At the Pentagon memorial service last month, President Bush called the al-Qa'eda network "a cult of evil," and for the first time, I thought: "Yes, that sounds right." It is a kind of cult, and Osama bin Laden - far from being the Muslim world's Che Guevara, is its evil and manipulative guru.
There has been a great deal of semantic confusion about who, precisely, our enemy is. Bin Laden has succeeded in linking his lunatic cause with a broader sense of anger and frustration that persists in the Muslim world. We cannot allow him to maintain that link.
The enemy of this particular war is not Islam, and it isn't the Muslim world, for very few Muslims, regardless of their policy grievances, would die for the sake of killing our children.
Two years ago, the eminent American psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton wrote a book about cults called Destroying the World to Save It, documenting what he called a "loosely connected, still-developing global subculture of apocalyptic violence."
Lifton, who has also written about Nazi doctors and the psychology of totalitarianism, focused his analysis on the Aum Shinrikyo cult in Japan, which released sarin gas into the Tokyo subway in 1995, killing a dozen people.
Why? Why indeed. Aum Shinrikyo built a rationale for mass murder on a "global stew" of New Age religion, ancient rituals and science fiction. Lifton was fascinated by how ordinary people could be persuaded to engage in extraordinary horrors.
In Aum Shinrikyo's ranks one found doctors, research scientists and other members of the Japanese professional classes - not unlike the demographics of the Rajneeshee cult in Oregon, whose members laced salad bars with salmonella bacteria in 1984, or the members of Jonestown who committed mass suicide in 1978.
People do not need to be impoverished or brutalized to transform themselves into apocalyptic warriors. In Aum Shinrikyo, members appear to have come together out of vague spiritual or social malaise and then fallen under the charismatic spell of Aum's guru, Shoko Asahara. Over time, and a great deal of brainwashing, they developed a "collective megalomania" that culminated in the subway attack.
Reading profiles of the Sept. 11 hijackers, one glimpses a similarly disturbing ordinariness. The hijackers were not traumatized victims of American foreign policy; nor did they spring from deeply orthodox Muslim families. Some drank; some had Western girlfriends; Mohamed Atta's sisters are a doctor and a zoology professor.
Understanding al-Qa'eda purely in the context of Islamic fundamentalism is unsatisfactory. It leaves something out, some process of psychological transformation for the individual members.
Consider, by contrast, the suicide bomber who assassinated Indian President Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 - a Tamil woman who reportedly had been raped by Indian soldiers during the Sri Lankan occupation. Her quest for justice took a terrible route, but one can at least discern a connection between personal trauma and revenge.
Curious about the cult analogy, I called Steve Hassan [Warning: Steve Hassan is not recommended by this Web site. Read the detailed disclaimer to understand why.], formerly a high-ranking member of the Unification Church, also known as the "Moonies," and now a leading expert on mind control. We talked about the fact that many of these hijackers were reportedly leading a normal life when, after coming into contact with certain Islamic groups - on a university campus in Hamburg, Germany, for instance - they suddenly turned inward, becoming secretive and aloof. That rang very loud bells for Hassan, who fell in with the Moonies on a New England college campus in 1974 after befriending three "attractive young women" who encouraged him to come to meetings.
"There's a big difference between a personality change as a result of religious epiphany and a personality change as a result of a systematic social influence," he says. "I did not realize that I was being manipulated. (But) by the end of 3 days, I was blown away. My parents said I looked like I was on drugs.
"I had been taught that the world was facing Armageddon and that God had chosen me, and that Satan would work through the people I loved to try to talk me out of it. I was indoctrinated into distrusting my own thought processes and into believing that killing people was for their own good."
Hassan observes that many of the techniques that he encountered with the Moonies are evident in bin Laden's camps: "social isolation, controlling their sleep, showing them non-stop videos of Muslims dying, being buddied up, so that they're never alone. ... Destructive mind control strips away their ability to think for themselves."
The cult framework goes a little way to explaining the dissonance between who these hijackers were and what they eventually did on behalf of al-Qa'eda.
My sense of this was confirmed by John R. Hall, the co-author of Apocalypse Observed: Religious Movements and Violence in North America, Europe and Japan.
"There are two kinds of apocalyptic sects," he told me. "One kind engages in a withdrawal from society at large to another world, which they establish as a utopian heaven on earth." Most American cults fall into this category, Hall says, although they resort to violence if they feel threatened.
"The other kind of apocalyptic group," he says, "is the warring sect. It seeks to bring on the final battle of Armageddon by launching a holy war against the existing social order. Osama bin Laden's al-Qa'eda is definitely of the latter type; indeed, it is a classic case."
Many pundits are saying that the eradication of bin Laden will be fruitless unless certain "underlying causes" in the friction between East and West are addressed. But that presumes a rational stance in modern terrorism, and there is none.
America needs to get across to the Muslim world this absolutely essential fact: Bin Laden is not championing their cause or proposing to lead them to a better future. He wants to destroy the world, and that can be no sane man's cause.