For many Japanese, the March 20, 1995, sarin attack on Tokyo’s subways — which killed 12 people and sickened more than 5,000 — is still fresh in their memory. The passage of 10 years seems hardly enough to heal the sorrow of the families of the deceased and the suffering of the surviving victims.
Some survivors are bedridden with little or no prospect of recovery. Some become sick in February or March every year, as memories of the terror come back to haunt them. Many are gripped by fears of fresh terrorism.
Certainly the government needs to do more to help the victims as well as the bereaved families. To be sure, financial aid is available to crime victims, but it is far from sufficient to support their lives. Workers who were victimized in the sarin attack are now eligible for care and treatment under an expanded worker-accident compensation system.
Yet more public research is needed on the effects of sarin on the human body, the epidemiological characteristics of poisoning in general, and treatment methods.
Some of the lessons of the sarin attack have been well learned. A case in point: It has promoted public awareness of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The same is true of the Great Hanshin Earthquake, which occurred in January of the same year. As a result, mental health care has made much progress in the fields of treatment and education.
On the legislative front, the Diet in December passed a basic law for supporting crime victims. This legislation, initially proposed by a group of sarin-attack victims, states clearly that the government has a duty to help them. Guidelines now in the works should also apply to other victims of past crimes.
Meanwhile, the seemingly endless series of “Aum trials” goes on. Some defendants have pleaded guilty, but the primary defendant and the founder of the Aum Shinrikyo religious cult, Chizuo Matsumoto (alias Shoko Asahara), maintains a mysterious silence. In February 2004, the Tokyo District Court sentenced him to death, although he never testified during his trial. After the ruling, he reportedly refused to speak even to his new lawyers.
Matsumoto’s defense team, arguing that he is no longer mentally fit to account for his criminal acts, has requested, unsuccessfully, that the Tokyo High Court suspend further proceedings. It is unclear, though, when the first session of the appeal trial will open. Indications are that it could be delayed until 2006.
Parties involved should do everything they can to speed up the Matsumoto trial. The defense team should improve communication with him, and the judges need to exert strong leadership to keep proceedings on course. The guru Asahara, whatever his mental condition, holds the key; without his full testimony it will be impossible to get a complete picture of Aum’s crimes.
Aum Shinrikyo, which now calls itself Aleph, remains active in 17 of 47 prefectures, although it is being monitored by the Public Security Investigation Agency. The sect is still dangerous, the agency says, because Asahara is regaining respect among the followers, as evidenced by the display of his photographs and the use of his videotaped sermons.
The agency should inspect Aum facilities more often to get accurate information about its motives and activities. As the national police chief has acknowledged, the lesson from past Aum investigations is that the agency overlooked the fact that Aum had transformed itself from a religious cult into a terrorist organization.
It is, therefore, essential that the agency more closely monitor Aum activities. Police, meanwhile, should bolster their efforts to apprehend any Aum member suspected of wrongdoing. The common objective, of course, is to prevent the recurrence of terrorist acts by Aum and dispel the deep unease that exists among people who live near Aum facilities.
The sarin incident, it was pointed out at the time, exposed a lack of professional knowledge of biological and chemical terrorism within the security and police organizations. That “knowledge gap” has since been reduced significantly. Police headquarters in eight prefectures now have rapid-response units familiar with nuclear, biological and chemical terrorism. Such units should be created at all headquarters to deal with international terrorism as well.
Pundits say that young people with a higher education, including college graduates with an engineering degree, joined Aum because they were disappointed with prospects in this present society. Aum reportedly continues to recruit new followers behind the scenes. If those pundits are right, the best way to root out dangerous groups like Aum will be to create a society that is more attractive to youth.
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