“After Terror: Recovering the Moral Self”

“After Terror: Recovering the Moral Self”
A Sermon by Joshua Leach
Delivered on Sunday, November 29, 2015
At The First Parish in Bedford


A Thought to Ponder at the Beginning:

“I am not yet born; O fill me
With strength against those who would freeze my
humanity, would make me a cog in a machine.”

—Louis MacNeice, “Prayer Before Birth”


The Sermon:

I want to begin by telling a story— and it’s a true one. It is a story with only two characters – for now, let’s call them the Disciple and the Master. The Disciple was the child of a prominent physician and surgeon, and he had a comfortable and privileged upbringing. When he had graduated from college, he decided to pursue his father’s profession, and entered medical school. There he was an outstanding student, with a reputation for being conscientious to a fault. As a doctor, he won the sincere admiration and gratitude of his patients for his compassion and discipline. He was, to all appearances, a profoundly decent person, motivated by a sincere desire to help others, in addition to being highly accomplished.

Beneath the outward appearance of success and esteem, however, the Disciple felt that he was living his life in the face of a problem. It was a problem with many shades and faces, but mostly it took the form of a sense of guilt, born of good fortune that he felt he had not earned. It was a feeling he did not seem able to assuage no matter how many people he cured or injuries he healed. He recognized that other people imagined his life to be a rewarding one, but inwardly he struggled with doubts as to the value of his work, when those he cured of one illness could very well be stricken with another, and all lives anyways had to end in death.

The Disciple didn’t think about the problem in so many words. He just called it the problem of “fear,” and would tell people years later that fear had always been the dominant emotion in his life.

One night, when the Disciple had just completed a long and exhausting surgery, he nodded off behind the wheel on his way home and slammed into another car. No one was killed, but a woman and her daughter were severely injured in the accident. The Disciple visited them constantly in the hospital after that, assisting with their care. He could not forgive himself for the role he had played in causing them harm, however unintentionally.

The Master was an impersonal presence in his life long before he met him. The Disciple had discovered the Master’s writings on spiritual enlightenment when he was still in medical school. At first he found their claims extravagant. The Master spoke of immortality, and of an infinite series of rebirths into higher states of blessedness and serenity. He promised solutions to the insoluble mysteries of death and the unknown. He even claimed to have the ability to exert control over reality, time, and other people through the strength of his mind, and assured his readers that if they attended training in his methods they could wield these powers as well. The Disciple scoffed at these claims, and read the Master’s books at first almost in a spirit of irony, even as he was transfixed by them. The Master had created an elaborate mythology and private vocabulary that mixed everything from Shiva to Star Wars into an indifferent spiritual stew. The Disciple, however, found for himself in this sea of words the one life preserver he needed. He wrung out in the Master’s writings an antidote to the problem of fear.

After this he began attending lessons at the Master’s Temple. He rapidly became one of the most earnest followers the Master had ever known. He plunged himself into extreme ascetic and devotional exercises, swallowing scalding hot salt water in order to induce vomiting; sleeping only three hours a night; fasting for days on end. Some of the more outlandish elements of the Master’s outlook and cosmology continued to strike him as absurd, but this mattered very little compared to the progress he felt himself to be making inwardly toward enlightenment. By the test of his own inner experience of wellbeing, the Master’s claims were valid.

At first the Master seemed profoundly gratified to have made a convert of this eminent surgeon—someone greatly admired in society who could present a positive outward face for the Master’s growing religious movement. He therefore took a special interest in the Disciple, treating him with almost paternal affection, and shepherding him along the promised path of spiritual growth more attentively than he had any other member.

The Master discerned what it was that the Disciple had especially come looking for. He told him that with each more rigorous and exhausting physical exercise he undertook, he was generating spiritual energies that would save others from pain. By taking on suffering himself, he was ensuring the increasing happiness of others, in this and infinite future lives.

To the physician who had tried to heal others but had found himself hurting them instead, who had spent all his life under a shadow of guilt and sought refuge in service to others, these words had an overpowering effect.

