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Mass murder relies on people like us

Posted by on May. 18, 2014 at 8:18 PM
  • 5 Replies

This is a long but fascinating interview with author Thierry Cruvellier. A fantastic analysis of international tribunals, genocide, who is to blame, and the humanity of mass murderers. It's worth the read. 


MAY 16, 2014

MASS MURDER RELIES ON PEOPLE LIKE US: AN INTERVIEW WITH THIERRY CRUVELLIER

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In Phnom Penh, between 1975 and 1979—the years of Khmer Rouge terror that Cambodians often refer to simply as Pol Pot Time—a former schoolteacher named Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Duch, orchestrated the torture and execution of at least twelve thousand men, women, and children. The Khmer Rouge murdered close to two million Cambodians in that period. That’s what their particular brand of Communist revolution amounted to: killing. Duch wasn’t one of the masterminds, but he was their zealous servant, and he was entrusted with the command of S-21, the prison where Khmer Rouge cadres were sent to be purged. The purges were constant. While ordinary Cambodian civilians were killed on an industrial scale and without ceremony, it was Duch’s mission to insure that everyone held at S-21 was broken down until they confessed to counter-revolutionary crimes—working for the C.I.A., say, or for the K.G.B., or for both, even though most prisoners had never heard of either agency before Duch’s torturers went to work—and then he had them slaughtered.


Duch didn’t expect to survive the revolution: he had sent most of his own mentors to their deaths, and, by the logic of S-21, his time, too, would come to confess and be condemned. But, before that happened, a renegade group of Khmer Rouge officers backed by Vietnam drove the Pol Potists from power. Duch had kept excellent records of his work; unlike nearly everyone else in the revolutionary hierarchy, he had failed to destroy them in the end. So, in the nineteen-nineties, when it was discovered that he had survived, there was no denying his crimes. By then, he had converted to Christianity, and he said he repented of his career as a Khmer Rouge murderer. That made him singular. In 2009, thirty years after he fled S-21, he was the first Khmer Rouge figure to be brought to trial before a newly established, U.N.-run tribunal in Phnom Penh. And, luckily, Thierry Cruvellier, who has spent the past fifteen years observing international war-crimes prosecutions more closely than any other reporter and writer, was there for every day of Duch’s trial.

Duch was an intensely engaged participant in his own trial, and Cruvellier gave his exceptionally fine portrait of the man and his judgment the double-edged title “The Master of Confessions.” When the book originally appeared, in France, Cruvellier was immediately acclaimed as a master in his own right—a deeply informed and deeply thoughtful observer of the legal, political, moral, and psychological complexity of his subject. He is an elegant, understated writer, with a keen and rigorous intellect, and a wry, quiet wit. We first met and became friends in May of 1995, in Kigali—his first book, “Court of Remorse,” drew on the five years he spent at the U.N.’s Rwanda tribunal—and, shortly after the American publication of “The Master of Confessions,” last month, we began this e-mail interview.

You’re the only journalist who has attended all the post-Cold War international tribunals. You’ve spent years watching these trials. What drew you to them? What kept you going back? How has your view of them evolved?

I was drawn to war-crimes justice because of Rwanda. The 1994 genocide was a defining event for our generation. I began working in Rwanda in the immediate aftermath, so covering the trials seemed like a logical way to keep working on this event. And I quickly realized how fascinating these trials could be, at so many different levels: historical, political, diplomatic, legal, psychological, philosophical. My great interest in the trials was as a window, on the one hand, into our human condition in extreme circumstances, and the choices individuals make (or lack) in such situations; and, on the other hand, into the historical complexity of the dynamic of genocide at the central level. A courtroom presents an extraordinary opportunity to observe such out-of-scale human tragedy and its political background, through the reasonably accessible life and actions of an individual and a wonderfully varied cast of supporting characters. For a writer, this is incredibly rich territory—just as long as you are ready to bear the boredom, the mediocrity, and the disillusionment.

The good thing about working on the same story over a long period of time is that you tend to get better at what you’re doing. The bad thing about working too long on mass violence is that it doesn’t make you a happier man.

You are often sharply critical, even damning, in your account of these courts. Are we better off with them than we were without them?

It’s true that I can be very harsh on these institutions and on those who run them. Historically, it is understandable that these judicial experiments had to be tested and developed, and some have been more convincing than others, at different stages. But, in the beginning, when the Rwanda tribunal got under way, most of us were quite naïve; we thought that this was our Nuremberg. In fact, the quality, efficiency, and sense of purpose of international tribunals—and of the International Criminal Court, which is their heir—have deteriorated steadily over the past decade.

