead. Shin'ichi Ichikawa, one of Japan's leading creators of science fiction, had publicly admitted that, to his deep regret, he sees much evidence of the influence of TV serials, his own included, on the infantile, black-and-white moral universe of Aum Shimrikyo.

Recruiting for Aum was conducted by the young, of the young, with much youthful exuberance. Cheerful followers in white robes would stand at subway exits handing out invitations to free yoga sessions. Those who attended the sessions were given pamphlets on meditation, correct breathing, and similar nonlethal topics. Prospective converts saw the guru mostly on TV screens-not on the commercial channels but in training films shown in the communes. Live action footage depicted the guru apparently performing miracles like levitation, while animated films showed him flying through cities and passing through walls. Other footage showed Aum rites: young adherents of both sexes-clad in white satin and wearing, with a very Japanese sensitivity to status, colored sashes indicating religious rank-approaching the tubby guru, resplendent in see-through golden silk robes, prostrating themselves, and reverently kissing his toe.

Some followers in their late teens were simply having a good time among people of their own age, away from parental supervision while the guru floated, godlike, far above in a heavenly TV world. Like other deceptively easy-to-join cults, however, Aum had an unpleasant fate in store for those who tried to leave: they were told that they would burn in a Buddhist Hell. Rescuing backsliders, some cult members have confessed, turned into kidnapping the, and, as that went unpunished by the law, kidnapping turned into murder. Yoshihiro Inoue, who is expected to be a key witness against Asahara, told the Tokyo district court that he had taken part in the subway gassing but was pleading not guilty, on the ground that he had been following orders, and would have been killed if he had disobeyed. Inoue, who was twenty-five years old at the time of the attack, joined the cult in high school and had no experience of adult life before Aum.

Slightly older members, however, has real intellectual achievements, predominantly in the sciences, before they joined Aum. The fact that they did join it-and that some still believe in the guru-has caused much soul-searching among thoughtful Japanese. "How did we fail them?" an educator wailed at a recent conference of the Japan Teachers' Union, Shinnosuke Sakamoto, a typical member of the older group, who is now thirty-two, described his enlightenment to the Associated Press last May. A candidate for a doctorate in anthropology at Tokyo University, the pinnacle of the Japanese scholastic system, Sakamoto had become interested in Aum as a possible subject for his dissertation. Hearing Asahara on tape at a cult training center, he was impressed. "I admire the supreme master," he said. "The young anthropologist made a ten-day pilgrimage to Kamikuishiki, where he was sent to meditate in a small, dark cell, scores of which honeycomb the Aum complex. After twelve fearful hours alone, Sakamoto said, he was a vision of his research papers being tossed into the air and scattered to the winds. His academic aspirations, he realized, were causing his spiritual pain. Giving up ambition, "I felt as if I had ascended to a higher stage," he told the A.P. "A bright light fell from above and entered me." Sakamoto defended both the cult's pharmacopoeia ("What's wrong with having such a wonderful experience with the help of drugs?") and its kidnapping of disaffected followers. Aum, he said, was only trying to help the confused who had lost their way. Even after the subway gas attack and Asahara's arrest, Sakamoto still believed in him.

But Sakamoto was not admitted to the guru's inner circle, so he knew nothing about its members' apparent involvement with weapons and nerve gas. Upon attaining successive levels of enlightenment, Aum believers, particularly those with property, administrative skills, or qualifications in the "hard" physical sciences, were encouraged to seek ordination. This required taking vows of chastity; cutting all ties with the world; renouncing families; and signing over worldly possessions to the cult, including real estate, savings, clothes, telephone calling cards, and personal seals. Such seals are the Japanese equivalent of signatures, and possession of them enabled Aum to operate the bank accounts of ordained members, who were also asked to do what they could to turn over family property.

In 1989, when Aum was recognized as a religious body, it claimed four thousand members, of whom three hundred and eighty were ordained. Six years later, in a report on Aum's terrorist activities, the United States Senate's permanent subcommittee on investigations estimated the cult's worldwide following at fifty thousand and its global assets, in real estate and in shares and other securities, at more than a billion dollars. Aum USA Company, Ltd., which had been incorporated in New York City in 1987, attracted only a few converts, mostly of Japanese origin. Aum's activities in the United States were confined largely to making high-tech purchases. Asahara had similarly poor success in other countries, but some thirty thousand joined in Russia-a nation of disintegrating moral values, unfocused religious longings, and weak law enforcement.

The secretive yet high-profile faith was spotted early by the Japanese media. On October 2, 1989, the Sunday Mainichi, one of Japan's biggest-selling magazines, began a series of articles on the cult-entitled "Give Back My Child!"-by interviewing six families who charged that Asahara had stolen their children, who were actually in their late teens or older, had joined the cult without parental permission and had cut ties with their families. According to Helen Hardacre, the cult responded by blocking the street outside the home of the magazine's editor, Taro Maki; placarding his neighborhood with posters accusing him of sacrilege; and posting similar leaflets in the toilets of the magazine's offices, thereby inviting the (probably correct) inference that an Aum mole had penetrated the staff. A series of confrontation on TV between the magazine's executives, along with other media figures, and members of the Aum hierarchy followed. The Aum representatives turned out to be young, good-looking, eloquent, and well educated (two of them were lawyers). Many viewers saw the debates as yet another conflict of the generations, and the publicity brought Aum a flood of new recruits. Later, it was reported that Asahara had considered but then thought better of plans to kill Maki and blow up the magazine's building.

