Tokyo's Deadly Fumes


The release of nerve gas at 16 Tokyo subway stations during the Monday morning rush hour could only have been terrorism by a group of people including at least one skilled organic chemist to handle the material.

Like the bombing of the New York World Trade Center in February 1993, it turns the greatness of a city into its vulnerability. The denser the development, the greater the inter-dependence of people, the higher the reliance on a universal minimum standard of civility. There may be no other urban rail transit system that is both as large and as efficient. But where Tokyo can be attacked, so can all great cities of the late 20th century.

This use of nerve gas shows the menace to a shrinking world from proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, not merely those making huge explosions. Sarin, which attacks the central nervous system, was invented by chemists working for the Nazi German state in 1936. It has reportedly been manufactured in the Middle East in the past half century. It is illegal in Japan, yet there have been incidents of it escaping, particularly a fatal outbreak in the town of Matsumoto last June, and more recent allegations of its threatened use.

This attack on the capital comes while Japan is undergoing a national catharsis of revelations of experiments in germ warfare by its physicians and soldiers, with thousands of subject peoples sacrificed as guinea pigs, nearly six decades ago. That research was going on about the time that Germany was developing sarin.

This man-made atrocity also comes a bare two months after the natural disaster of the Kobe earthquake took more than 5,000 lives. This terrorism is not in that act-of-God's league, with early reports so far showing seven deaths, 76 critically ill, 46 in serious condition and over 4,500 gas victims swamping hospital emergency rooms for treatment. It could have been a lot worse.

The job of the 300 detectives immediately assigned to the crime is to find out not only who did it, but who didn't. Rife speculation, accusation and suspicion -- with some groups already under public discussion -- will eat away at Japanes society until this is solved. There can only be an erosion of trust, in this case, trust of fellow countrymen.

Despite fantasy fiction about rogue atom bombers, chemical and biological warfare are more easily accessible to small and otherwise weak countries and to nongovernment terrorist organizations. Until these particular criminals are caught, and their purpose identified, Japan's cause in this investigation is the world's. Everyone everywhere is a little unsafer each day that the poisoners of the Tokyo subway remain at large.

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