Things were going from bad to worse for John Major. Though Labour’s lead in the polls had been slashed, it was still well in advance of the Conservative’s position. There was little hope that they could retain power at the next general election. The government majority, which had been at ten, was being eroded by a series of defections and by-election defeats. They lost all but eight councils in that year’s local elections and the party was rocked by numerous divisions, especially over Europe, and by a continuing series of scandals. Future prospects were bleak. In an attempt to reunite his party Major resigned as leader of the party, igniting a leadership election between himself and the recently resigned Secretary of State for Wales, John Redwood, the only other candidate to put themselves forward.
Redwood, a prominent euro-sceptic, had the backing of Secretary for Trade and Industry Norman Tebbit and of tabloid newspaper The Sun. In the case of the latter, in one headline they referred to the leadership election as being ‘Redwood vs. Deadwood.’ Despite this support, much of the media dismissed Redwood as a no hoper, backed by right wing mavericks, and nicknaming him ‘the Vulcan’ due to his penchant for citing logic in arguments and debates. Major’s battle cry, meanwhile, was that this was a case of ‘put up or shut up,’ the former being exactly what almost the entire party did. With the backing of the entire cabinet, Major won the contest at the first ballot by a forty percent margin. During the campaign, Redwood’s camp prophesied that a Major victory would be a disaster for both the Conservative Party and for the country.
It is definitely true that Major’s victory was a disaster for the Conservative party, though given their standing in the country at the time there was precious little chance that any leader could have guided them to victory at the ninety seven election. Without a doubt, Redwood could not have done so. Whilst the party did indeed cease bickering over Europe for the moment and whilst there were no more scandals during their remaining two years in power, Major’s weak leadership was still front and centre. He failed to bring any unity to the party and the run up to ninety seven would see his slim House of Commons majority slashed by numerous defections and by-election defeats. The road was opening for Anthony Blair and the Labour Party to seize control.
To re-elect Major to the Conservative leadership was, in hindsight, a foolish mistake for the Conservative party. They would have fared little better under Redwood, but re-electing Major was the bigger mistake. Major was tired and worn out after less than five years in office. He was a politician bereft of life. The Conservative party, after sixteen years in office, were in an even worse state. They were even more tired and worn out. But that was the way of the way of the world in ninety five, tired and worn out. Prospects for the future were bleak and the world was becoming an increasingly violent and dangerous place. There seemed no end to the blood and brutality that had stained much of the news since the fall of the Berlin Wall. It just carried on, unabated, only growing in severity. John Major’s troubles looked petty and insignificant by comparison. Instead of the violence now coming from outside, however, the enemy was inside the gates. The violence permeating society was becoming home grown.
Aum Shinrikyo was a Japanese doomsday cult founded as a yoga class in the one bedroom apartment of Shoko Asahara (real name Chizuo Matsumoto) in 1984. Over a period of ten years it had developed a doctrine of the apocalypse culled from various world religions as well as from the supposed prophecies of Nostradamus. By ninety two Asahara was proclaiming himself the risen Christ and declaring that the world would end in a nuclear Armageddon started by the United States. He also cited a global conspiracy in which the world was run by Freemasons, Jews and the British royal family.
Asahara was not alone in thinking that the end was nigh or that the world was being run by a secret cabal. Figures such as David Icke (who also claimed to be the son of God) were becoming more prevalent and were being given increasing amounts of publicity by sensationalist magazines and television talk shows. In Icke’s case he ludicrously reckoned that the royal family were reptile shape-shifters. Mostly, they were cranks and crackpots. They were harmless to everyone but themselves. Asahara and Aum Shinrikyo, however, soon took a much darker turn.
The group began to plot the assassination of their critics and it is alleged that they also conducted a campaign of extortion upon certain individuals. In ninety three they began to manufacture deadly nerve agent Sarin, as well as VX gas. A year later they conducted their first atrocity, a nerve agent attack in Matsumoto city, Nagano prefecture. Eight people were killed and five hundred injured in the attack. The main targets of the attack, it was later discovered, were judges who were presiding over criminal charges brought against the group.
Ninety five would see Aum Shinrikyo’s reign of terror reach its height. In February the group kidnapped Kiyoshi Kariya, whose sister had fled from the group. Kariya was tortured for his sister’s whereabouts and eventually killed before his body was destroyed in an industrial microwave incinerator. Following the abduction police planned several raids upon the cult, although Asahara was forewarned and in response he orchestrated one of the deadliest chemical weapons attacks of modern times.
