Nomological Net

Stray thoughts from here and there. The occasional concern for construct validity. No more logic. Fish.

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faults in the clouds of delusion

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Dropping Angkor (III): The hijack

It's almost allegorical. A full month after the pictures and the words, come the thoughts.

I'd ended the previous post with the words:

Yes, they are a very pleasant pippole, gentle, smiling, bowing, courteous. Hindu and Buddhist monuments co-exist, and have done so for over a thousand years. Rulers of different faiths did not pull down their predecessors' temples, at worst they defaced them -- turning Buddhas into lingams and vice versa. Yet it's stunning to think that less than thirty years ago, some of these very same Cambodians killed off over one in five of their countrymen. Thousands of them are crippled to this day, and millions of landmines remain strewn over their fields and forests. The country is one of the poorest in the world. We talk about India as a land of contrasts, but this contrast, between the cruelty of the country's present and recent past, and the patina provided by the serenity of its heritage, could not have been starker for me. Whence the beauty, whence the horror? My mind is enmeshed in this contradiction, and I'll try and post my thoughts about it in a few days.
It's been a month and no, I have not been able to resolve this contradiction. But I've thought a lot about it since I wrote that, and I've read a lot of stuff as well, including a couple of very informative books that I bought in Siem Reap. And in the face of multiple recent posts encountered on the topic of happiness (1, 2, 3), I really felt like I needed to talk about what I have learned.

The first book I read about Cambodia was the thinner of the two that I had bought. It's called "Daughter of the Killing Fields". It is an autobiographical account of the terror of life under the Khmer Rouge, written by someone who was four when the regime took over in 1975. One can read the book on three different levels -- as a historical document, for what it reveals about the author, and simply for the narrative and the presentation, i.e., as a book in itself.

The book is probably weakest when considered along the third dimension. While it is an intensely moving and deeply searing narrative, it reads like a draft. There are repetitions, redundancies, and the language is often self-conscious. This is a little unfortunate since the story is so incredibly powerful. Theary Seng, the author, had her father killed by the Khmer Rouge soon after they came to power -- ostensibly for the crime of being a teacher. She, along with her mother and brothers, was imprisoned soon afterwards, and her mother too was taken away one night while the children slept by her side. Somehow the siblings survived, and fled the country in 1980 after the regime was overthrown by the Vietnamese invasion. Reading the book, the privations described are scarcely credible -- the family traversed the country mostly on foot, food was scarce, freedoms of all sorts non-existent, the country had been driven back to "year zero" and, of course, people were being killed everywhere. The fields were full of shallow graves that victims were made to dig before being bludgeoned on the back of the head with an axe. As one reads the book, the strength and desperation in the author's character flood through. It takes a special person to survive the killings of one in five of her compatriots, and the scars are still raw -- even after thirty years, even though she was too young to comprehend or analyze what was happening.

I know most will not have the time to read the book but do spare half an hour if you can and watch Theary Seng on BBC's HardTalk. Step out of your skin and look at the pain in the eyes of a truly remarkable person.

The third level at which one may read the book is as a historical document. I found it very useful as an introduction to this horrible piece of history that passed me by during the course of my lifetime. As I read the book, I couldn't believe that I had been stuffing my face happily in Bangkok only a few months after Thai soldiers had fired on scores of semi-starved Cambodian civilians at Dang Rek mountain, forcing them down through a minefield where the only safe path lay over fresh corpses since they had detonated any live mines directly underneath. But then, what else could I have been doing? This I realized after reading the second book: Washington Post journalist Elizabeth Becker's detailed history "When The War Was Over".

I gleaned two lessons from this very informative book. One, it signalled to me that what the world did to Cambodia in the 1970s and 80s -- a calamity born of the unhappy union of realpolitik with sheer neglect -- may well be what happened in Rwanda in the last decade, and in Darfur today. Does anyone really know what is going on there? Cambodia suffered bitterly as an aftermath of the Vietnam war -- caught in the crossfire of America's cussedness, China's ambition, and Vietnam's stupidity. No one knew what was going on there, everyone had their own version of events that they preferred to believe, and no one really cared anyway. Meanwhile, people died, so what. Life is but a breath, as Theary Seng's book keeps repeating.