The parents, however, were not about to give up. They formed an organization, Concerned Parents of Aum Children, and were helped by a group of lawyers, including a crusading young Yokohama attorney named Tsutsumi Sakamoto (no relation to the converted anthropologist), who had prominently represented labor activists dismissed by the national railways. The parents planned to bring suit against the cult to produce their children and return assets that they said had been acquired by coerced "donations." The lawyers' team collected numerous statements on the religious and business practices of Aum, which they intended to bring before the Japanese courts. After a Tokyo TV stated taped a blistering interview with Tsutsumi Sakamoto, the station was visited by an Aum delegation. The delegation next visited Sakamoto at his office to persuade him to apologize for his remarks in the TV interview. He refused, and said that, far from withdrawing them, he would fight Aum all the harder. The lawyer's doggedness threatened the guru's rapidly expanding plans.

Four days later, on November 4, 1989, Sakamoto, his wife, and their year-old son disappeared. Friends found their apartment in disarray, and an Aum lapel badge on the floor. Last September, the police, acting on a confession from a former Aum member, found the Sakamotos' remains buried in three makeshift mountain graves, far from Yokohama. A six-man Aum hit team, according to the confession, had entered the lawyer's apartment shortly before dawn, killed the sleeping family, wrapped their bodies in futons, and removed them under cover of darkness. Tomomasa Nakagawa, who went on trial last month, has pleaded guilty to the lawyer's murder. According to his confession, the team strangled Sakamoto and his wife, and smothered their baby. Nakagawa said that Asahara had personally ordered the lawyer killed. Prosecutors also learned that Asahara had warned the members of the hit team that they would hang if their deed was discovered. Asahara has been charged in these murders, the first in a long series that have been attributed to the cult, and all of which he had denied.

Despite the obvious motive and the physical evidence pointing directly to Aum, the Japanese police did not at the time seek warrants to raid the cult's facilities, or to question Asahara. The reason for this official reticence, latter bitterly criticized, lies in the reaction - many now call it overreaction - against Japan's long history of religious persecution, which, as in Europe, extended well into modern times. For three centuries, Christians, branded as Western spies, were hunted down and killed, sometimes by crucifixion. Then, in the tide of ultranationalism that culminated in the Second World War, Buddhism was, in turn, denounced as "foreign" (after fourteen hundred years in Japan), and even adherents of some versions of the Japanese folk religion Shinto were persecuted, in order to favor State Shinto, the compulsory cult of the Emperor and his divine ancestors. Buddhism, like Christianity, might well have been forced underground were it not for the fact that Shinto viewed dead bodies as polluting, and so had no rite for burying its faithful. As a result, Japanese Buddhism largely became centered on the immensely profitable funeral business. (Wealthy Buddhist temples are still widely preyed on by the infamous yakuza crime syndicates). After Japan's defeat, State Shinto was suppressed by the American occupation, and traditional Shinto contracted (at least, in the small village where I live, which is reasonably representative) into a colorful set of folklore superstitions, with many festivals but no discernible spiritual or pastoral role.

One result of this religious decline was a void in the lives of many Japanese - a void that the occupation authorities who drafted Japan's postwar constitution unwittingly helped to deepen. Article 20 guarantees freedom of religion, and forbids state involvement in any "religious activity." To Americans, this sounds like no more than a fundamental human right. But the Japanese and, in particular, the Japanese police have read Article 20 and the accompanying Religious Corporation Law as prohibitions on examining the practices of any religion, or even entering religious buildings without solid evidence of illegal activities. Although the state may not meddle in religion, Japanese religious corporations are free to intervene in politics, to finance candidates, and even to set up political parties - things that their American counterparts cannot do without losing their privileged tax status. Far from being seen as a potential menace to a still immature democracy, Japan's religious free-for-all, before Aum, was praised as proof of the country's good health.

The spiritual void and the climate of privilege and protection have made for an explosion of new Japanese religions and the vigorous revival of many prewar "new" religions (among them Christianity) that had managed to survive the centuries of persecution. By 1993, Japan had 231,019 registered sects, claiming a combined membership of two hundred million. This is seventy million more than the population of the archipelago, a discrepancy that reflects the fact that Japanese freely adopt new religions in order to pass exams, to find marriage partners, or to improve their luck in business, and their mainstream. Buddhism and Shinto allow multiple religious memberships. At first, there was little to distinguish Aum from rival sects, or its guru (apart from his blindness) from scores of self-acclaimed "perfect masters."

