Aum Shinrikyo cult leader Shoko Asahara (Image credit: thierry ehrmann [CC BY 2.0] via flickr)
Japan, a nation known worldwide for its pacifist post-war constitution and non-confrontational culture, early this month executed seven leaders of a doomsday cult responsible for the largest domestic terror attack in that nation’s history.
Observing the firm justice meted out by Tokyo from terror-ridden Israel — which prides itself on its tough security mentality and counter-terror ingenuity and whose government frequently touts itself as ruggedly right-wing — one is left wondering if the Jewish state could learn how to deal with its threats from Japan, a global leader in public security.
The seven senior figures of the Aum Shinrikyo cult who were hung on July 6 included the cult’s leader Shoko Asahara, whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto. An additional six leaders of the group still wait on death row. Asahara’s death penalty, first handed down in 2004, had been on hiatus until the various trials related to the cult’s crimes ended this January, paving the way for implementation of the punishment.
Aum Shinrikyo was responsible for a series of brutal terror attacks in which a total of 29 people were murdered and over 6,500 were wounded. At its peak the cult numbered thousands of followers and had a compound at Kamikuishiki, at the foot of iconic Mount Fuji, where they manufactured lethal sarin nerve gas and assault weapons.
The most infamous attack by the terror group was the 1995 sarin gas attack targeting the Tokyo subway system, in which 13 were murdered and around 6,000 wounded. The mass casualty attack particularly focused on the Kasumigaseki governmental hub of the country, on the belief that the ensuing chaos would somehow see the country overthrown and Asahara installed as emperor of Japan, with global ambitions to be later realized through the cult’s international branches. The terror cult also murdered a lawyer that opposed them along with his wife and infant son in 1989, and murdered 8 more and wounded hundreds of others in a 1994 sarin gas attack in Nagano Prefecture.
Aum Shinrikyo has been effectively stamped out by Japan’s comprehensive response to the attacks, with hundreds of its members thrown in jail for lengthy sentences. Its ideological stream currently only exists in two tiny and carefully monitored splinter groups — one of which incidentally is named “Aleph” after the first Hebrew letter and has made an apology for the Tokyo attack.
Japan's arguments for enforcing the death penalty should resonate with supporters of Israel: Japanese Justice Minister Yoko Kamikawa explained the punishment was carried out because of “the pain and suffering of the victims and their families.” Likewise, Asahara’s 2004 death penalty ruling argued that “committing crimes that stole the lives of so many people based on fictitious fantasies is foolish and despicable and deserves maximum social condemnation."
Good for the Goose, Good for the Gander?
Many reservations in Israel about implementing the death penalty against Arab terrorists seeking to overthrow the state and inflict death and mayhem on its citizens revolve around fears of global condemnation.
Interestingly enough, the same liberal world media outlets that are so quick to attack Israel over its counter-terror activities showed marked sympathy for Japan’s strict deterrent. The BBC made nary a peep about Japanese “brutality,” as one might expect had it been Israel punishing terrorists, instead reacting with coverage that focused on letting the victims voice their relief over the punishment, and further took the opportunity to review the cult’s horrific crimes and oddities in depth, in further support of the death penalty.
While it did dedicate a few lines to Amnesty International’s blustering about how the death penalty is “never the answer,” CNN’s coverage similarly focused heavily on the egregious crimes committed by the cult. And The Daily Beast also backed the punishment in an article titled “Aum Shinrikyo: The Japanese Killer Cult That Wanted to Rule the World.”
The outpouring of sympathy for Japan’s firm justice by leftist world media outlets highlights the dual standards applied to Israel, but perhaps also indicates that Israel would be better off punishing terrorists in a manner commensurate to their crimes as Japan does. By simply complaining about the terrorists' atrocities and then pampering the perpetrators in prison, one could argue Israel is merely feeding into a media narrative that the terrorists in Israel are somehow unjustly persecuted — after all, if their crimes were so abhorrent, why aren't they worthy of execution according to Israel?
The U.N. did express “regret” over the executions in Japan and called for a “national debate” in the country over death penalties, although it certainly did not censure the island nation as it likely would have vis-à-vis the Jewish state were Israel to mete out similar justice to the terrorists butchering its citizens.
