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The canaries went first. policemen in protective suits, ridiculous-looking things with gas detectors hanging out in front, bore the cages before them as they made their way grimly through the country road in the Mount Fuji foothills toward what looked to be a factory compound. It was 7 a.m. There were more than a thousand police; those who didn't wear protective suits watched the canaries closely. If the compound doors opened and the birds died, they would flee for their lives.

The birds lived. And day after day investigators raided the headquarters and hideaways of the suspect religious cult. Day after day they emerged with ton after ton of chemicals--sodium cyanide, sodium fluoride, phosphorus trichloride, isopropyl alcohol, acetonitrile--some benign, but others deadly, and still others that if mixed together might create something deadlier still. Enough to kill 4.2 million people, guessed one newspaper; another topped it with an estimate of 10 million. Japanese television viewers watched, mesmerized, as the police stormed the redoubts of the sect, looking for evidence that might link the hoard to 10 horrible deaths that had already occurred.

LAST MONDAY A COUNTRY THAT HAD been convulsed just two months earlier by a natural disaster, the devastating Kobe earthquake, was assailed by the most synthetic of catastrophes: a poison created by man, and a madness that was strictly human. In what could only have been a carefully coordinated, painstakingly planned atrocity, an apparently diluted form of a nerve gas called sarin, a weapon of mass killing originally concocted by the Nazis, was placed simultaneously in five subway cars at morning rush hour, killing 10 victims and sickening thousands more.

The Japanese government did not immediately name a perpetrator. But within days, under another pretext, it responded with its morning raid on 25 branches of a heretofore obscure sect called Aum Shinrikyo, which translates as Aum Supreme Truth. The sect, which started as a yoga school, focuses on the apocalypse to come-perhaps as soon as 1997. Its members insist it merely practices a form of Buddhism; but in reality it is a cult revolving around a long-haired, charismatic mystic, Shoko Asahara, a magnetic misfit who preaches that government efforts to obliterate his movement will coincide with the beginning of the end of the world. Throughout the week, the hidden guru pleaded his innocence via radio broadcast and videotape, then vanished, leaving behind three luxury cars in a Tokyo hotel parking lot and a $300,000 lawsuit seeking compensation for the police raids.

If the suspicions of most Japanese are true, and the cult is responsible for the subway atrocity, it would embody something much more sinister than even the Branch Davidian group led by David Koresh, who ultimately posed his most deadly danger to his own followers. The subway poisoning seems to represent an aggressive, outward-reaching insanity, as if Koresh had somehow become melded with the Tylenol killer. It suggests a new type of evil, a terrorism whose demands are so personal and obscure that no one can understand them, let alone satisfy them. Or put another way, garden-variety madness had got access to weapons of terror.

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