By Keeny, Spurgeon M., Jr.
Arms Control Today , Vol. 25, No. 3
The nerve gas attack in the Tokyo subway system underscores the extreme vulnerability of urban society to terrorist attacks, against which neither massive deterrent forces nor extensive military defenses offer any protection. The best defense is improved intelligence on potential terrorists and domestic laws permitting pre-emptive action when there is probable cause. If the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) were in force today, all 159 current signatories--including Japan--would be required to have such laws.
The five coordinated releases of nerve gas at rush hour in downtown Tokyo surprisingly resulted in only 10 fatalities, demonstrating the difficulty of producing and dispersing these agents. But the fact that several thousand other passengers were seriously affected by the gas also demonstrated the potential consequences if higher-quality material had been efficiently dispersed.
The Aum Shinrikyo religious sect is believed to have masterminded these terrorist acts, although formal charges have not yet been lodged. In apocalyptic pronouncements, Shoko Asahara, the sect's charismatic leader, frequently referred to sarin--a nerve gas developed by the Germans before World War II. The "fingerprint" of the sarin used in Tokyo is said to be the same as that identified in two previous events: one last July near an Aum Shinrikyo training center and another, which killed seven, in the city of Matsumoto, where a panel of judges was hearing a case against the sect. After the latest attack, a police search of a sect facility revealed a large chemical laboratory and over 100 tons of chemicals used to produce sarin.
Asahara's message, that today's society is beyond reform and must be swept away in the next few years by an apocalyptic cataclysm, makes him a new, more dangerous brand of terrorist. The notion that society must be totally destroyed so that it can re-emerge in a purified form is reminiscent of the extreme anarchists of the mid-19th century, such as Mikhail Bakunin and the fanatic Sergey Nechaiev, whose mad plots were immortalized in Fyodor Dostoyevsky's The Possessed. Asahara has reformulated this notion of destruction and rebirth in a mystical context suggestive of our own Branch Davidians, but he clearly sees a role for Aum Shinrikyo in inaugurating the cataclysm.
Political terrorists see themselves as fighters for a cause, seeking revenge, intimidation or recognition. But because they serve a larger cause, their actions must be to some extent circumscribed, lest they invite retaliation that would endanger their goal or alienate potential supporters. …