Ironically, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani was quoted as saying “the death penalty… is no greater deterrent than other forms of punishment.” The claim, which unfortunately has been echoed by some of the Israeli security establishment's top brass, should leave people scratching their heads, given that post-execution recidivism remains at a staggering 0%. Similarly many have noted that following the shooting of a wounded terrorist by Elor Azariya in Hevron, attacks in that city dropped dramatically, tangibly illustrating the secondary effect of killing terrorists.
Why Won’t Israel?
The cognitive dissonance of pacifist Japan executing terrorists while “warlike” Israel refrains from doing so did not escape notice in Israel. Knesset Member Robert Ilatov (Yisrael Beytenu), who initiated a bill easing the requirements for death penalty implementation that is currently put on hold by the government, remarked that enlightened, developed, and progressive countries such as the U.S. and Japan effectively use the death penalty in order to fight terror.
So why is Israel so far behind in this punitive war on terror? The answer appears to be largely political.
The death penalty has been on the Israeli law books for decades, but was only implemented once in a civilian court back in the 1962 trial of Nazi leader Adolf Eichmann. The only other case was a 1948 military tribunal of Meir Tobianski on charges of espionage — Tobianski was posthumously exonerated. Back in 1954 the Knesset abolished the death penalty for murder cases, but retained it for war crimes or crimes against the state.
If it were up to the public, Israel would execute Arab terrorists according to a July 2017 poll by the Israel Democracy Institute and Tel Aviv University. The poll found that 70% of Jewish Israelis support executing “Palestinians found guilty of murdering Israeli civilians for nationalist reasons,” and similarly 66% supported executing those murdering Israeli soldiers.
Israel’s military courts — which try the overwhelming majority of Arab terrorists as most of them are prosecuted under military jurisdiction in Judea and Samaria — can already order a death penalty in a unanimous decision. However, the military legal units and the Ministry of Defense led by Yisrael Beytenu Chairman Avigdor Liberman have been remiss in pushing for the punishment.
Public outrage has grown over the rampant horrors of terrorism, the absolute absence of death penalties to strike fear in potential terrorists, and government inaction in deterring said terrorism through other policies. Politicians attempting to address the issue have focused on lowering the hurdles standing before the death penalty.
Thus a 2015 bill advanced by the Yisrael Beytenu party called to reduce the requirements for execution from unanimity to a simple majority of two out of three military court judges. However, only the party’s six members voting in favor as the bill was shot down, after Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu ordered his coalition not to back the bill for political reasons. A month later Jewish Home Chairman Naftali Bennett, who was absent from the vote in obedience to the coalition discipline, said that in principle the death penalty should apply to “Jewish terrorists” too, in a statement seen by some as equivocation.
In a renewed attempt, a similar bill raised by Ilatov passed an initial vote in January 2018. But after changing his tune from 2015 and voting for the bill, Netanyahu then froze it for discussion by the government, effectively quashing the legislation. At the time Netanyahu and Ilatov likewise echoed Bennett by saying that in principle they supported the death penalty for “Jewish terrorists” as well.
Many have questioned the government’s legislative attempts and occasional calls for the death penalty as being nothing more than spin.
Meir Indor, chairman of the Almagor Terror Victims Association, said the 2018 bill was “born in sin as an election spin by Liberman. The Defense Ministry [already] has the option to invoke the death penalty, but Liberman didn’t use it, so he can blame other people. We don’t like that he’s trying to pass this bill on the backs of victims of terror.”
By contrast to Israel, the Palestinian Authority (PA) has executed 13 people since its formation in 1995, according to the radical leftist organization B’Tselem. If reliable, that figure refers only to the official executions following a PA court trial, and not to any extrajudicial cases. Perhaps the continued phenomenon of terrorism is less surprising when considering that Arab terrorists come from a society that administers the death penalty and attack one that does not.
So when will Israel learn from Japan how to take decisive action in stamping out terror and start implementing the most severe punishment of all? That largely depends on Israel crafting a more responsive political system in which the will of the 70% of the people calling for this policy is actually represented in government action. If Israel does look east for inspiration in dealing with terror, it may find that the Land of the Rising Sun offers other useful precedents and solutions as well — including one to re-frame the status of Israel’s Arab residents in a way that may in fact solve the conflict.