The Master had perceived as if by intuition the source of the hidden wound in his Disciple, and had extending to it a healing touch. After that, the doubting self in the Disciple became increasingly quiet, and the believing self grew one ever louder and more assertive. The Disciple had met the one person who had ever truly understood his inner life, the one person who had ever shown him a way out of the central problem under which he lived. He felt a vitality he had never experienced before, a deeper connection than he had ever known to a larger spiritual purpose that could, in the fullness of time, save the world. Armed now with this sense of being loved and of participating in humankind’s ultimate destiny, he would wonder how it was that he had ever survived before he had these beliefs, or this vision. His prior life, his existence before he’d met the Master, now seemed to him to have been a dead life.

But almost as soon as he had reached this wonderful transformation in himself and his life’s course, something terrible happened. Almost at the moment the Master had established this ideal human connection, the Master began to change. It became apparent in exaggerated and theatrical ways. One time, the Master snubbed him at a meal they had planned to share, looking past him as if he wasn’t even present. Another, he mocked the Disciple in front of his peers, saying that he was a rich boy and an effete intellectual and no use to the movement long-term.

The Disciple was baffled and hurt. Was he not the most earnest and devout follower of them all? What more could he do?

On the other hand, he could not bear to lose his grasp on the one piece of true happiness he felt he had ever enjoyed—not so soon after he had finally grasped it. He took on ever more arduous spiritual exercises. He confessed to the Master every sinful thought he had ever entertained. He implored the Master to tell him what he could do to be redeemed, and resume his place as the favored Disciple. For a long time, the Master told him he should give it up—it was no good, there was nothing he could do and should probably just leave. After a time, however, he started to show signs of relenting. At last he said that there was one way that the Disciple could prove his loyalty, but it would require far more sincerity of purpose than he had displayed up to now…


The Disciple I am describing was a man named Ikuo Hayashi. In the 1990s, Hayashi was responsible for numerous murders, kidnappings, and assassinations as a leading member of the apocalyptic cult Aum Shinrikyo, which committed a series of terrorist acts in Japan, culminating in the release of sarin nerve gas on the Tokyo subway at rush hour, killing 12 people and injuring more than 50. Hayashi, the Disciple, played a direct role in carrying out these attacks.

The Master was a man named Chizuo Matsumoto, who founded the Aum cult under the assumed named of Shoko Asahara. The test of loyalty he ultimately demanded of this Disciple and others was to follow him so unquestioningly that they would murder at his command.

Hayashi eventually proved willing to do so. He was told by the Master that by killing, he was actually doing his victims a spiritual favor. In Asahara’s warped parody of traditional Buddhist ethics, to murder someone who was spiritually blind or lost was to give that person a chance for rebirth into a higher spiritual plane. He thus managed to convince Hayashi that in murdering others he was contributing to their salvation and, ultimately, to the perfection of humankind. In this way, the doctor who had entered Aum Shinrikyo because he felt an obsessive drive to heal and give life to others, ended by becoming a no less fanatical accomplice to mass murder.

I have abstracted and retold in my own words the lives of these two men and their interaction. The more concrete details of their biographies can be found in a book by psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton, called Destroying the World to Save It. It is an indispensible analysis of the psychological underpinnings of Aum and similar extremist groups.

In this work and his other writings, Lifton pioneered the study of what he called “totalistic movements.” A totalistic movement can be religious or secular. It can draw on virtually any cultural canon or religious background. There is no one culture or society that is particularly prone to totalism, or uniquely exempt from it. At the same time that Aum was gaining converts in Japan, after all, similar millenialist groups were springing up in the United States, from the Branch Dravidians to Heaven’s Gate. There can be Christian totalism as well as Buddhist totalism, or atheist totalism. Such movements can spring up around charismatic secular leaders running the gamut in power from Lyndon Larouche to Joseph Stalin.

