Forcing the end on a wider scale

The passing of the year 2000 will in no way signal an end to such apocalyptic impulses.

April 11, 2000|By Robert Jay Lifton

THE RECENT discovery of the violent deaths of more than 900 members of a Christian cult in Uganda may seem but another in a long string of tragic events in faraway places. But in this grisly episode lies a distinctly closer-to-home message: The danger of apocalyptic violence, not just in Uganda but anywhere in the world, did not die away with the first days of the new millennium as so many had assumed it would.

The urge to "force the end" is distinctly a phenomenon of our moment, and from Heaven's Gate, the "peaceable" cult that committed mass suicide in 1997 in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., to Aum Shinrikyo, the Japanese cult that sarin-gassed the Tokyo subway system in a mad attempt to start World War III, it often has proved too close to home for comfort.

In fact, the violence of the Uganda group -- the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God -- has much in common with that of a number of cults better known to us. In its fierce self-destruction, Ten Commandments most closely resembles the American sect, Peoples Temple; more than 900 of its members went to their deaths in 1978 in Guyana.

In both Peoples Temple and Ten Commandments, the mass "suicide" demanded by the leader was only part of the story. There is much evidence in both cases that large numbers of the dead had either resisted killing themselves or were too young to make that decision and were murdered by the others -- whether by strangling, bludgeoning, cyanide injection, bullets or lethal flames.

There are also important parallels with Aum Shinrikyo, which in its brief career managed to kill about 100 people and threaten tens of thousands more. Like Aum, Ten Commandments believed that not only was the end of the world close at hand but that violent steps were in order in connection with that end. Rather than passively wait for Armageddon, one had to take extreme measures to help make Armageddon happen.

The term "forcing the end" originally described a tendency, eventually considered heretical, of some ancient Jewish groups to initiate violent actions as a means of speeding up the return of the Messiah, since that return had to be preceded by extreme chaos and unrest. Aum's method of doing so was random external violence on what was projected to be a vast scale -- the release of sarin gas, attempted releases of biological weapons and even efforts to acquire nuclear devices. The Ten Commandments group sought to force the end by destroying itself.

Both groups resorted to mass killing as a means of ensuring their own survival and, more than that, their immortality. For Aum members, intense spiritual exercises were to protect them from the grotesque deaths of virtually everyone else on Earth. Ten Commandments members were to be raised to heaven by the Virgin Mary, who was scheduled to appear on the day of their deaths. Both fit a pattern of killing as a means of achieving eternal life, of murder (of self or others) as an avenue to immortality.

Aum, emerging in an advanced industrial society, could imagine possessing ultimate weapons and took steps to produce or acquire them. The Ten Commandments, coming from a technologically backward society, resorted to such low-tech killing devices as a no-exit fire and hand-to-hand methods. But we cannot assume that its leader, Joseph Kibwetere -- or for that matter, Jim Jones of Peoples Temple -- would not have used ultimate weapons if they had them.

All three leaders -- two of them from the non-Western world -- were inspired by the fervent rhetoric of world destruction and renewal of the Book of Revelation. And Kibwetere and Shoko Asahara were further inspired by the coming of the new millennium. In Kibwetere's case, the violence could well have been triggered by a combination of his failed prophesy that the world would end on Dec. 31, 1999 and pressures within the cult. Unfortunately, the passing of the year 2000 will in no way signal an end to such apocalyptic impulses -- and not just because different religions adhere to different apocalyptic calendars or because cult leaders can create their own calendrical pressures through idiosyncratic readings of "holy books." In our confused post-Cold War world, conditions for the rise of such desperate cults are ever more rampant. Equally important, the means to force the end grow cheaper and easier by the year.

It may not be long before a cult in Uganda, like a cult in Tokyo or one in the United States, will be able to think of far more inventive ways of killing far larger numbers of people in its quest for immortality.

Robert Jay Lifton is the author of "Destroying the World to Save It: Aum Shinrikyo, Apocalyptic Violence & the New Global Terrorism."

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