Japan plays host to various intelligence organizations - its own and those of the United States and the other countries - that are still set in their Cold War ways. Out of habit, the Americans track leftist political groups, while the Japanese keep an eye on right-wing nationalists as well. Until too late, it was nobody's business, apart from the nervous media's, to discover what Aum actually taught, or what went on in the communes. As an intelligence officer told the Senate inquiry in Washington last fall. "They simply were not on anybody's radar screens," even though they were American military installations close to Aum facilities, including the Kamikuishiki headquarters.

Within weeks of the Sakamoto family's disappearance and its harvest of publicity, Aum launched a campaign for the Japanese elections of February, 1990, with its own party, Truth. Twenty-five Aum candidates ran, headed by Asahara. Their electioneering, widely covered by the Japanese media, featured white robed young followers, wearing smiling masks of the guru's face, and dancing and chanting "Sho-ko, Sho-ko, A-sa-ha-ra!" No coherent reason why anyone should vote for the Truth Party was ever given. Its most eloquent candidate was not the guru but his best-known spokesman, Fumihiro Joyu, who, in his mid-twenties had boy-next-door good looks, natty suits, a master's degree in artificial intelligence, and fluency in English, and who has now been indicted on perjury and forgery charges. In the campaign, Joyu became the cult's official public voice, skillfully deflecting questions put by less mentally agile interviewers. Asahara made television appearances in which he denied that the cult was connected to the Sakamotos' disappearance, and he implied that the damning lapel badge had been planted by a rival sect. But it was Joyu who charmed television viewers - especially young women - with the disarming claim that Aum beliefs had given him the strength to stop masturbating. (Even after the Tokyo subway gas attack, Joyu was still being showered with mash notes, flowers, and undergarments.)

For Asahara and his inner circle, the 1990 election was a shock. Asahara himself did not get as many votes as Joyu, collecting fewer than eighteen hundred votes in a district of five thousand. Attempting to regroup, Asahara led a thousand disciples to a remote island in the Okinawa prefecture (a rehearsal, it later emerged, for the evacuation of Aum followers from the main Japanese islands before an American nuclear attack), but the media tracked them down, grilled them on whether they planned to commit mass suicide, and, in a circus atmosphere, forced Asahara to call off his retreat. Towns and villages began to contest every attempt of the cult to buy land and set up communes, and were rigorously countersued by Aum. (The cult eventually received almost ten million dollars to leave the people of Namino, a small village on Kyushu, Asahara's home island, in peace.) Despite abundant funds, publicity, and immunity from police interference, Asahara's path to political power was blocked. Violence, as Hannah Arendt said, is an expression of impotence. In retrospect, it is easy enough to follow the guru's conversion from prayer to nerve gas as the working of a frustrated, self-obsessed mind.

Many Aum defectors have reported that, before the electoral fiasco, Asahara believed that first Japan and then the whole world would acclaim him as the new Buddha and the savior of humanity. Even as a child, he believed that he was destined to be a leader, and his childhood ambition had been political, not religious. But Tokyo University, which he saw as the path to power, had rejected him. Now the Japanese voters had also spurned him. During this period, he began to expound on Christian and Jewish prophecies of the approaching Armageddon, persuading himself and his small entourage of trusted lieutenants (but not, at first, the majority of Aum's followers) that world war was imminent and that to survive it Aum had to be armed for self-defense. The would-be politician and his aides apparently began a secret worldwide search for cheap, easily made weapons of mass destruction, with the am of waging war - at first, probably, defensively - against Japan, America, and the rest of humanity. Their war, he predicted, would end in victory for Aum's version of the gentle face of Buddhism.

When the handsome, wealthy young Prince Gautama set out, some twenty-five hundred years ago, to wander as a beggar through northern Indian searching for a remedy for the pain of being alive, it is safe to say he was not thinking of nerve gas, plague bacillus, laser guns, or any such modern scientific horrors, much less of using them on innocent victims. Although Asahara incorporated big chunks of both Christian and Jewish teaching into his message, Aum's ideas, its language, and many of its practices are unmistakably Buddhist, and thus seemed familiar and unthreatening to most Japanese. The guru himself may be a "charismatic madman," as the Senate committee called him, but his closest disciples were sane, bright, and well educated; and they thought they were following Gautama Buddha, even as they killed. This paradox calls for an explanation.

In his search for the secret of suffering, the Buddha (his title means "the enlightened") fearlessly practiced the mortification of the flesh, starving and ill-treating himself. Tempted one evening by Mara, the Evil One, with what amounted to a square meal, dancing girls, and worldly renown, Prince Gautama continued to meditate, finally grasping, as dawn broke, the Four Noble Truths: (1) all human life is suffering; (2) suffering comes from desire, which leads to endless rebirth, and so to more suffering; (3) be eliminating desire, we can end suffering; and (4) enlightenment, the end of suffering, can be achieved by following the Eightfold Noble Path, which, simplified, means finding the middle way between excessive self-indulgence and over-severe self-punishment. Buddhism has at least as many sects and schisms as Christianity, but all agree that the Four Noble Truths, rightly understood, lead the believers to Nirvana - to perfect knowledge and the escape from rebirth and the relentless Wheel of Life.