What sets totalistic movements apart from other groupings is not theology or demographics, but their subordination of various personal values and secondary identities to what is deemed to be a single source of absolute truth. Totalistic ideologies require of their followers an extreme form of psychological splitting, in which all human beings are divided into forces of absolute good and absolute evil, between which there can be no possibility of compromise or communication. In their mode of organization, these movements also tend to share in common a set of powerful emotional techniques that they use to recruit and retain members. One of these Lifton refers to as “mystical manipulation.” This is the use of elaborate preplanned set-beings that are create a feeling of emotional dependency in a new recruit. An example would be the Master’s Jekyll-and-Hyde treatment of Hiyashi, in which an apparently sincere offer of love and understanding is made, and then almost immediately saddled with an escalating series of conditions, once a follower has made an emotional commitment to the cult and severed ties with outside influences. That act of severing is another feature of totalistic movements, and the chief way in which they complete the circle of entrapment around their followers. Lifton calls it “milieu control,” and it means closing members off deliberately form any other people or influences who might provide information or perspective from outside the group.


I started reading Lifton’s book about two years ago and never finished it at the time. I was reminded of it though by some of the horrifying events from the last few weeks in Paris, Beirut, the Sinai and elsewhere, and I decided to pick it up again, hoping it could answer some questions that were troubling me.

The news of the most recent series of terrorist attacks had hit me very hard, and not just because of the shocking nature of the violence involved. What disturbed me almost more than that was witnessing my own inward response to the news from Paris. I felt confronted with the fragility of the lofty humanitarian convictions I profess. My principles, my consciously held values and reasoned convictions, all tell me I’m supposed to recognize the worth and dignity even of people who do incredibly terrible things; that no one by his actions can place himself beyond the pale of human society. But hearing the news on the radio, I knew that I felt nothing but fear, and a desperate anger. I may share a common humanity with people who commit acts of terrorism, I thought, but then came another thought on its heals, what exactly is so great about common humanity? Who ever proved that being human was such a good and ennobling thing anyways?

I suddenly felt as if the humane and vaguely pacifist self I am most days of the week had been a pose. The true self was a small, feral, and frightened thing inside that was simply trying to climb the walls and escape. I lived through 9/11 and was old enough at the time to understand what had happened. I was living in Cambridge at the time of the Marathon Bombings in 2013 – in fact, the chase after the Tsarnaev brothers on the day following had happened on the street in front of my apartment building. But for whatever reason, I had never been as simply and directly afraid for my life after an attack as I was after the shootings in Paris. Perhaps it’s because I imagine its possible to secure an airplane, or a high-profile event. But how can you secure a city street, or a sidewalk café, without becoming a society so tightly policed that our values could not survive?

It was a disturbing thing to realize about myself, to see how much my inner life and outlook changed when it was activated by fear. I felt like my idealized self, the one that could perceive the worth and dignity in all people, was perched on a precarious moral scaffolding above rising flood waters, and I was furiously trying to build the thing upwards to evade the river of anger and fear lapping below.

In the very same days that I was busy trying to retrieve my moral scaffolding, however, some of our nation’s politicians were providing a vivid illustration of what can happen if we allow that scaffolding to be swept away completely – if we don’t fight for our higher principles against our own immediate impulses, but allow them to be overwhelmed by fear – or by fear-mongering, as the case may be. Within hours of the attacks in Paris, multiple major candidates for the US presidency were calling for a halt to the admission of Syrian refugees – despite the fact that these refugees are victims themselves of ISIS and Assad. By a cruel irony, they have now somehow been blamed for precisely the sort of arbitrary violence that they are fleeing in the first place. Another candidate, a minor celebrity whom you may recall from NBC’s The Apprentice, recently stated that as president, he would force all Muslim Americans to register in a special database and submit to warantless surveillance. When asked by reporters from The Jerusalem Post how that would be different from Hitler’s policy of forcing Jews to wear yellow stars on their clothing, Trump said only “you tell me.”[1]

Fear is the most easily exploited of political emotions. It brings out a kind of savagery in societies that claim allegiance to higher values. I didn’t want that to be my country’s response, and I didn’t want to contribute by my own fears to the emotional atmosphere that was making it possible. I turned back to Lifton’s book to see if I could recover some feeling for the humanity of the people who carried out the attacks in Paris. Not to excuse what they had done, but to rebuild if I could a conviction that there is more to even the worst of us than a sum of evil acts.

