Hot Air: The Aum Bomb

I re-read books all the time, especially when, because of depression, discouragement, or the phase of the moon, I find it difficult to concentrate on new stuff. Of which, I might add, I have an awful lot. New stuff, that is. My reading queue stands about as tall as me and, even though I’m bent over by hip arthritis, I still reach an altitude higher than the average bear.

Anyway, I’m just finishing up Bill Bryson’s In a Sunburned Country for the umpteenth time. Bryson‘s perhaps my favorite author; he specializes in wry, witty takes on travel and words, two subjects upon which he’s ruminated in numerous books. Sunburned is his travelogue to Australia, a weird, distant, mysterious, alluring place. He opens the book by telling the tale of the demise of the country’s prime minister in 1967. The PM, a fellow named Harold Holt, went out for a casual walk along the Victoria coast where the Indian and Southern oceans and the Tasman Sea all three seem to collide. Holt got a sudden urge to dive into the surf — and was never seen again.

That’s it. The leader of a world nation jumped into the water and…, well, was no more. His body was never found. Conventional wisdom has it he immediately became dinner for any of a number of toothy predators the moment his head dipped below the surface.

It’s a fate, I’m sure, many of us — me. for one — would befall at least one contemporary world leader who’ll remain nameless.

Australia’s so huge and so empty that extraordinary things happen there and then are quickly forgotten, even things that make the disappearance of the nation’s prime minister seem a trivial side note.

Take, for example, the strange case of Aum Shinrikyo. The name means nothing to anyone under the age of 30. Hell, it likely means nothing to anyone older. Yet, in 1994 and ’95, members of the group garnered worldwide attention when several of them took it upon themselves to release deadly sarin gas in two Japanese cities, first Matsumoto and then Tokyo, killing some 20 people altogether. That the death toll wasn’t many times greater can be attributable only to dumb luck. From 1984 through the next dozen or so years, the gang perpetrated any number of biological and nerve gas attacks and carried out some kidnappings and murders.

Aum was a Japanese doomsday cult led by Shoko Asahara, nee Chizuo Matsumoto, although he preferred to be referred to as the Lamb of God and fancied himself a second Christ. The world, Shoko or Chizuo or Christ II or whatever, had become so irrevocably sinful that it had become time for the prophesied Biblical Armageddon. He envisioned it as a nuclear war launched by the United States and that would engulf the world. The only survivors would be he and those who followed him, natch.

Problem was, he apparently surmised, the US was dragging its feet in getting on with its end times big boom. So he and his gang, numbering about a thousand at the time, opted to push things along with terror acts. They also (I clasp my hands together in prayer as I type this, even though I don’t believe in the practice) may very well have gotten their hands on nuclear material and, in 1993, might have tested a nuclear weapon in the otherwise empty Great Victoria Desert in the state of Western Australia.

Here’s what we know. In late May of ’93, seismologists notice a huge disturbance emanating from a point in that desert. It was so extraordinary, many suspected an enormous meteorite had struck the Earth there but no crater ever was found. The seismological disturbance did not indicate an earthquake and, anyway, a bunch of long-distance truckers and prospectors reporter seeing a brilliant flash, followed at an appropriate remove by a concussive boom.

The evidence, scant though it may have been, pointed toward a nuclear detonation. Lo and behold, the Aum gang just happened to own a big spread adjacent to the point where the world’s seismographs indicated the shake had taken place. And, it must be added, several renegade Soviet nuclear scientists had joined the group.


Funny thing is, nobody really cared about the incident. The New York Times in 1997 ran an article, buried deep in an inside section, recounting the incident in the desert, but otherwise no other news agency, including those in Australia itself has bothered with it. The Wikipedia page for Aum doesn’t even mention the affair. Bryson writes: “This is a country… that is so vast and empty that a band of amateur enthusiasts could conceivably set off the world’s first non-governmental atomic bomb on its mainland and almost four years would pass before anyone noticed.”

In the ensuing years, Aum has split and reformed a few times. The founder has been sentenced to death for various crimes as have a dozen other cult members. And — wouldn’t you know it — whatever sects or spin-offs exist to this day, and there are a number of them, are attracting new followers all the time because, as The Japan Times reports, young men who can’t stand the direction society’s headed in and have difficulty finding their place in it “identify with the cult.”

Anthropologists tell us modern humans may have evolved as far back as 300,000 years ago, probably more. Many millennia more. That’s a good long time. And stories like this make me wonder if we Homo sapiens can survive past sunrise tomorrow morning.

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