Some of the practices of Aum have thus, at least, a resemblance to traditional Buddhism. Seekers of enlightenment could have been following the Buddha in giving up their worldly possessions and, as charity for the poor is not strongly emphasized by Buddhism, in consecrating them to the faith (i.e., turning them over to Asahara). When police in gas masks finally broke into the Kamikuishiki complex, last year, some fifty of its inhabitants were emaciated to the point of having to be carried out on stretchers, presumably as a result of trying to live on "Aum stew," a watery gruel made of cheap vegetables. Aum's rule of chastity and the separation of husbands, wives, and children have Buddhist precedents. (Asahara made exceptions for himself: he lived comfortably with his wife - an adoring disciple, who is not in prison, indicted for conspiracy to murder - and their six children, most of who are now in the care of relatives. Being perfectly enlightened, he had arguably risen above worldly desire; nevertheless, he enjoyed steak, and steadily put on weight in his glory years.) Various hypnotic drugs, LSD, and the so-called "trust" drug sodium thiopental were used in Aum rites and initiations and reportedly before interrogations - but mind-altering substances have a long history of religious use. The thirty or so deaths or suspected deaths among Aum followers were not altogether surprising in a closed community of all ages and states of health, and whose members were, voluntarily and otherwise, subjected to severe privations. Among the most ambitious Aum followers - the candidates for enlightenment who were lowered into scalding baths, hung upside down, and subjected to various other tortures, all in pursuit of the higher stages of perfect truth - some, statistically speaking, were bound to die. ("Treatment" in Aum-run "hospitals" by the eight qualified physicians among the four hundred or so Aum followers who have been arrested may, if anything, have increased the death toll.)

Even the apparently deliberate killings - like the death of three followers who, according to the indictments, were strangled on Asahara's orders for disobedience - have some sanction among the wilder reaches of apocalyptic Buddhism. Certain strands of Tantric, or Vajrayana (translated as Thunderbolt or Diamond Vehicle), Buddhism hold that the killing of those who do evil, or might do evil, can be a kind of benign euthanasia, releasing them from their bad karma and, at the same time, increasing the spiritual merit of those who kill for the sake of the Truth. Asahara reportedly used a Tibetan religious tern, poa, which he said meant "sent to Shiva," when ordering these and many other killings - those of the attorney Sakamoto and his family, for instance. The doctrine of poa has been cited to explain the impassive attitude of many Aum followers arrested after the subway gas attack, who seemed unaware that they might have done anything wrong.

Mainstream Buddhists have denounced these teachings as grotesque perversions of their faith. A Tibetan Buddhist scholar in Japan, Professor Pema Gyalpo, says that poa is the act of sending the spirit of a person on his deathbed to the Pure Land, and has no homicidal overtones. And the Dalai Lama, with whom Asahara had himself photographed, had dissociated himself from Aum, saying that it is "absolutely wrong" for a religion to take up arms, even in self-defense.

In 1992, Asahara published a book "Declaring Myself the Christ" in which he did indeed announce that he was Jesus. This allowed him to add, to Aum's mainly Buddhist doctrines, the Juedo-Christian concept of the Last Judgment and the final battle of Armageddon. The scheduling of Armageddon enabled the guru to append a fashionable millennial urgency to Buddhism's timeless world view. And, according to one reading of Nostradamus, who was also embraced by Aum's expanding Buddhism, war with Mongols is to break out in July, 1999 - a forecast that, by coincidence, fitted neatly into Asahara's vision of approaching doom. The guru's claim to be Jesus helped him to explain Aum's bad publicity and his own rebuff at the polls by quoting Matthew 24: "Then shall they deliver you up to be afflicted, and shall kill you: and ye shall be hated of all nations for my name's sake."

Asahara's book proclaimed him to be not only Japan's only fully enlightened master but also the Lamb of God, sent to take away the sins of the world. In giving his disciples his own spiritual power, the guru said, he was taking unto himself their burdens of sin and bad karma (and, a skeptic might add, their worldly goods). As a result, he said he was growing steadily weaker, was suffering from several ailments, including liver cancer, and was soon to die. He expected, however, to be still on earth when a vast shadowy power, identified variously as Japan, the United States, and a conspiracy of Jews, Freemasons, and rival Japanese religions, launched the Third World War. (Japan has two thousand five hundred and twelve Freemasons, almost all of them foreigners, and fewer than a thousand Jews.) Mt. Fuji might erupt, Tokyo would be attacked with gas and nuclear weapons, and the world would probably end. A small part of humanity might survive, Asahara predicted - but only if Aum had thirty thousand fully enlightened disciples ready to spread his message of salvation. This vision led, in the spring of 1992, to rapid action: a worldwide, lavishly funded drive for converts, especially for those with scientific knowledge, and, according to prosecutors, secret experiments with gas and biological weapons.