What emerges for me from the story of Hiyashi, the Disciple, that I recounted above, is that he was the perpetrator, yes, but also a kind of victim, and everything I’ve heard or read about the so-called Islamic State is that it victimizes its own members in much the same way as Aum Shinrikyo. ISIS has an enormous online presence and an elaborate methodology of recruitment. It specializes in targeting those we might describe as isolated young people, though as the case of Hiyashi shows, the isolated are not always visibly so from the outside. ISIS recruits, like Aum recruits, can be poor or rich, employed or jobless, privileged or marginalized. All that matters is that they have a secret hurt that online recruiters are able to identify and manipulate through the use of powerful words and strong moral drives. ISIS even invokes feelings of altruism in drawing in its followers. It points out the frequent hypocrisy of Western governments that condemn the terrorism of others while themselves dropping bombs on civilian populations or supporting despotic regimes in the Arab world like Saudi Arabia that also behead and torture their own citizens for so-called religious crimes. It invokes the atrocities of Bashar al-Assad to justify its crusade against his regime in Syria. Rather than using such justified feelings of indignation to condemn violence against civilians from all parties, however, ISIS presses these emotions into service to a dualistic narrative of good and evil, in which all means used against the “evil” side, however heinous, can be justified. According to the organization’s private mythology, not so different from that of Aum Shinkrikyo, an apocalyptic war is about to take place between the forces of light—the new so-called Islamic Caliphate – and the agents of darkness — that is, you and me, and everyone else in the West, and everyone in the Islamic world who is not an IS supporter. ISIS even claims to know the particular village in Syria where this world-ending confrontation will take place, and has named its magazine—yes, ISIS has a magazine—after this place.

ISIS, like Aum, does not necessarily prey on people who have a prior history of violence. Its recruits do not enter with an intention to kill others; in most cases they do not even know that the person who recruited them is working with the Islamic State. Rather, they are drawn in first by a strong rapport they build with a particular person online, who offers them the tantalizing appearance of affection and deep understanding. It is only once the recruit has been drawn in to an obsessive degree, and has sacrificed other relationships to such an extent that it would be humiliating to back out now, that the ISIS recruiter begins to reveal one layer at a time the true nature of the commitment he is demanding of the recruit. He moves the recruit through various tests of devotion—really an escalating series of moral injuries. These begin with severing ties to all family and friends who do not share the recruit’s new beliefs, and end in the last extremity with participating in violent attacks against innocent civilians, or colluding in ISIS’s genocidal persecution of Shi’a Muslims, Yezidis, and LGBTI people. Most of these acts involve committing violence to others or to one’s relationships with them, but the more important thing from the recruiter’s perspective is that the recruit do violence to himself in the process—that he harm his own instinctive feelings, and that he betray his pre-ISIS values to such an extent that he can no longer see himself as the person he was before or that he once would have liked to be.

Put this way, it can sound as if the recruiters are utterly malicious, and the recruited pure and innocent. But of course, that’s not correct either, since the people now doing the recruiting in this manipulative fashion were likely themselves the victims of a similar process when they first joined. It is in the nature of collective pathologies of this sort that the lines between victim and perpetrator quickly break down. The source of the violence is in the ideology and its powerful mythologies, not in the flawed, complex, and multifarious human beings whom it ensnares.

Again, this is not to deny their moral responsibility. I only mean to suggest that people are seduced into such destructive movements not because they lack humanity, but precisely because they are subject to human impulses that we all share. There is no one socio-demographic or religious or theological profile of who is likely to end up joining a totalistic movement – the only requirement is that one have a hunger for connection, a fear of loneliness, and a strong tendency toward idealism, all of which are vulnerable to manipulation and perversion when at the hands of a totalizing ideology. And put in that way, we begin to face the fact that we are all potential recruits. As Bishop Desmond Tutu once wrote:

“Each of us could have been the perpetrator rather than the victim. […]. Although I might say, “I would never . . .” genuine humility will answer, “Never say never.” Rather say, “I hope that, given the same set of circumstances, I would not . . .” But can we ever really know?

Tutu goes on to say:

“People are not born hating each other and wishing to cause harm. It is a learned condition. […] And there are times when I look at some of those who are described as ‘monsters’ and I honestly believe that there, but for the grace of God, go I.”