The Duch trial had its shortcomings, of course. The prosecutor’s office, for instance, was very weak. Yet it remains by far one of the most complete, fair, and valuable trials I have covered. The “mixed” nature of the court, with equal participation of Cambodians and internationals; the fact that it took place in the country, in Phnom Penh; and the fact that victims were accepted as full parties to the proceedings made this trial much more relevant and “real” than those held in The Hague.

Journalists and historians lay a lot of blame for the destruction of Cambodia and Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia on the actions and inactions of major Western powers. But tribunals never consider such outside responsibility. Do you think that they could or should?

Genocide is primarily a national affair. The way Rwandan Hutus and Khmer Rouge cadres decided to instigate or join the killings, or the way top leaders orchestrated, instigated, or gradually got into the mechanics of mass murder are not decisively linked to the support they may have got from outside. The responsibilities of foreign governments—and of France in Rwanda, in particular—seem to work at a different level than what is defined by international criminal law. Technically, criminal courts can only deal with individual responsibility, which makes it highly difficult to link a foreign state to the crime. Ultimately, the genocide is conceived and committed by nationals.

Then, of course, there’s a more embarrassing reason these courts don’t go after foreign responsibility: judges and prosecutors don’t want to get into trouble with permanent members of the U.N. Security Council or Secretariat, which pays most of their salaries. It’s an obvious weakness of these tribunals, but perhaps it’s just not their function. Their credibility problem may lie much more in the poor quality of the investigations, and in the fact that only the weak are prosecuted.

You make the key point that the Duch trial was the first international tribunal case to address the crimes of Communism. The Rwanda and Yugoslavia courts, like the prosecutions at Nuremberg and Tokyo, dealt with crimes of ultra-nationalist regimes, which you identify as ideologies of the right. Only the Cambodia tribunal has addressed the crimes of the left, and you say that made human-rights lawyers notably uneasy. You say they had great difficulty addressing the connection between Communist ideology and systematic mass murder. You say that much of the tribunal crowd preferred to imagine the Khmer Rouge as noble until it went awry and became vile—and that some were outright fellow-travellers. For instance, the woman hired by the U.N. to handle Khmer Rouge victims at the Duch trial was an unrepentant Maoist. Why was that? And how did this sympathy for the left affect the general atmosphere of the trial?

There is a historical lineage between the far left and the human-rights movement. In the nineteen-sixties, after Stalin’s terror was widely acknowledged; in the seventies, after Solzhenitsyn’s denunciation of the Gulag; and then, finally, in the eighties, after the horrors of Pol Pot were fully revealed, many Western intellectuals moved from the discredited and disgraced Marxism-Leninism to the ideals of universal human rights. As opposed to the boredom of prosaic reforms, advocating for human rights is, in its own way, another grandiose and poetic enterprise where we, as a people, fight against exploiters. As the French philosopher Raymond Aron astutely noted, human rights, as a political philosophy, is based on a notion of purity. It’s not about taking responsibility for a decision “in unpredicted circumstances, based on incomplete knowledge”—that’s politics, said Aron. Instead, human rights function as a refuge for utopia.

What was interesting to observe at the Khmer Rouge tribunal was that former Western Maoists or fellow-travellers were not transformed, when they became disillusioned with Communism, into skeptical minds. They now presented themselves as human-rights defenders. The appeal of “pure” ideologies seemed irresistible to them. Revolutionaries get indignant about police abuse or ruthless capitalism, and then forgive, in the name of the revolution, every injustice they had otherwise denounced. Interestingly, the moral indignation of human-rights activists can suddenly be silenced when institutions that they helped create and that were supposed to exemplify their ideals—such as international war-crimes tribunals—start violating the very principles they have claimed to stand for. They say that criticism would serve the “enemies” of justice. They begin to accept that the end justifies the means. Double standards widely apply. The drive that often made them efficient when they worked in a hostile environment now, when they are empowered, transforms into an intransigence that can make them very insensitive to realities that don’t fit their ideological paradigm. International tribunals can be a harsh reminder that injustice and unfairness are not incompatible with humanist intentions.

At the Cambodia tribunal, a surprising number of Westerners who did not come from the far left also showed a level of sympathy for the “good intentions” of the Communist project. As a result, the trial was never going to be a trial of Communism as a political philosophy. Instead, it was all about Pol Potism, circumscribed and vilified as a despicable betrayal of a genuine revolutionary ideal. Such leniency would not be seen at trials against ideologies of the right.

To the extent that Duch defended himself, he claimed that he was just following orders. At one point, he says, “We had to obey or else we would be killed.… We were all victims.” His record at S-21 suggests there was a lot of truth to that claim. So what do you make of Duch’s claim that he was guilty only of serving a bad cause?

