Many experts have noted that not only has the number of groups called "cults" has grown substantially in the past twenty years, they have also gained considerable momentum and influence within the United States.
A featured presentation about destructive cults at the 2002 annual convention for the American Psychological Association (APA) drew this comment from its President Dr. Philip G. Zimbardo, "When some organizations that promote religious or self-growth agendas become rich enough to wield power to suppress media exposés, influence legal judgments or publicly defame psychology, how can they be challenged?"
Zimbardo observations were published within the APA's Monitor.
Groups that have often been called "cults" such as Scientology and Rev. Moon's Unification Church have in fact become "rich enough" to "wield the power" Zimbardo talks about. Within the United States and internationally these two "cults" alone control billions of dollars.
Scientology and the Unification Church have acquired political power that reaches all the way to the White House. This was demonstrated by Scientology's unprecedented access during the Clinton Administration and the special relationship Rev. Moon has with the Bush Family.
It remains to be seen how Moon's influence may impact the so-called "Faith Based Initiative" proposed by President George W. Bush, which would fund religious programs with government money.
Rev. Moon's influence on Capital Hill cannot be denied. He has become part of its establishment, largely through control of the Washington Times. And Moon also courts religious and political leaders through banquets, celebrations and conferences, which are well attended.
Groups like Scientology and the Unification Church also have funded efforts to "suppress media" and "influence legal judgements."
Scientology has arguably turned litigation into something of a religious rite.
Time Magazine published the cover story, "Scientology: The Cult of Greed," and was promptly sued for $400 million dollars. Even though Scientology lost, the litigation cost Time millions of dollars and took years to resolve. This produced a substantial chilling effect within the media, which served to suppress stories about the controversial church in the United States.
Likewise, Scientology has made a point of going after its critics personally. This has included defamation, libel and personal injury. The net result is that many that might expose the group don't - due it seems largely to fear.
The Unification Church has frequently funded efforts to "influence legal judgements." Notably an ongoing campaign through academic surrogates to discredit research about cults.
Some years ago the APA itself became involved through the filing of a "friend of the court brief." That brief effectively would have helped the Unification Church in its defense regarding a personal injury lawsuit filed by a former member. However, the brief was later withdrawn.
Dr. Dick Anthony was the psychologist largely responsible for that effort. Anthony continues to work for groups called "cults" and is paid $3,500 per day for his efforts. One of his employers is Scientology, which also recommends him, through a front organization called the "reformed Cult Awareness Network."
Defenders of "cults" such as Anthony are anxious to disprove the "theory of mind control."
However, Zimbardo has acknowledged the existence of mind control. He stated, "Mind control is the process by which individual or collective freedom of choice and action is compromised by agents or agencies that modify or distort perception, motivation, affect, cognition and/or behavioral outcomes."
But how does this ultimately affect the general public?
In a survey done in 1980 by Zimbardo of more than 1,000 high school students in the San Francisco Bay area 54% reported a cult had attempted to recruit them and 40% said they had experienced multiple attempts.
Certainly on college campuses groups like the "International Church of Christ" (ICC), which has often been called a "cult," are very active. The ICC has been banned by many colleges and universities, due largely to its aggressive recruitment practices.
And cults are not restricted exclusively to large metropolitan areas or schools. They are increasingly active in small towns and rural areas. In some situations groups called "cults" eventually exercise considerable influence within the small communities they inhabit.
A recent example is the "Fellowship of Friends," which has been called a "cult." The group led by Robert Burton has a troubled history in Yuba County, a rural area in California. Likewise the group known as the "Twelve Tribes" has moved into small towns in upstate New York.
The parallels between cults and terrorist groups cannot be ignored.
A charismatic and totalitarian leader who supposedly speaks for God dominates many terrorist groups, not unlike destructive cults.
What is the difference ultimately then, between suicide at Jonestown and the suicide bombers of al-Qaeda?
Each group had devoted followers willing to die for its cause. Jim Jones called this an act of "revolutionary suicide," Osama bin-Laden said it was "Jihad." But in the end the mindset is the same.
In the end the only practical difference between bin Laden and Jim Jones is the level of destruction wrought by their madness. The group dynamics that produce the tragedy are essentially the same.
Zimbardo concluded, "Understanding the dynamics and pervasiveness of situational power is essential to learning how to resist it and to weaken the dominance of the many agents of mind control who ply their trade daily on all of us behind many faces and fronts."
It seems that "mind control" has become a modern mental health hazard. However, this illness unlike others, can potentially affect more than the personal lives of individuals.
This was first made clear through a horrific gas attack upon Tokyo's subways by the cult Aum in 1995.
Today that realization is even more painful whenever we see the changed Manhattan skyline.