Five packets of Sarin nerve agent were left on trains around the Tokyo Metro; on the Chiyoda line, the Hibiya line and the Marunouchi line. The perpetrators punctured each packet with an umbrella before departing the train, releasing the agent upon unsuspecting commuters and metro workers. Considering the Tokyo Metro is one of the busiest in the world, fatalities were relatively few, only twelve, but at least fifty people were left critically ill and almost one thousand people were injured in total.
The attack led the police to arrest prominent members of Aum Shinrikyo, including Asahara, who was discovered hiding in the wall of the cult headquarters, and the seizure of cult assets. Asahara was tried and sentenced to death by hanging in two thousand and four, but as yet this has not been carried out. This was not, unfortunately, the end of the cult, which reformed itself as ‘Aleph.’ They are still considered dangerous, although they now claim to be non-violent.
Radicalism and fanaticism were becoming increasingly problematic and Aum Shinrikyo were only one of many groups indoctrinating and radicalising people across the world. Throughout the eighties and early nineties there were a growing number of them.
One such group was the Branch Davidians, which had been founded as a Christian sect in the fifties. By the nineties they had become less a harmless sect and more of a potentially dangerous doomsday cult. This was almost entirely due to the man who had seized control in the eighties, Vernon Howell, who believed himself to be a ‘chosen one’ and ‘final prophet’ and encouraged his followers that the end was nigh. He was also, allegedly guilty of numerous sexual and child abuses, claiming that God had told him to procreate with as many women as possible. Hypocritically, he also issued instructions that the other men of the cult were to remain celibate.
In ninety three, acting on the knowledge that the cult were illegally stockpiling weapons, the ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms) launched a raid on the cult’s Mount Carmel compound near Waco, Texas. For a large variety of reasons, though there was a good and legitimate motive behind the investigation and the raid, it was not executed in as competent a manner as it could have been. Howell came to know of the impending raid and began making preparations to defend the Mount Carmel Compound. What resulted was a fifty one day siege that only ended, on April 19th, when the FBI attempted to assault the compound with tanks and tear gas, igniting fuel that Howell had instructed his followers to spread about the main building. In all seventy nine cultists, including Howell, perished in the fire. It was a terrible, horrific end to what should have been a simple, no-fuss raid due to alleged wrongdoing.
Though they were radicals and fanatics, Howell and his followers were not a widespread danger. They were no immediate threat to the general public. They may have become one, in time, but like many of the radical groups that were starting to emerge they posed little, if any, threat. Where they turned out to be most dangerous was in the people and the groups which they and their downfall inspired. The US had long had troubles with far right groups, fascism and in particular white supremacism, going back at least as far as the civil war, but by the eighties they were growing in strength, confidence and number. Such groups had embedded themselves in the belief that the US should be an entirely white, Christian nation and they convinced themselves that the second amendment, the right to bear arms, was ingrained, immutable and God given. Such Neo-Nazi and right wing groups saw the siege at Waco as a direct attack, by the American government, on their Christian, white, gun-toting way of life. Never mind that Howell had been illegally stockpiling weapons, indoctrinating people or abusing children, according to them Waco was no more than the government dismantling their liberties and freedoms. The country was, in the words of some, turning into a police state. Other events, such as another FBI standoff at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, in ninety two, and the passing of the Brady Bill to make it more difficult to obtain handguns and firearms by instituting background checks in ninety three, fuelled their anger and their belief that the US government had declared war on its own people.
One such zealot, disillusioned with the US Government after serving in Iraq and radicalised by Nazi groups through frequent attendance at gun shows throughout the country, was Timothy McVeigh. McVeigh was one of those who looked at the Waco siege and saw only what they wanted to see, an attack by the FBI on an ‘innocent’ Christian community. As a result, he planned a reprisal attack and it was to prove one of the most shocking acts perpetrated by a US citizen upon their own country. Inspired by the plot of a right wing novel, on the morning of the nineteenth April ninety five, exactly two years after the horrific end to the Waco siege, McVeigh parked a rented truck outside the Alfred P Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. The truck was filled with enough explosive material to bring down half of the eight storey building within moments of the detonation. One hundred and sixty eight people, many of them federal employees, were killed in the blast. Nineteen of those killed were children who had been deposited in the building’s daycare facility.
The bombing sent shockwaves across the US and though initially people believed it was an attack by a foreign power, with McVeigh soon caught they came to realize that this was actually an attack perpetrated by an American citizen. Though he acted, with the exception of assistance from two associates, alone, McVeigh was still the product of radicalisation. He was a construct of the right-wing movements spreading across the US and, more importantly, he was a construct of the US’s actions on the world stage. His disillusionment with the US government had begun in Iraq, during the Gulf War, a conflict that would yet go on to have ramifications for the entire world. This particular attempt, led by George Bush, to police the world, had bred in McVeigh the perfect candidate for radicalisation and fanaticism. It was against his own people that he turned, pushed towards the atrocity by others who were also turning against the US government and US society.