The story of the Disciple and the Master did not end with the gas attacks in the Tokyo subway. Immediately after these events, Hiyashi began to question the omniscience and good intentions of his guru. Shoko Asahara had predicted, with what he claimed was an infallible gift of prophecy, that the sarin gas release on the subway would divert the government’s attention away from Aum Shinrikyo. When precisely the opposite took place, and police very quickly began to suspect that Aum had had something to do with the attacks, Hiyashi started to doubt his Master—or, to be more precise, he confronted doubts that had never really left him from the start. In Lifton’s telling, Hiyashi and many other members of Aum had to create two selves within them in order to participate in the atrocities they committed—one was the self of the true believer and devotee. The other was the self that had existed before the moral injuries the cult had inflicted and that remained capable of independent thought, self-critical humor, and moral feelings. After the sarin gas attacks, Hiyashi’s pre-Aum self – so long stifled –began to return to the center of his being.

Hiyashi eventually became one of the first of the former Aum members to collaborate with police and to reveal the full details of the sarin gas plot. Making no attempt to save himself from prosecution or to hide his own direct role in the attacks, he revealed everything he knew about the organization, seeing it as his only possible chance to make some small restitution for what he had done. As Lifton narrates his role in the courtroom:

“He spoke [to the jury] of his ‘chagrin and regret,’ of remorse for the victims and everyone else, ‘to the point of not knowing with what words to apologize.’ Telling ‘all that I know’ became ‘the only thing I can do,’ and ‘my duty as a human being.’ […]

He now found himself able to see and condemn his reversal of healing and killing. ‘I am a medical doctor and I wanted to help people one way or another, but in the end I could not carry out that purpose,’ he said, comparing his ‘grotesque’ behavior as someone ‘whose real task was to sustain people’s lives’ with [the] ‘sublime’ actions of the Tokyo subway workers who ‘used their hands to get rid of the sarin’ in order to save others. During one of his last court appearances, he told his lawyer that he was reading for the fourth time a book by the prominent novelist Haruki Murakami filled with searing accounts of those who survived the attack or were relatives of the dead. When his lawyer asked why, he answered, ‘Who else should read that book if I don’t?’ In December 1995, while in prison, he made a formal request to the Japanese Ministry of Public Welfare to rescind his medical license because ‘I caused irredeemable harm to society through acts that made me unfit to be a doctor.’ The request was granted.”

Hayashi was not able by these actions to take away what he had done. But I do think he recovered his humanity.

I continue to believe that perpetrators of acts of terror retain at some level of their being a moral self. They may have obscured it by the violence they have done to others, and the violence they have done to their own moral feelings in the process, and I can’t stand here and promise that they will one day recover it. They may not. One thing I’m sure of, though, is that they will certainly never recover it if the non-ISIS world tries to deny them their moral selves as well: if we contribute to the narrative of their lack of moral feeling that they must tell themselves in order to go on torturing and killing without pity.

The “war without mercy” promised by some Western politicians in response to the Paris attacks cannot defeat ISIS. Totalistic ideologies thrive precisely in the absence of mercy; they survive by conjuring absolute divisions of this sort between the totally righteous and the irredeemably wicked. The only way to defeat ISIS is to hold out to its members the promise that, no matter what they have done under the influence of a hateful ideology, they are still bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh, unwilling siblings of this same earth.

The alternative is to become a kind of ISIS in reverse, pursing the enemy unremittingly with bombs, while excluding persecuted and vulnerable people from our own borders. In the process we might kill a great many full individuals, in all their uniqueness and complexity – we must keep in mind, after all, that a policy like this cannot distinguish between the moral self and the ISIS self, Lifton’s multiple layers of consciousness – both alike are blotted out by a missile. Once this is done, ISIS may be destroyed; but the deeper disease of totalism will have triumphed.

Closing Words:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. God causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous alike. If you love those who love you, what good is that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? I say to you, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you […] Then you will be as children of the Most High, for he is Father to the wicked as well as the good, the unrighteous as to the righteous.”




[1] http://www.jpost.com/Middle-East/Trumps-Muslim-database-comments-prompt-Nazi-comparisons-434806