James M. Lindsay

The Water's Edge

Lindsay analyzes the politics shaping U.S. foreign policy and the sustainability of American power.

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Lessons Learned: Tokyo Sarin Gas Attack

by James M. Lindsay
March 20, 2012


A new installment of “Lessons Learned” is now out. This week I discuss the sarin gas attack that Aum Shinrikyo carried out in the Tokyo subway system on March 20, 1995. In the video, I discuss how technological advances increasingly mean that governments are no longer the only ones capable of inflicting mass destruction.  Here’s a question to consider: what steps should society take to protect itself as technology makes it easier for terrorists, messianic figures, or just embittered individuals to inflict great harm? I encourage you to weigh in with your answer in the comments section below.

I hope you enjoy the video.

If you are interested in learning more about Aum Shinrikyo, the 1995 sarin gas attack, or the use of chemical and biological weapons more generally, here are some books and reports worth reading:

Richard Danzig et al. Aum Shinrikyo: Insights into How Terrorists Develop Biological and Chemical Weapons.  (2011)

Laurie Garrett. Betrayal of Trust: The Collapse of Global Public Health. (2001)

Laurie Garrett. I Heard the Sirens Scream: How Americans Responded to the 9/11 and Anthrax Attacks. (2011)

Jeanne Gullemin. Biological Weapons: From the Invention of State-Sponsored Programs to Contemporary Bioterrorism. (2005)

Haruki Murakami. Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche. (2001)

Ian Reader. Religious Violence in Contemporary Japan: The Case of Aum Shinrikyo. (2000)

Geoffrey Zubay. Agents of Bioterrorism: Pathogens and their Weaponization. (2005)

Post a Comment 2 Comments

  • Posted by Rodney Nichols

    Congrats, Jim. Your short talk is informed, persuasive and provocative, far beyond its length. But haven’t terrorists throughout history used technology — car bombs, poison, whatever — in any way they could? True, a sarin attack would hurt more people than one bomb. Yet our trying to “control technology” would break the faith of an open, competitive society. Even Teller agreed that we have too much classification, and more important from him, US defense science should be free — when it is, we “win.” No genies ever get put back in bottles. Controls may work somewhat when matched by widely publicized normative standards, as practiced in BW/CW for the advanced nations.

  • Posted by Dan Sharp

    Jim, To answer your very important question, society, including every organization, family and individual, needs to increase their resilience due to the increasing number and severity of Black Swans. From my work on global pandemics and with corporations on their resilience preparedness planning, the steps are fairly simple, but require a disciplined follow through over time. The steps are somewhat different for each organizations and family, but not taking them seriously will become a recipe for companies to go out of business and families to suffer unnecessarily. I’d be happy to share the brief articles I’ve written on this as part of my work with Resilience LLC, as even a summary here would be too long..

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