March 20, 1995: The Sarin Gas Attack

Today is the 16th anniversary of the Sarin Gas Attack on the Tokyo subway, in which either 13 or 14 people were killed (sources vary) and something like 1,000 (depending on sources) were injured.

The attack used sarin gas, an organophosphate developed in 1938 by German researchers as a pesticide. Sarin was adapted for use as a chemical weapon, and was loaded into artillery shells by the Germans during World War II but was never used for fear of like reprisal by the Allies. Also, for what it’s worth, chemical weapons are a piss-poor military technology from a strictly operational perspective. They’re well adapted, however, for spreading terror.

The attack was committed by the Aum Shinrikyo cult, a syncretist Buddhist group that later changed its name to Aleph. It still exists, still calls itself Aleph, and has about 1650 members in Japan. Aleph compounds are frequently the target of protest banners as well as right-wing marches. I’m not entirely clear on how much contact, if any, Aleph has with Shoko Asahara, or what its position is on either the 1995 sarin attack or previous attacks in which Aum Shinrikyo members were involved. The U.S., Canada and the EU have all designated it a terrorist group.

In February of this year, the chemist who developed the sarin used in the attack lost  his final appeal before execution in Japan’s hanging chamber, which is saying something. While hanging is specifically mandated in the Japanese Constitution as the way the condemned will be executed, the debate on whether to do it or not has been recurrent in Japan (as in most industrialized nations). In 1993, after a four-year moratorium, the Japanese began executions again. But since then, more than 700 people have been sentenced to death — but fewer than 100 people have been executed. Only treason and multiple homicides with special circumstances qualify a defendant to be considered for the death penalty.

The Aum Shinrikyo cult’s  belief system is syncretic, meaning it incorporates elements of different religions — notably Buddhism, Christianity and Hinduism. Imprisoned leader Shoko Asahara believes that the world is beset by conspiracies engineered by Freemasons, the British Royal Family, the Jews, and the Dutch. He preaches that the United States (which, he says, is the Beast from the Book of Revelation) is destined to launch a nuclear World War III against Japan, killing everyone except the members of Aum Shinrikyo, who will survive the End Times.

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