The cult's first, and most successful, theater of its new missionary and military activity was the former Soviet Union, which, conveniently, happens to be an impoverished, everything-must-go arms bazaar. Aum opened its first office in Moscow in 1991, and in March of 1992, according to Aum documents, Asahara visited Russia and sought out the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Nikolay Basov - who had developed practical uses for lasers - apparently to tap his knowledge for a planned weapons system. Three months later, according to the Senate report, which documents the cult's activities in Russia, Aum was officially recognized as a religious organization. Not long afterward, it began buying time on a Moscow radio station, and broadcasting the cult's message to Japan and East Asia via a powerful transmitter near Vladivostok. Aum Russia, as it was called, claimed ninety thousand ordained and lay members (thirty thousand is a more accurate estimate), before it was disbanded by government decree after the Tokyo gassings. Asahara's image as reproduced in Russian-language pamphlets was not that of a portly, robed Asian clergyman but that of a stripped, beaten Christ wearing a crown of thorns and hanging from a cross - and also bearing a striking resemblance to the prophet-monk Grigory Rasputin.

Even before Aum was officially recognized by the Russian Justice Ministry, Kiyhide Hayakawa, an architecture graduate of Osaka University and, according to Aum documents, the cult's chief arms-buying agent, had made the first of many visits to munitions factories and research laboratories in remote parts of the country. (Aum's MI-17 helicopter was built in Tatarstan, and was transported to Japan Azerbaijan Air; a Japanese parliamentary report notes that a Russian legislator from the Caucasus was investigated on suspicion of accepting a bribe in connection with the deal.) Oleg Lobow, the secretary of the Russian Security Council, who, according to the Russian newspaper Izvestia, sought investors for a mysterious institution known as the Russian-Japanese University, has, since the gas attach, denied close links to the cult, and said that he thought he was aiding a charity. According to Russian press reports, Aum paid him millions of dollars for his philanthropic and other efforts.

In September of 1992. Aum purchased a machine factory in Isikawa Prefecture. Most of the workers quickly resigned, and the company went bankrupt. The police say that Aum deliberately shut the company down and then used its machine tools to make parts for Soviet-designed AK-74 assault rifles, which the cult was preparing to assemble at Kamikuishiki. Early in 1993, the first of Aum's chain of shops selling discount computers opened in Tokyo. Shortly afterward, Asahara, in a sermon preached at Sendai, in northeastern Japan, called on his followers to confront the Japanese state, which he said was trying to control him and was making him ill, sometimes with poison gas.

Soon, however, he had recovered, at least enough to travel. In September, 1993, Aum bought Banjawarn Station, a sheep ranch in Western Australia, for half a million dollars, and Asahara and twenty-four followers visited the new property. The Australian police say that the Aum group flew into Perth airport from Tokyo, and paid some fifteen thousand dollars in customs duties and thirty thousand dollars in excess baggage and thirty thousand dollars in excess baggage, which included mechanical ditchdiggers, generators, gas masks, protective clothing, and various acids labeled "hand soap." Two members of the party - a biochemist and a physician - were detained and charged with carrying dangerous goods on an aircraft. They paid two thousand four hundred Australian dollars in fines and were allowed to proceed to Banjawarn. Asahara and most of his group departed, and by early October all had left Australia. After the puzzling incident at Perth airport, the Federal Police telephone their opposite numbers in Tokyo, and were told that Aum was under investigation on allegations that members trying to leave the cult had been kidnapped and held against their will. (The evidence linking Aum to the disappearance of the Sakamoto family was not mentioned.) Asahara and the others were refused visas to return to Australia, and the ranch was sold.

There has been much discussion concerning the purpose of Aum's Australian expedition. The cult took out mining-exploration licenses, and there are uranium deposits in the area, but refining the ore to weapons - grade quality was beyond even Aum's scientific resources. Prosecutors say that the manufacture of sarin, a nerve gas developed from an insecticide in Germany before the Second World War but never used, had already begun on a laboratory scale at Kamikuishiki. The formula for sarin is in many textbooks; the trick is to produce it without killing the makers - a feat that calls for chemical-engineering know-how and some form of testing on live subjects. Although dead sheep buried near a makeshift laboratory at the Banjawarn ranch were found by Australian investigators after the Tokyo subway attack, no clear traces of sarin were identified in the carcasses. The nest guess in that Asahara was casing Western Australia for a possible hideout to be used while the rest of the world was being annihilated in the Third World War, leaving the guru and his chosen disciples with sufficient sources of raw materials to start the long road back to civilization.

In hindsight, what is extraordinary is how little official attention was paid to these admittedly widely scattered developments in the Aum story. The United States Embassy in Moscow reported nothing about Aum's drive for scientific converts. Australian, American, and Japanese intelligence organizations, which normally exchange much information, knew nothing worth exchanging. Police inquiries in Japan were hesitant and inconclusive. Nor did anyone - apart, perhaps, from the Aum faithful - listen to Asahara's rambling broadcasts from Vladivostok, where, in the manner of "Mein Kampf," the guru was giving a thinly veiled description of his intentions, buried under mountains of incoherent talk.