I find the situation under Democratic Kampuchea to be different than Rwanda under Hutu Power or Germany under the Nazis. In Pol Pot’s Cambodia, it appears that even if you were on the right side (i.e., you were a certified member of the Communist Party), you couldn’t fight or flee, and even if you obeyed with zeal you stood a significant chance of being killed in mass purges. About eighty per cent of Duch’s victims were Khmer Rouge themselves. From 1976 on, he was essentially a Khmer Rouge killing Khmer Rouge. In that context, the classic claim of perpetrators, that they “had to obey orders,” is much harder to reject as just a bad excuse. That doesn’t lessen the crimes of the Khmer Rouge. It just makes it far more presumptuous for us to say that we would have done better.

Human-rights professionals often speak of international courts and trials not only as instruments for sorting through the evidence and executing the law but, more grandly, as organs for establishing historical truth as the foundation for delivering justice. But you write, “The more trials you follow, the more you disbelieve everyone.” Why is that? How did your view of the nature and purpose of trials, their means and their ends, evolve over long years of observing them?

Perhaps it all boils down to the experience of hypocrisy. Beyond trying to sort out the evidence in a particular case within a particular set of rules, international tribunals have been burdened with a range of expectations, such as deterring other criminals, contributing to peace and reconciliation, establishing historical truth, providing closure to victims, etc. Supporters of international justice have widely used such goals to legitimatize and promote the courts. When it suits them, judges, prosecutors, and activists happily embrace their role as peace- and history-makers, in the name of the victims. But as soon as such expectations look far-fetched, or are necessarily betrayed, the same people quickly state that this is not what courts are for. Can you have it both ways?

Honesty, courage, and integrity are not primary values in the judicial world. Instead, the enterprise is wrapped up in the prestige of universal values and moral principles. The gap between the two realities—the way justice is done and the way it presents itself to the outside—is more shocking than in other fields because those who work or support these institutions do take the moral high ground, and also because the lives and the reputations of the suspects are at stake. International courts have always shown a remarkable lack of modesty as to what little they actually accomplish, and at a cost that is, whether they like it or not, increasingly shocking. As the gap widens, it turns to deceit. And you come out of the experience in disbelief.

You write of “the purely symbolic justice … opportunistically promoted by international law advocates,” and of the lynch-mob way in which all sorts of supposedly civilized people presume that anyone accused in an international tribunal is not just guilty but a monster. And you say that what Duch’s trial revealed to you was exactly the opposite: his humanity. You write, “Duch is not a psycho or a monster and that’s the problem.” Why, or for whom, is that a problem?

The humanity of individuals who become mass murderers like Duch is a repulsive notion to many people. I can assure you that the predominant reaction, regardless of social and educational background, is to say that they are not one of us. In fact, many people do not even understand how someone can go and defend them in court. When Duch’s lawyer, François Roux, chose to defend an accused man before the Rwanda tribunal, his many friends within human-rights organizations first took it as a betrayal.

Refusing Duch as one of us may give us peace of mind. It keeps us in the safe belief that if, God forbid, we happened to face extraordinary historical circumstances we would behave like heroes. But it doesn’t help us better understand how mass crimes develop and succeed through mass participation.

At the genocide museum in Phnom Penh, Duch’s victims are presented as victims, which they certainly were. But eighty per cent of them were themselves Khmer Rouge, and if they instead had been asked to be perpetrators the overwhelming majority would have obeyed. To accept that Duch tells us something about ourselves doesn’t mean we accept his crimes, and it doesn’t mean we risk showing him sympathy. It makes us think in more realistic terms about how mass murder operates and how it relies on people like us.

When Hannah Arendt wrote about Eichmann, she cast him as an archetypal figure, and she defined the archetype, forgivingly and inaccurately, with the phrase that has become such a cliché: “the banality of evil.” Of course, she attended only a few days of Eichmann’s trial. You were there for every day of Duch’s trial, and you represent him as neither banal nor simply evil but rather as complex and perplexing, brutal and misguided, and, above all, as human as the rest of us. So, with all your experience of war-crimes trials and the war criminals they present to us, do you see him as typical? Or is he exceptional among the defendants you’ve observed?

He is both. He was typical in his struggle with the atrocities he committed—a mix of emotionless acknowledgment, denial on specifics, acceptance of irrefutable facts, and questioning of weaker allegations—as well as in his search for excuses: the duty to obey, fear under duress, etc. He was more exceptional in his capacity to reflect on ideologies and political systems, and in his obvious long experience and expertise in human psychology, which allowed him to assess his various interlocutors in many subtle ways. He is also endowed with two remarkable skills: an astonishing memory and great mental strength.

Who, in the end, benefitted from Duch’s trial? Was it good for the victims? Was it good for the nation? Was it good for human rights? Was it good for international law? Was it good for the rest of the surviving Khmer Rouge, including Hun Sen and his crowd?

