I like to think that no historical event, no matter how horrific, is unexplainable. There are those who say that certain horrors—the Holocaust being the one where this comes up most frequently—defy explanation, but I don’t buy that. The Holocaust may be the worst of all the historical things, but it’s the result of historical processes and these can be understood, more or less. But when they say that it’s “unexplainable,” they’re generally referring not to the historical processes in question but rather to the moral question: How could people do this?
It becomes especially troublesome when the participation in the slaughter in question is on a large scale; during the Rwandan genocide, thousands upon thousands of ethnic Hutus butchered their Tutsi neighbors. And to speak bleakly, the Rwandan genocide required mass participation in a way that the Holocaust didn’t. The Holocaust was mechanized, industrialized slaughter, whereas the Rwandan genocide was perpetrated in one of the poorest countries in the world, by a Third World army and militias armed with machetes. It was very low-tech killing, but in the one hundred days or so during which the Rwandan genocide took place, they actually managed, by some calculations, to kill more efficiently than did the Nazis.
The Cambodian genocide that took place during the relatively brief regime of the Khmer Rouge (1975-79) is comparable to the Rwandan genocide in terms of the low-tech methods of slaughter employed. First, there’s just starvation, which doesn’t require any positive action on the part of the killer, but merely his willingness to inflict deprivation on his victim. But it seems like much of the killing, at least as it was discussed in Rob Lemkin’s and Thet Sambath’s Enemies of the People, (2009) was perpetrated with knives and sharpened bamboo poles.
Lemkin’s and Thet’s documentary follows Thet as, over a period of years, he carries out filmed interviews with perpetrators of the Khmer Rouge atrocities, many of whom are free and carrying on with their lives; Thet’s interviews range from the lowest-ranking of killers all the way up to Nuon Chea, the so-called “Brother No. 2,” whose authority in the Khmer Rouge was second only to that of Pol Pot himself (Pol Pot was Brother No. 1). Thet—whose parents, brother, and sister all died under the Khmer Rouge—gives these people a platform in which to explain themselves and it’s in these interviews that we face the question that I raised at the beginning of this post: How could people do such things? Amongst the lower-ranking killers, Thet and Lemkin focus on two men named Suon and Khoun, who probably killed dozens of people combined, if not more, during their time in the Khmer Rouge (neither of them produces a specific number of victims, although Suon evidently killed enough people that, as he explains it, his hand grew tired from slitting throats, and he switched over to just stabbing people in the neck). And when we see them now, in late middle age (for so many of the killers and torturers of the Khmer Rouge regime were young, even in their teens, during that period, a fact emphasized in Rithy Panh’s equally exacting and depressing documentary, S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (2003), which is worth watching), they don’t look like bad people, nor do they look like murderers. Thet demonstrates an amazing restraint with these men, given that they’re the same type of people who killed his family. But I suspect he’s struck by it too, that these men may once have been killers, but they’re not anymore. Now they’re just trying to live. And to Suon’s and Khoun’s credit, they both seem genuinely remorseful for their crimes (Suon especially; he says he feels desolate and he fears he’ll be reincarnated through many levels of Hell before again obtaining a human rebirth; his large eyes carry an enormous pathos and one could definitely say of him that he “looks” hunted and haunted.) But every time one feels inclined to sympathize with them, we hear more of their terrible crimes, including the killing of children and the practice of drinking from the gall bladders of their victims (Khoun explains how a higher-up told him that human gall could cure dengue fever).
Nuon Chea is not nearly as repentant. Apparently Thet spent years gaining his trust and establishing a rapport with him in numerous conversations over time, before he finally got Nuon to speak openly about the Khmer Rouge regime and its crimes (the first time that a Khmer Rouge leader had ever done so, according to Thet). Nuon appears to be something of a true believer; if not, he’s very good at faking it. When he begins to talk of the killings, he speaks of the necessity of protecting Cambodia from Vietnamese and American spies who were trying to sabotage the party (I have never heard an explanation for how the Khmer Rouge reconciled the cognitive dissonance necessary to sustain a belief in the machinations of a Vietnamese-American anti-Cambodian alliance). Nuon says quite chillingly that if he had to choose between the well-being of the nation versus the well-being of an individual, he would always choose the nation. He expresses regret over the innocents who were murdered (he makes the doubtful claim that he and Pol Pot were unaware of what was going on in the rural areas), but it never enters his head that everybody who was killed was undeserving of death.
There’s a remarkable scene in which the septuagenarian Nuon watches footage of Saddam Hussein’s execution on the news and asks Thet, “Is this real?”
Thet’s relationship with Nuon is fascinating, because there clearly exists some kind of camaraderie between the two. Thet describes his years-long relationship with Nuon in terms of a collaborative process, as they’re both working towards Thet’s goal of documenting the confessions of Khmer Rouge murderers (the extent to which Nuon would have seen their relationship in these terms is more dubious). At the beginning of the film, Thet states explicitly that he has lied to Nuon about his family, stating that his parents died in the 1980’s of causes unrelated to the Khmer Rouge regime. It is only near the end of the film, as Nuon’s indictment on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity looms, that Thet chooses to reveal to Nuon the truth about his family. Nuon seems to be rendered almost speechless, and then he says that he’s terribly sorry for what happened to them. And then shortly thereafter, Nuon is arrested and incarcerated for his trial, and that’s the end of his interviews with Thet.
Perhaps we cannot fully understand or “explain” how events like the Cambodian genocide can happen, but we can at least describe them. And looking back on this post, I think I’ve done more describing—“Thet said this,” “Nuon said that”—than explaining. And I think I find myself at something of a loss here for what to say about the matter. Thet seems to have done so as well; near the end of the film, he says (and I’m paraphrasing): “I guess I feel bad that Nuon was taken away, even though I know I shouldn’t.” And of course I know that Nuon Chea has committed horrible atrocities. But when we seem him in this film, he’s an old man, dandling an infant grandchild or great grandchild on his knee, harming no one. I feel compassion for him despite myself (or rather, despite himself), and so does Thet, who has far more reason to hate Nuon Chea that I do.
I am reminded of a line by William T. Vollmann, in his essay detailing his liberation of a child prostitute in Thailand. He goes to see the girl’s father, who literally sold her into sex slavery, to essentially “buy” her away from him, thusly securing her freedom. And he goes into it ready to hate and revile the father, and its starts out that way, but he concludes by saying, “He didn’t seem like a bad person. Most people aren’t.” Nuon Chea doesn’t seem like a bad person either; but I know that he is.
It is difficult, in forming moral judgments, to deal with the fact that nobody is evil all the time. The man who once committed murder must later sit down and eat breakfast. In describing Adolf Eichmann, Hannah Arendt coined the phrase “the banality of evil,” which has become such a cliché that it has almost been entirely drained of meaning. But what I think she’s trying to convey by it is that very few people who do bad things are spectacular monsters. They’re just normal people who have it in them to commit the most atrocious and unforgivable crimes.
At present, I have nothing else to say on the matter, other than to note that Nuon Chea and several other high-ranking Khmer Rouge figures are currently on trial in Phnom Penh. All of them are in their eighties. It is hoped that they will live long enough to receive a verdict (rather than trying all the charges at once, eat charge will get its own trial, the idea being to make sure that they live long enough to be convicted of something; I suspect the examples of Milosevic and Pinochet, both of whom died during their trials, have not been lost on the Cambodian prosecutors.) Anyway, I don’t doubt that Khmer Rouge leaders on trial deserve to be there.