The over-all picture was ominous, to say the least - a megalomaniac predicting world war, restless world travels, limitless funds to buy weapons and deadly chemicals - but no one tried to fit the apocalyptic jigsaw puzzle together.

In 1884, Nikola Tesla, a Serb engineer born in Croatia, arrived in New York City with four cents, a pocketful of poems, and an introduction to Thomas Edison. The pair met but soon fell out, as geniuses will. Tesla went on to make practicable alternating current, the system in which Edison's own company was eventually forced to sell electricity. (Edison favored direct current.) For this and many other inventions, Tesla is immortalized by having the unit of magnetic-flux density, the tesla, named in his honor. He kept his romantic side, however, and in his later years (he died in New York in 1943) he experimented with such ideas as tracking interstellar radio waves, a death ray that could destroy ten thousand airplanes at a distance of two hundred and fifty miles (actually a crude particle-beam accelerator), and standing shock waves set off by frequency emanations, with which he claimed he could split the earth in two, like an apple.

These schemes fitted well with the bizarre combination of schoolboy technofantasy and genuine scientific knowledge that jostled in Asahara's vision. Six Aum researchers visited the Tesla Museum, in Belgrade, to study the scientist's writings on high-energy voltage and on wave amplification, which Tesla claimed, could be used to cause earthquakes. His theories, the Senate report asserts, became part of Aum's worldwide search for exotic methods of killing people. In October, 1992, an Aum "medical mission" had arrived in Zaire, ostensibly to help fight an outbreak of the Ebola virus; but, according an expert who testified before the Senate subcommittee, the mission was actually to collect a strain of the virus for use in biological warfare. In the United States, Aum bought gas masks, computer software for modeling molecular-biological experiments, air-filtration equipment, and much other scientific gear, an negotiated - unsuccessfully - to purchase a laser interferometer, a laser welding machine, and other sophisticated devised worth a total of several million dollars. The export of this type of equipment to China, North Korea, and Cuba is restricted, but Japan is not on the list of proscribed destinations. Witnesses told the Senate subcommittee that only people with advanced scientific qualifications could hope to use such items - assurances that tendal to allay, or delay, any suspicion of the purchaser's intentions. In October, 1993, Tetsuya Kibe, who was close to the guru, and another Aum member received helicopter pilot licenses, after completing a commercial training course in Dade County, Florida. Kibe and another Aum pilot were also trained in Russia. About the same time, the subcommittee reports, a cult member in New York downloaded from the Internet (which the cult used extensively for E-mail and research) a formula for synthesizing green-mamba snake venom.

What was the purpose of this selection from the modern science's shop of horrors? The cult's plans might have been exposed, at least in part, in the summer of 1994 if it hadn't been for the monumental incompetence of the Japanese criminal-investigation system. Aum had bought a piece of land in Matsumoto, a small mountain city a hundred miles west of Tokyo (which, by chance, had the same name as Asahara's family), through a front company. The seller, discovering who the real buyer was, tried to have the sale annulled. Aum, ever litigious, took him to court. Late in the evening of June 27th, choking fumes drifted through the old part of the town, killing seven people and injuring six hundred others. The fumes had been released from a truck standing in a parking lot near a rest house used by the judges hearing the case. Three judges and other court staff were among those who were injured. The Matsumoto police suspected the first local resident to report the attack, Yoshiyuki Kono, a former chemical salesman of having accidentally mixed the gas from an assortment of chemicals - none of then even potentially lethal - while make agricultural fertilizer in his kitchen. The deadly gas turned out to be sarin, mixed by remote control in the back of the truck, which, some members have confessed, was outfitted by Aum technicians at Kamikuishiki. After the attack, the said, Asahara told them, "You did a good job." But the Matsumoto police, having leaked the name of the blameless Kono to the media, made no attempt to follow up the obvious lead to Aum, even though Asahara himself and Aum followers appeared on television to charge that United States Navy pilots had dropped poison gas on the town.

At this stage, one might wonder whether the Japanese police were simply paralyzed by their fear of violating religious freedom, or whether Aum just had a lot of luck. The better explanation seems to be that the Matsumoto police, basking in media attention, were simply out of their depth. As still another defense of Japanese democracy put in place by the American occupation, Japan has no national police force or investigative body analogous to the F.B.I. Local police can and often do investigate aircraft incidents, complicated financial scams, and shoddy-building scandals that take place in their jurisdictions, although they have no special competence in these areas. The Tokyo police, who are competent can intervene only by invitation, and none was extended in this case. Almost a year later, confessions implicated Asahara and others, who have since been charged with the attack. These confessions led the four national and many local newspapers to apologize to Kono for uncritically printing the police leaks about him. Kono's wife, who was one of the victims of the attack, is still in a coma.

