Cults, Control, and How Good People Do Bad Things

Michael Laurence, author of The Elimination Threat, joins us to talk about death cults, control, and how good people are often persuaded to do very bad things.

In 1984, a legally blind man named Chizuo Matsumoto started a yoga and meditation class in a one-bedroom apartment in Tokyo. Originally known as Oomu Shinsen no Kai, the “Aum Immortal Mountain Wizard Association,” the program took on a life of its own, growing exponentially in popularity and fueling the ego of its founder. In 1989, he changed his name to Shoko Asahara, officially launched a religious organization known as Aum Shinrikyo, and started preaching an eclectic mix of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Christianity, with his own apocalyptic prophecies thrown in for good measure. His doctrine struck a chord with the younger generation, who sought to achieve spiritual enlightenment in a time of societal decay, and yet somehow, a mere six years later, these same people found themselves boarding the Tokyo subway with plastic bags filled with a deadly chemical weapon tucked under their arms.

On March 20, 1995, Aum Shinrikyo released sarin at the heart of one of the most densely populated cities on the planet, killing thirteen innocent people and hospitalizing nearly six thousand more. What happened during those six years to turn a group of harmless postgrads seeking nirvana into mass murderers? Before one can even begin to fathom why, one must first understand the people involved, the ideology to which they were attracted, and the nature of the cult’s hold on them.

At the height of its notoriety, Aum Shinrikyo numbered an estimated 40,000 members worldwide, 9,000 of them in Japan alone. These men and women weren’t your stereotypical misfits searching for a place to belong. They were college-educated physicians, engineers, teachers, scholars, and business leaders, arguably the best and brightest minds the Japanese education system had to offer. So what made thousands of young professionals abandon successful careers, drop out of society, and begin making preparations for Asahara’s prophesied end of the world? The answer lies in the novel Foundation by Isaac Asimov.

Originally published in the 1940s as a series of interconnected stories, this seminal work of science fiction served as one of the primary recruiting tools for the cult, which aggressively approached potential new members on university campuses. Foundation—a classic example of “The Chosen One” literary trope—is about a group of prominent scientists who believe that civilization is on the brink of collapse and that an era of barbarism will soon begin, but the interval separating the fall of humanity from the rise of the next great empire can be minimized by gathering the most brilliant scholars and sending them across the galaxy to begin anew. The idea of surviving the apocalypse and being among the select few chosen as foundation stock for a new golden age of society proved irresistible to many new graduates preparing to venture from the safety of academia into the real world for the first time.

Readers who didn’t live through the eighties and nineties might not comprehend how the end of days factored into the daily lives of just about everyone. Between the omnipresent fear of nuclear annihilation and the uncertainty of Y2K, the threat of annihilation hung like the Sword of Damocles over the entire world (and bear in mind that the parents of Aum’s recruits had lived through the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, so the belief that fiery death would rain from the sky at any moment wasn’t as absurd as it sounds today). The news was filled with stories of stockpiling nukes and mutually assured destruction. Clouds of radiation and fallout wiping out entire countries. Technology failing and planes falling from the skies. The world suddenly reverting to the dark ages.

Prophecies foretelling any number of cataclysmic events popped up out of nowhere, from Nostradamus and Harold Camping to ancient Mayans and modern Evangelicals. And Shoko Asahara. While he might have been a charlatan who bilked his followers of their life’s savings and reveled in his own physical gratification, he was also charismatic and ingenious when it came to securing the loyalty of his followers, especially those among his inner circle, who managed his day-to-day operations and tended to his flock (as often with the stick as the carrot). Like any great leader, Asahara realized that guaranteeing the blind devotion of his followers could be achieved in four simple steps: acceptance of an ideology, isolation from differing points of view, reinforcement of belief, and a demonstration of conviction.

First off, a person needs to truly accept an ideology—we’re talking about buying into it hook, line, and sinker—so that no one can possibly dissuade him or her. And what’s an easier sell than convincing young professionals who’ve spent the better part of their lives training to be the best of the best that they’ve achieved their goal? Only those closest to them—their families, significant others, and lifelong friends—have even the slightest hope of changing their minds, so once Asahara set the hook, he isolated his newest converts from those powerful influences by sequestering them in his Mt. Fuji complex. Here they were surrounded by other devotees who reinforced their beliefs, creating an ideological bubble. Bolstered by exposure to a continuous barrage of propaganda, these men and women became so eager to rebuild the world from its ashes that they eagerly awaited its end.
And then tragedy struck . . . the apocalypse didn’t happen on the prophesied date, which meant that Asahara had to predict a new date. Then another. And with each passing day that the world failed to end, his grip on his flock slipped just a little bit more. So what’s a prophet supposed to do when the entire belief system of his flock begins to crumble? He finds a way to make his apocalyptic prophecy the self-fulfilling kind.

With a demonstration of conviction.

Asahara’s followers were so committed to the belief that it was their right to rebuild the world in their image that he managed to convince these same medical professionals and teachers who’d devoted their lives to making the world a better place to join him in actively plotting humanity’s eradication. Prominent members traveled to the crumbling Soviet Union to train with the Russian military. Engineers acquired the blueprints for the AK-74 and set about manufacturing their own. And chemists learned the formulas for chemical weapons of mass destruction, setting the stage for the slaughter to come.

But when some of Asahara’s less faithful followers finally started waking up to the horror of what they were collectively planning to do, he ordered a rushed operation meant to reaffirm their beliefs by creating an apocalyptic event on the packed Tokyo subway. Fortunately, the attack was largely botched by poor planning and the inferior quality of the homemade sarin, keeping casualties to a minimum.

Asahara and his top lieutenants were subsequently rounded up, tried, and executed. Meanwhile, with the support of their families and the help of dedicated psychologists from around the country, the remainder of his followers were reintegrated into society and went on to live productive lives.