A single trial of a single man for a crime of such nature and magnitude is obviously a form of absurdity. The second Cambodia trial, involving the last two surviving top members of the regime, was much more significant, but Duch is likely to remain the symbol of Pol Pot’s murderous regime in people’s memory. Similarly, S-21 itself, a prison mostly devoted to the killing of Khmer Rouge by Khmer Rouge, has become the ambiguous genocide museum in Cambodia. That’s something of a historical travesty. So, yes, it was probably largely to the benefit of Hun Sen’s regime, which can claim to have defeated the Khmer Rouge and to have brought them to justice without ever letting the process implicate him or a number of other top officials, some of whom were superior to Duch under Pol Pot.

As for the victims, it is always very difficult to assess what they really get from a trial, but perhaps some of Duch’s victims felt they got some response to their suffering. For the millions of others who didn’t lose their relatives at S-21, I don’t know. Still, this very limited judicial enterprise, and the momentum that the Duch trial created, have been decisive in allowing, for the first time, a national public debate on the Khmer Rouge era. In 2009, while the Duch trial was ending, a short history of Pol Pot’s Democratic Kampuchea was finally introduced in the history curriculum. For thirty years, that history had not been officially taught in Cambodia.

On several occasions during the trial, Duch broke down. What was it, do you think, that got to him at those moments?

In my view, the moments when Duch broke down seemed to come essentially from genuine shame. But some victims and families saw it differently, and said they didn’t believe in his tears of regret. Some even saw in them a sign of Duch’s manipulative mind.

You also saw Duch laugh at times, and you saw him smile with something like amusement or bemusement. What made the killer of twelve thousand people or more smile? What made him laugh?

Duch often smiled and rarely laughed. But I found his bursting and uncontrolled laughter to be the most uncomfortable thing to deal with. What triggered his laughter was in no way funny—for instance, the testimony on the torture of one of his former subordinates that Duch found to be a fabrication.

His smiles, too, were often triggered by instances of human vulnerability: a lie, an exaggeration, a lack of education on the part of a witness, or the defeat of his opponent in court. And sometimes he smiled at moments of real intellectual agility from someone he admired. Duch’s smiles seemed to reveal both the arrogance of a clever man and his real, sarcastic sense of humor. In a way, they gave his intelligence its seduction and its menace.

At one point, Duch even compared the tribunal to S-21, as an institution by which a system of power imposed its idea of justice upon its disciples and captives alike. Am I reading you correctly when I say that you don’t exactly disagree?

Yes, of course. This was irony on the part of Duch, and Duch himself must undoubtedly prefer to be brought before this tribunal than before his staff of executioners at S-21. But, as a general remark, how could we not agree?

Photograph by Lauren Mulligan/The Times/Gallo Images/Getty.


Source

by on May. 18, 2014 at 8:18 PM
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Replies (1-5):
krysstizzle
by on May. 18, 2014 at 9:46 PM

BUMP!

AdrianneHill
by Platinum Member on May. 19, 2014 at 4:20 AM
1 mom liked this
Revolutionaries get indignant about police abuse or ruthless capitalism, and then forgive, in the name of the revolution, every injustice they had otherwise denounced"


Another unfortunate aspect of the human condition
AdrianneHill
by Platinum Member on May. 19, 2014 at 5:08 AM

Mobile Photo

I remember when this happened. It was very unsatisfying and I actively didn't follow it. I knew I couldn't deal with it at the time.
If anyone needs a reminder of what the banality of evil looks like, check out the handsome boy with the pretty smile. Is he smiling because he was looking at a hanging? a beating? Was he laughing at the journalist taking pictures. Laughing at the guy with the folding chair or the one who had been hanged until dead dead dead a long time before this point in the beating?

This is from thy Holiday in Cambodia poster from the dead Kennedys. It followed me from dorm room to apartment to apartment in college and always hung near my writing area. I always out it where my eyes would naturally fall while I was trying to write a paper or staring off into distance for some other reason. It did a wonderful job of focusing the mind on one's task. Of course it worked better for my political papers than any of my fiction or lit papers which were likely rather dark now that I think of it.
turtle68
by Mahinaarangi on May. 19, 2014 at 5:13 AM

Kristizzle...or anyone.  Can you break it down for me please?

I dont really understand where he gives his analysis on humanity of mass murderers....and who is to blame.

I read about Duch the man before, during and after his mass murders....nothing too surprising there.  How the international tribunals are essentially weak and not very good....again nothing surprising there.

I do like the irony of how duch compared the tribunal to the prisoner camp....it made sense.

This may be a bit over my head trying to look pass the words and more into the meanings....but I'd like to :-)

AdrianneHill
by Platinum Member on May. 19, 2014 at 4:23 PM
Bump
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