At midnight on June 27th, Asahara and about a hundred of his aides and followers met an Aum-owned restaurant in Tokyo to inaugurate a new command structure for the cult (as well as, possibly, to provide alibis for the cult members). Until then, the guru's inner circle had been given religious titles, following the Tantric Buddhist practice of admitting adepts to ever higher levels of esoteric knowledge as they progressed through the stages of enlightenment. Now they were also being appointed to a shadow government. Asahara was King of the Law; there were twenty-four ministries and agencies paralleling existing ones in the Japanese government, and a secretariat headed by the guru's third daughter and designated successor, then aged eleven. Only one ministry, Sacred Music (Aum's youthful followers spent a lot of their free time singing and dancing), had anything to do with religion. The rest of the structure was more like a formal cabinet.

Aggressive or defensive? Anyone with the patience to listen could have heard Aum's plans unrolling in the cult's weekly broadcasts from Vladivostok. In the broadcast of December 25, 1994, for example, less than three months before the subway attack, one of Asahara's disciples mentioned that sarin had been used in the Matsumoto attack, one of Asahara's disciples mentioned that sarin had been used in the Matsumoto attack (he didn't add that it was Aum who had used it), and he went on to say that VX gas, developed after the Second World War, combined the desirable features of phosphorus based nerve gases with those of corrosive agents like mustard gas. (The guru and his followers are charged with one murder and one attempted murder with VX, which the indictments say, was also being made at Kamikuishiki.) The delivery method of choice for these gases, the guru told his listeners, was spraying, presumably be helicopter or slow moving aircraft. A disciple asserted that the subway station at Kasumigaseki, which is the deepest in Tokyo and was the target of the subsequent nerve-gas attack, had been built as a secret atomic shelter and command post for the Japanese government. The Third World War, the broadcast said, either was imminent or had actually begun - with microwave attacks on the guru's car, which were fended off only by draping it with copper-wire screens.

The Senate subcommittee's report describes Aum as "virulently anti-Semitic," but the broadcasts names Jews as merely one group, and by no means the most conspicuous, on Asahara's list of enemies. At another point, Asahara named the British Royal Family (which has frayed Masonic ties) as sitting at the center of world power. The likeliest attack on Japan, however, would come from the United States, identified as the Beast from the Book of Revelations. Asahara described a number of economic motives pitting the United States against Japan. What it all came down to was a need to hold interest rates under eight per cent.

Alongside these free-ranging forecasts were more specific clues to the guru's thinking, which explain many of the odder design features of the Kamikuishiki complex.. The year 1995, Asahara repeatedly said, would be one of catastrophe, as Pluto entered the sign of Sagittarius on January 18th. Not only would there be an earthquake (a reasonably sure bet in Japan) but the Kobe region was the most probable site. Japan was becoming such a free country, he said, that "you could freely use violence." This, he explained, meant that the Japanese state, and "especially the police authority," was growing weak. Aum, he reported, was canning food, ready for the coming calamity. Then St. Manjusti Mitra, an astrophusicist dropout whose real name was Hideo Murai, explained that a mountain region afford the best protection against the blast generated by a neutron atomic bomb, and that buildings equipped with Aum's newly developed Cosmo-Cleaner could protect the human body from nuclear fallout by "catching" the radiation. (The name Cosmo Cleaner comes from the sci-fi television serial.)

The major earthquake that devastated the port city of Kobe on January 17th last year, killing more than six thousand people, gave Asahara's followers proof positive that the war to end all wars had begun. The preface to a collection of the Master's sermons and broadcasts, circulated to the faithful after Kobe, revealed that the mysterious Great Power had set off the earthquake either with a small, distant nuclear explosion or by "radiating high voltage microwaves" into the ground near the fault line. The same power, the book's preface hinted, had touched off the Los Angeles earthquake exactly a year earlier and the Gulf War fifty minutes past midnight, Iraqi time, on January 17, 1991. As "proof" that the Kobe earthquake was a planned attack, the preface pointed out that an international conference of mostly United Stated and Japanese experts on earthquake-hazard prevention, which had been meeting in nearby Osaka, had immediately proceeded to Kobe to view the results of the earthquake, had closely inspected the damage, and had then left without offering any help.

Despite the outbreak of clandestine world war, back at Aum's Fuj headquarters the routine of reclaiming backsliders and their assets went on. On February 28, 1995, a bystander saw a Tokyo notary named Kiyoshi Kariya being hustled into a car by four men outside his office and driven away. Kariya's elderly sister had become involved with the sect and had donated more than a hundred thousand dollars to it, much of the money ostensibly for yoga training. The cult, the sister later related, then demanded that she give it a parcel of land. She wavered and then refused, cut her ties with the group, and went into hiding. The cult wanted her back, along with the rest of her property. According to later confessions, her brother was driven to Kamikuishiki, and there cult members injected him with sodium thiopental; he died, apparently of shock, having revealed nothing, and his body was reduced to powder in the cult's microwave oven and scattered along the quiet rural lanes of the neighborhood.

