The Cult at the End of the World

A fiction editor would have probably rejected as too implausible David Kaplan and Andrew Marshall’s bizarre account of the activities of the Japanese religious sect which sprang seemingly out of nowhere in 1988. Led by a nearly blind con artist calling himself Shoko Asahara, the Aum Supreme Truth cult became one of the most powerful and sinister groups in the world in less than a decade. THE CULT AT THE END OF THE WORLD reveals how Asahara and a handful of fanatics managed to gather the human and material resources that allowed them to terrorize a nation and strike fear in people around the globe.

Relying on an amalgamation of rituals drawn from Eastern religions, Asahara, an admirer of Adolf Hitler and a devotee of science fiction thrillers such as Isaac Asimov’s FOUNDATION novels, gained control over a group of disaffected Japanese intellectuals, students, and common workers who signed over their life savings and swore allegiance to a leader they considered a guru or even a god. Kaplan and Marshall describe the cult’s highly organized activities, which included brainwashing of new members, medical experiments reminiscent of those performed by the Nazis, intimidation of public officials, kidnapping, and murder. Committed to the initiation of Armageddon, the group amassed an arsenal which included not only small arms but also various chemical and biological weapons, helicopters, tanks, and laser rays; they even attempted to build nuclear bombs or obtain them from world powers such as Russia.

From official reports and interviews with hundreds of individuals whose lives were affected in some way by Aum Supreme Truth, the authors sketch chilling portraits of Asahara and his chief lieutenants, whose plan for world domination led them to reach deeply into Japanese society, virtually unchecked by a cautious and ineffectual police force. Most frightening of all is the revelation that the 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system was but one of a number of initiatives the group had already attempted (fortunately, most previous ones failed) or were planning. The sobering lesson of Kaplan and Marshall’s highly readable investigative report is that, as the millennium closes, extremism such as that exhibited by Aum is on the rise, and the freedoms guaranteed to individuals in democratic societies provide opportunities for fanatics such as Asahara to operate too long before authorities can step in to prevent catastrophe.