I've been studying Aum recently, as a way to think through terrorism and the appropriate response to it. It's hard to imagine a more dangerous terrorist organization than Aum. Aum was a highly coordinated organization, with a clear chain of command and effective communication within the organization. It was fabulously well-funded, raking in millions of dollars from its devoted followers and pushing that money into complex and lucrative investment schemes. It had an incredibly devoted collection of followers, who were subject to constant brainwashing techniques and daily tests of loyalty and devotion. The network was vast, with cells and headquarters in dozens of countries. The ideology was mutable and portable, making it easier to spread; the cult's teachings incorporated aspects of Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, and others, which helped increase its appeal. Its technological expertise and capability were incredible. The cult attracted many of Japan's brightest minds, brilliant scientists from the top universities with advanced degrees in chemistry, biology, and technology. They poured their funds into advanced labs and workshops and gained access to extremely dangerous chemicals and weaponry. They had groups devoted exclusively to weaponry and defense, to intelligence and surveillance, to loyalty and retention. They had large compounds in remote locations, spread out through Japan and in the rest of the world. They had loyalists ensconced in the military, the police, the government, and the media. They enjoyed the protection of being an officially recognized religious group. And as their most basic and cherished belief lay in the imminent coming of the apocalypse, and their religious duty to speed it along, they were absolutely bent on murder and destruction.
In almost every sense, this is the worst case scenario for terrorism. This is what people imagine when they think of the destructive potential of terrorism.
Yet what's as remarkable as Aum's potential for mayhem is how little of it, on balance, they actually caused. Don't misunderstand me: Aum's crimes were horrific, not merely the terrible subway gassing but their long history of murder, intimidation, extortion, fraud, and exploitation. What they did was unforgivable, and the human cost, devastating. But at no point did Aum Shinrikyo represent an existential threat to Japan or its people. The death toll of Aum was several dozen; again, a terrible human cost, but not an existential threat. At no time was the territorial integrity of Japan threatened. At no time was the operational integrity of the Japanese government threatened. At no time was the day-to-day operation of the Japanese economy meaningfully threatened. The threat to the average Japanese citizen was effectively nil.
Just as important was what the Japanese government and people did not do. They didn't panic. They didn't make sweeping changes to their way of life. They didn't implement a vast system of domestic surveillance. They didn't suspend basic civil rights. They didn't begin to capture, torture, and kill without due process. They didn't, in other words, allow themselves to be terrorized. Instead, they addressed the threat. They investigated and arrested the cult's leadership. They tried them in civilian courts and earned convictions through due process. They buried their dead. They mourned. And they moved on. In every sense, it was a rational, adult, mature response to a terrible terrorist act, one that remained largely in keeping with liberal democratic ideals.
All of the evidence we've acquired since 9/11 suggests that Al Qaeda is not like Aum. Al Qaeda is not nearly as coordinated. It is not nearly as hierarchical. It lacks basic inter-organizational communication or leadership structure. It lacks clear goals and leaders who can articulate them. It lacks operational infrastructure. It lacks clear sources of funding. It lacks technical and scientific expertise. It appears now to have always been a loosely connected fellowship of groups and sects, often at odds with one another philosophically and practically, lacking the kind of cohesion or leadership necessary to coordinate major attacks. All or most of that was true before more than a decade of international military and legal assaults on the organization. The near-total inability of Al Qaeda to wage large-scale destruction has been seen in the lack of mayhem caused by the group in recent years. The Boston Marathon bombing, waged not by Al Qaeda itself but merely by sympathizers, failed to killed more than three people despite having taken place amidst a literal throng of humanity. Again, a terrible tragedy and a horrific crime. But by any rational, adult estimation, nothing resembling a national threat to the United States.
Yet despite the near-total failure of Islamic terrorists to actually harm the United States in a meaningful way, we learn every day of vast new encroachments on our civil liberties and alterations to our basic way of life, enacted in response to our fear of terrorism. To debate the wisdom and prudence of this is to step into a weird world where claims no longer require evidence and assertions qualify as proof. People tell me constantly: there's vast throngs on terrible terrorists out there, and we have to give up our freedoms to fight them! And I ask: where? Who? In what numbers? Of what destructive capability? How do you know? Where's your proof? Always: nothing. No meaningful response at all. They just know.
That is the definition of irrationality. In the years following the subway attack in 1995, Japan did not live in a post-Aum world. They did not allow their day-to-day lives to be defined by those attacks. A dozen years after 9/11, our national character has been totally consumed by Al Qaeda and fear of it. It underpins everything we do. It has infected our culture. I don't know why so many otherwise rational, sane adults are so incapable of looking at this threat rationally, of disconnecting their legitimate moral revulsion from the sober threat evaluation that is the responsibility of citizens in a dangerous world. We have examples of adult responses to terrorism. Instead, we betray ourselves, in every sense a terrorized, terrified people.