The near-thing at the Kasumigaseki station in the Tokyo subway system last week, like the near-thing at the World Trade Center in New York City two years ago, has got terrorism experts worried as never before. In both cases, technically sophisticated "weapons" came terrifyingly close to killing hundreds or even thousands of innocent victims. And in both cases, the attacks seem to have been motivated by an irrational yearning for "apocalypse"--death and destruction for its own sake.
In Japan, crude devices containing the deadly nerve gas sarin, first developed by German scientists in World War II, were left on subway trains heading for the Kasumigaseki interchange at rush hour on Monday morning. The devices failed to distribute the sarin in its far more efficient and deadly gaseous form and, perhaps just as important, subway riders did not panic, failing to grasp the full extent of the danger.
But after a two-day crash course by the media in sarin and other deadly chemical and biological agents, nervous Japanese subway riders (and probably American subway riders in New York, Washington and even Los Angeles) are keeping one eye on the exit doors--a formula for tragedy if some future scare prompts everyone to run at once.
This is the classic goal of terror--fear, confusion and the riveted attention of the public. But what is the goal of these new terrorists?
The mysterious Japanese religious cult Aum Supreme Truth, suspected by Japanese authorities in the subway attack, has expressed none of the traditional political aims of terrorist organizations. Groups such as the Irish Republican Army, in Northern Ireland, and Hamas, in the occupied territories of Palestine, make no mystery of what they want. There is a logic to their goals and methods that helps authorities find countermeasures, and even offers hope for a negotiated solution. But how can a government negotiate with a religious zealot preaching that the end of the world is near, and fully prepared to use poison gas to make it happen?
This is what has experts in terrorism worried as never before--the combination of state-of-the-art weapons of mass destruction with a spirit of apocalyptic nihilism willing to destroy whole cities for reasons that defy rational analysis. End-of-the-world thinking has long been common among extreme religious groups. What is new is the real possibility that such groups might obtain weapons as big as their nightmares, going far beyond the gunpowder and dynamite used by political terrorists since the anarchist bombings of the 19th Century.
The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, and the collapse of Russian internal authority since, have allowed vast stockpiles of modern weapons--including nuclear weapons and materials--to slip from state control. Rumors abound of warheads making their way through the black-market pipeline, and Japanese authorities think Aum Supreme Truth may have obtained sarin gas or equipment from sources in Russia--where the sect is large and well-organized.
But atomic weapons built originally for the military, dangerous as they might be in the hands of such outlaw states as Iran, Iraq and Libya, are heavy, hard to deliver and complicated to detonate. It is small, portable, user-friendly weapons of mass destruction that promise a terrorist threat on a new scale.
The Tokyo attack has drawn attention to the dangers of chemical and biological agents. Far more lethal, according to the nuclear physicist Sam Cohen, who invented the neutron bomb, would be "pure fusion" weapons the size of a baseball or small enough to be carried in a lunch box--and lethal enough to kill everyone within 600 yards. That would include everyone in a football stadium, say, or everyone in Times Square on New Year's Eve, or the 20,000 people closest to the President on Inauguration Day.
The "pure fusion" weapons that worry Cohen depend on two principles--the flood of lethal neutrons, in addition to blast and heat, released by detonation of as little as two grams of deuterium and tritium; and the ability of specially treated forms of a chemical compound known as "red mercury" to create the heat and pressure required to set off fusion in the deuterium-tritium mix. According to Cohen, materials for such a bomb would be cheap, and none are illegal. U.S. government officials say red mercury is a myth. Some nuclear physicists say red mercury can't create the necessary heat and pressure. Cohen says they are denying the problem in the hope it will go away.
As a young man, Cohen helped invent the first atomic bomb at Los Alamos during World War II, and he has been thinking about atomic bombs and nuclear policy ever since. After the neutron bomb was briefly adopted and then dropped by U.S. military authorities, Cohen began to argue publicly against prevailing wisdom that stressed bombs with a big bang.
As one result, he lost his security clearances and was frozen out of the nuclear fraternity. But he still pays close attention to nuclear developments, and he has amassed an impressive collection of evidence that the Russians have been working on pure-fusion weapons for 30 years; that they have been producing and selling red mercury, and that police in many countries have discovered red mercury in the black-market weapons pipeline. Cohen worries pure-fusion weapons already exist--and may soon turn up in the hands of terrorists.
Weapons of mass destruction like pure-fusion devices represent half the modern equation of terror. The other half, just as dangerous, is in the end-of-the-world thinking of religious cults that welcome apocalyptic destruction as a sign the kingdom of God is at hand.
Some authorities on religion say such groups will increase as we approach the "millennium"--the ending of a thousand-year period at midnight, Dec. 31, 1999. The teachings of the founder of Aum Supreme Truth, Shoko Asahara, are only the most recent example of millennial thinking leading to tragedy. Asahara's predecessors include Jim Jones, who forced more than 900 followers to kill themselves in Guyana in 1978; David Koresh, whose followers died in a fiery inferno in Waco, Texas, in 1993; and the leaders of the Swiss-Canadian cult, the Cross and the Rose and the Order of the Solar Temple, which ended with mass murder-suicide last year.
Such cults share many of the same characteristics--a charismatic leader claiming to speak for God; a mass of followers willing to sacrifice all for the leader; isolation of the group in a separate community; suspicion of outsiders leading to paranoia and the acquisition of arms; fury at defectors leading to physical abuse and eventually murder; increasing friction with civil authorities over weapons and the treatment of children; growing secrecy surrounding the leader's personal life, which frequently involves sexual exploitation of followers; pronouncements by the leader that the end of the world is at hand; withdrawal of followers from all contact with relatives and friends.
Experts on religion say there are literally hundreds of active cults in the United States that exhibit some or many of these characteristics. The danger point is reached when civil authorities feel impelled to challenge a cult and its leader over some question neither can ignore. It was at just such moments that Jones and Koresh chose death for themselves and everyone under their control. Can there be any question what Jones would have done if he had possessed a pure-fusion weapon instead of poisoned Kool-Aid?
The long-term social and political effects of this new threat posed by the combination of modern weapons and end-of-the-world thinking are bound to be great. Twenty years ago, the hijacking of a handful of aircraft by terrorist groups led to pervasive new security measures that require every air passenger in the world to be checked for weapons before boarding--a now-routine procedure repeated millions of times a day. Something different, but just as invasive, will be required to deal with the new terrorist threat.
Intelligence organizations know the best way to control lunch-box bombs is not to open every lunch box, but to maintain close watch over bomb materials and organizations angry or desperate enough to use bombs. Keeping track of weapons of mass destruction is already part of the job description of intelligence agencies in most countries, and it seems likely they will soon be compelled to monitor religious cults in the same way, and for some of the same reasons, that they pay close attention to radical political groups.
Like so many threats to human welfare, this is one of our making. Modern weapons of mass destruction were invented by sagacious men for sound reasons--to protect us from enemies. Now they give people eager to die for a greater glory something they always wanted--the chance to take the rest of us with them.*