So what can one learn about control from an egomaniacal madman who quite nearly decimated the population of Japan? A whole lot, it turns out, especially if you’re among the most powerful political and financial elites in the world, like those among the Thirteen, the fictional cabal from The Elimination Threat.

Think back to the four simple steps Asahara took to secure the blind obedience of his followers. That same blueprint can be applied on the global stage. A quarter of a century later, thanks to the internet and social media, it’s even easier to deliver your message to the largest possible audience. While once Aum Shinrikyo relied upon volunteers to hand-distribute printed material to prospective recruits, a single person can now reach entire subsets of the population from all around the world with the click of a mouse.

Search engine and social media users are routinely categorized by their interests, political affiliations, product usages, and both broad and specific ideologies for marketing purposes, allowing businesses and special interest groups to directly target potential customers with everything from the products they buy to the news they see. Someone attempting to market an ideology can even observe who interacts with their message in real-time and create custom content designed to further reel in the viewer. Once the prospective convert has suitably accepted the ideology—whether it’s something as innocuous as buying locally or contributing to a fundraiser or as damaging as perpetuating the notion that our system of elections can no longer be trusted or espousing the belief that all police offers are racists—it’s time to move on to the next steps, isolation and reinforcement, which can be completed in one fell swoop.

Companies like Facebook use proprietary algorithms to limit the number of friends one can see at any given time, define that user’s circle of friends, and allow users to hide content with which they don’t agree. This not-so-subtle manipulation pushes users into increasingly isolated ideological bubbles in which their beliefs are continuously reinforced by other users and targeted newsfeeds, articles, advertisements, and ideological calls to arms. Opposing viewpoints and debate aren’t merely suppressed, they’re completely removed from the equation, so for all a user knows, theirs is the only belief that exists. And as such, contradictory theories are automatically relegated to conspiracy theories of the far-right or the far-left.

Now comes the most crucial part: the demonstration of conviction. For the person who interacts with the “Buy Locally” message, he or she is rewarded with a coupon and uses it at a nearby store. The person who contributes to a fundraiser might receive a thank-you card from the organizer or a badge to proudly display on his or her profile. Demonstrations for more involved ideologies are a lot trickier. Can someone who believes the election was stolen from his or her favored candidate be convinced to storm the Capitol Building? Can someone who fervently believes that the police are actively hunting African-Americans be encouraged to participate in the destruction of his or her own hometown?
The answer to both questions is a resounding yes, but neither addresses the more pressing concern of who’s selling those ideologies and, more importantly, why?
Those who wield the power in this country didn’t find themselves in their position by accident. Their machinations are well designed, carefully plotted, and implemented slowly, quite often over several generations. And the last thing in the world they’re going to do is give up that power, which is where reinforcing the designated ideology with social media and the proper newsfeed is critical.

As anyone can plainly see, every source delivers the news with a different slant, one designed to speak to a specific audience. It’s imperative to note that the vast majority of media outlets are in the hands of very few people. News Corp (controlled by the Murdoch family) owns Fox News, The Wall Street Journal, and the New York Post. Disney (whose chief institutional shareholders include leading investment firms Vanguard Group, BlackRock, and State Street) owns ABC, FX, Disney+, and Hulu. Comcast Corporation (controlled by the Roberts family) owns NBC, Universal, and Sky Group. The AT&T Corporation (whose chief institutional shareholders also include Vanguard Group, BlackRock, and State Street) owns WarnerMedia, CNN, and HBO. National Amusements (controlled by the Redstone family) owns CBS, Paramount, and Nickelodeon. Hearst Company (controlled by the Hearst family) owns 33 television stations, 24 newspapers, and 250 magazines. And Jeff Bezos owns Amazon, The Washington Post, and Business Insider. When broken down as such, it becomes clear that these media outlets reflect the political and ideological leanings of their owners, who wield an enormous amount of influence over the daily lives of average citizens.

What could they possibly hope to achieve?

According to Theodore Roosevelt, “Behind the ostensible government sits enthroned an invisible government owing no allegiance and acknowledging no responsibility to the people. To destroy this invisible government, to befoul the unholy alliance between corrupt business and corrupt politics is the first task of the statesmanship of today.” The key to maintaining such an “unholy alliance” would require the expansion of the size and authority of the federal government, the transfer of power from the states, and the willing sacrifice of individual liberties by an unsuspecting public.

Could the atrocities of 9/11 be used to pass an act that would allow for the mass surveillance and indefinite detention of American citizens, without due process, in violation of their Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights? Could an incursion at the Capitol be used to build Hunger Games-style walls around our institutes of power? Could the distrust of local police be used to create a federal police force? Could the loss of faith in our elections trigger the government to assume control from the states, assuring the ruling party total control for the foreseeable future? Could our growing hatred of each other and our conflicting points of view serve as a predicate for violence, or even war? Are we even now fomenting the unrest that will lead to our utter annihilation?

Imagine what someone like Shoko Asahara could have achieved had he been able to filter his propaganda through his own news service and deliver it to an eager bubble of followers on social media. Could he have made his apocalyptic prophecy come to pass on a global scale? We trust that the Jeff Bezoses and Rupert Murdochs of the world aren’t actively plotting against us, but what if they were? Would we even know? Is there anything we could do to stop them, or are we too encapsulated within the bubbles they’ve created for us? Are we too busy squabbling over politics and fighting about social issues to recognize that they’re playing games with our lives and that the stakes are higher than we can imagine?

Shoko Asahara made no secret of his goals or what he was willing to do to achieve them.

Can we say the same of the political and financial interests controlling our society today?


Read More: A new excerpt from Michael Laurence’s The Elimination Threat

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