Alas, because McVeigh was largely a lone nut, those who radicalised him were given free reign to continue. Though America was shocked, disturbed and devastated by the bombing, McVeigh’s motivations were not thoroughly probed. Instead, motivation was placed largely as a reprisal for the Waco siege and the gun culture and fascistic Neo-Nazi groups remained untouched. This allowed them to go on strengthening, using the still fledgling internet as a breeding ground for new followers. It would reach a point where they were able to link up with other groups around the world and become not just a threat to the US and US democracy, but to the world at large.
Though in much of the world the radical, zealot groups were on the fringe, in some places these same zealots held sway. They were in control. Nowhere was this more in evidence than in the Balkans, and in Bosnia in particular. War there, between Bosnian-Serb nationalists and those who wished to see an independent Bosnia, free from Serbian control and influence, had been raging since ninety two but ninety five would see it reach the peak of its barbarity. Under the guidance of Ratko Mladic, a general in the Bosnian-Serb Army, over eight thousand Muslim Bosniaks were massacred in the space of just eleven days.
The enclave of Srebrenica had been declared a UN safe zone back in ninety three but by June of ninety five, following months of intense siege and a growing humanitarian crisis, the Bosnian-Serb Army, the VRS, were able to take over the enclave. It has been suggested, in the years since, that the leading UN powers in the area, Britain, France and the US, allowed Srebrenica to fall for the sake of ‘peace at any cost.’ This was despite continual warnings that there would be genocide as well as Mladic’s boasts that once taken Srebrenica would be ‘drowning in blood.’
In the days that followed the fall scenes of medieval brutality ensued. The executions began quickly, often in large numbers at a time. Over eight thousand men, women and children were all slain, though the majority were men and boys, often in sadistic and brutal ways. Many of the woman were also raped, held down by the Serb soldiers and ravished in the most sickening of ways.
The UN security forces present at the time, who were mainly Dutch, did little to stop the bloodshed and the horror. Those who sought shelter and protection were expelled from the UN headquarters, given over to the VRS, whilst soldiers also stood by and allowed families to be separated, allowed the men to be taken away. There is also a strong possibility that many of them knew executions were taking place and did nothing to stop them. The truth was there was little they could do. They were in a helpless position, at the mercy of the VRS forces themselves, and had little option but to let events progress. This does not, however, excuse the fact that what they could have done, such as give people their protection and shelter when they asked for it, they did not do.
It is clear that there was knowledge of the massacre from almost the start, especially by the US. Again, nothing was done. There was no intervention, no saving grace. Fresh UN forces were not drafted into the area to stop the barbarity. Reports say that CIA observers even watched live footage of the massacres taking place. These were the men who were supposed to be helping to bring peace to the area, helping to stop the barbarity. Instead they allowed it to continue. By their inaction they became complicit in the worst war crime of the Post-Soviet era. Denials of knowledge have of course been made, especially by US diplomats and high ranking members of the UN security council, but these denials are paper thin and it is almost certain that, even if full details were not known, there was awareness that the VRS and the Bosnian-Serbs were committing atrocities towards the Bosniaks.
What makes Srebrenica more difficult to stomach is that the massacre was not the work of some foreign power or invading force, but of fellow Bosnians. They may have been of a different ethnicity, but that does not change the fact that those who killed and those who were brutalized, tortured and massacred were citizens of the same nation, were all Bosnians. Alas, as that nation was divided amongst ethnic and political lines, the Bosniaks became the victims of zealous hatred and of the barbarities that civil wars like that in Bosnia thrive upon. Yes, the Bosnian War was finally brought to an awkward end in December of that year, with the country divided into two, but it was too late for the people of Srebrenica who had needlessly suffered immeasurable heartache and grief.
There was little to be cheerful about in ninety five. From one end to the other it seemed like misery and grief. There was political infighting and on the domestic front, around the world, citizens were turning against each other, falling prey to zealotry and bigotry and radicalization. It seemed like our greatest enemies were those akin to ourselves, to our fellow countrymen, to our neighbours, even perhaps to our friends. Any sense of toleration, any sense of respect for other beliefs or ways of life, started to say goodbye by way of the window. Violence had been brewing and spreading for years, on a national and international stage, and now we finally lost any chance of claiming we lived in a civilized society. For all our technologies and fancy gadgets and sophisticated ways of living, we had slipped back, socially, into the middle ages.