After Kariya vanished, the Tokyo Metropolitan Police took charge of the case, led by their tough commissioner-general, Takaji Kunimatsu. Prodded by the media, which were now clearly linking Aum to Kariya's presumed abduction and to the earlier sarin attack in Matsumoto, the Commissioner decided to raid the cult's Kamikuishiki headquarters. But at that time the Tokyo police had neither gas masks nor protective clothing. They asked the Ground Self-Defense Force, as Japan coyly calls its Army, to lend theirs. Unknown to the police, the Army had been penetrated by Aum (two G.S.D.F. sergeants, both Aum members, have since been dismissed for cooperating with the cult). March 22nd was set as the date for the raid.

Around 8 a..m. on March 20th, prosecutors say, at the height of the Tokyo rush hour, five-two man Aum teams boarded different crowded subway trains, all scheduled to converge minutes later at the Kasumigaseki station, a hub of the Tokyo system, which carried four million riders a day. Kasumigaseki's exits are a short walk from the Japanese parliament, are close to police headquarters and the finance and foreign affairs ministries, are not far from Emperor Akihito's palace. The Aum teams, dressed in business suits, carried inconspicuous furled umbrellas and plastic bags of sarin concealed in morning newspapers. As their trains pulled into Kasumigaeski, they set the bags on parcel racks or on the floors, punctured them with umbrella tips, hastily got off, took antidotes, and dispersed to Aum safe houses, leaving behind a scene that still sets Japan's national memory shuddering, while the far more destructive Kobe earthquake has already all but faded into history.

Some of the riders were temporarily blinded as they clawed their way up to fresh air outside, only to collapse on the sidewalks. Those who died included two station staff members who had tried to remove the bags of sarin. Fifty-five hundred people were treated in hospitals; some are still in coma. The Senate subcommittee estimated that if full strength sarin had been used and had been disseminated more effectively, tens of thousands might have been killed. Aum's aim, according to some confessions, was to paralyze the Japanese government and police; to delay, or even prevent, the planned raid; and to show that the cult was ready for the Third World War, already secretly begun at Kobe.

Two days later, at dawn, more than twenty-five hundred police and soldiers, wearing gas masks and protective suits, some even carrying caged canaries, simultaneously broke into the Kamukuishiki complex and two dozen other Aum sites scattered all over the country. They were followed at a cautious distance by press and TV crews. Large stocks of gas-making chemicals and equipment were found, and some Aum members were arrested, but there was no sign of Asahara. A few hours earlier, one of the guru's taped messages was broadcast from Vladivostok; it called on his followers to rise up and carry out his plan for salvation and to "meet death without regrets." To the relief of resident of the Tokyo area (including me), no one rose, but other killings and attempted killings followed. On March 30th, a gunman shot Police Commissioner Kunimatsu four times. Two botched attacks were made on Yokohama station, with gases less deadly than sarin; there were no casualties. Aum members have been indicted for these attempts. A letter bomb mailed to the governor of Tokyo seriously injured an aide. Despite mass arrests of Aum followers, the attacked went on.

On April 23, 1995, more than a month after the first subway attacks, Hideo Murai, the cult's science minister, saint, and an alleged leader of the sarin attack at Matsumoto, was killed as he left Aum's media-besieged Tokyo office; the murder was captured live on TV. The knife wielding assassin, a Korean-Japanese, claimed that he had acted to save the honor of Emperor Akihito, but he turned out to have big debts to a yakuza group, which would have efficiently made him the mobsters' peon. The mobsters, in turn, were reported to have bought and sold large quantities of drugs that Aum made illegally in its laboratories. Members of the cult, it has been surmised, may have ordered Murai permanently silenced, using this previously unknown Aum-yakuza connection. On May 5th, the Shunjuku station, another hub of the commuter system, was unsuccessfully attacked with cyanide gas. On May 12th, Aum's top scientist, Masami Tsuchiya, who holds a master's degree in organic chemistry from Tskuba University, confessed to making sarin on orders from high in the Aum hierarchy. (He later said that he had joined the cult because it had better laboratory facilities than his alma matter.) On May 16th, the guru himself was at last arrested. He was hiding - meditating, he said - in a crawl space less than three feet high at Kamikuishiki, where he had been all along. Clutched to his ample paunch was the equivalent of a hundred thousand dollars in cash. Seven of his wanted followers are still at large, but there have been no Aum related gas attacks or killings since the arrest of the cult's leadership.

What can we learn from these strange and terrible events? Subways, the circulatory systems of the world's major cities, are appallingly vulnerable to terrorists. The X-rays and sniffer dogs used by airlines, even if they were placed at every subway entrance, would not stop gas or deadly viruses from being smuggled below, and even the threat would instill terror, which was defined by Lenin himself as the purpose of terrorism. Only gas masks and protective suits, caged canaries, and antidotes carried in pocket or purse would enable people to get to work in comparative safety. Classifying those allowed to but sophisticated scientific equipment by the political system they live under, a Cold War relic, is obsolete. In fact, as Asahara shrewdly noted, the freer a nation's institutions are, the easier it is for its malcontents to make ready to wage hightech war on it.

The threat to civil rights

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