The second lesson was, I thought, even more scary. What happened in Cambodia can happen anywhere. The Khmer Rouge wasn't a lunatic fringe bunch of homicidal maniacs to begin with. They started off as a group of young students in Paris, reading Sartre and writing intelligent papers on economics and democracy. Somewhere along the line, faced with a Cambodian status quo that went from a double-dealing quasi-monarchy to a crazed right-wing general, they went underground as guerillas and surfaced as a military force that took over the government. Even then, there wasn't very much to suggest at the genocidal machine they'd unleash -- peculiar in history as being one that was turned upon its own countrymen. Cities were evacuated, and anyone outside the party hierarchy who had any sign of intellect was summarily executed -- instantaneously if lucky, and after months of torture and forced 'confessions' at the Tuol Sleng concentration camp, if not. Soon, having exhausted itself of intellectuals, doctors, and the like (administration of the medical arts was left in the hands of uneducated workers), the machine turned its attentions to other enemies of the state, such as husbands and wives who dared to express their love for one another -- extracting confessions that justified their murder. As the years went by it turned even more inwards, decimating parts of itself until eventually it was so weakened that the neighbors walked in and helped themselves to the country. The details of this story are beyond macabre and gruesome, and are completely rivetting. I will not go into them in detail. The only thing I want to point out is a little detail that was common to the two books I read. Both the authors met key leaders of the Khmer Rouge -- Theary Seng met Khieu Samphan and Elizabeth Becker met Pol Pot. Both commented on how disarmingly pleasant they were.

The leaders of the Khmer Rouge were ordinary people. By some accounts, they were even pleasant to be with. There really wasn't anything, anything, that marked them aside as some of the most brutal murderers in history. This sort of fanatical absolutism could happen anywhere -- and who knows, bring with it the accompanying terror, misery, privation, and genocide. India almost went that way, with the Emergency in 1975. America brandishes its Patriot Act. Tomorrow it could be you or me, snatched out of our houses by a sudden change in the political climate, our four year old daughters left to fend for themselves in a long night tainted with the sound of bludgeoning axes.

22 Comments:

Blogger km said...

"disarmingly pleasant": Banality of evil, eh?

And let me confess: my own apathy to the bloody events in Darfur amazes me.

4/13/2007 2:02 AM  
Blogger Rahul said...

Even then, there wasn't very much to suggest at the genocidal machine they'd unleash -- peculiar in history as being one that was turned upon its own countrymen.

Weren't most genocidal machines in history turned against their "own countrymen"? In some cases (Hitler) it was a minority community or ethnic group, in others (Stalin, Mao) it wasn't -- it was just anyone who dissented or didn't fit in with their plans. And all these people came to power with popular support, or came from movements claiming to represent the people, initially. If the Maoists came to power in India the same thing would happen. Or, say, the VHP. That's already happened in Gujarat. On a (slightly) smaller scale, violence by the left-wing state against its own people is now happening in West Bengal.

One can go further and say that the rightwing tends to target minorities and the left tends to target everyone without discrimination. In that respect the Khmer Rouge is no different except in scale.

The most mystifying thing to me is not how the Khmer Rouge happened but how, given the history of such things all over the world, intelligent people can still support the Maoists/Naxalites. Or their equivalents on the right.

4/13/2007 11:02 AM  
Blogger Szerelem said...

I've been reading on Cambodia too.
Cambodia: Report from a Stricken Land and have Francois Bizot's The Gate to read as well.
I knew about the Khmer of course but to read about it in depth is very horrying, scary.....extreme ideologies always lead to terrible results. You can't believe in an abstract goal above and beyond the people. The Khmer Rouge and their mad driving people to the villages (and killing them if they refused) probably took the egalitarian idea to the extreme.
Also that's one reason I'm looking forward to Phnom Penh - to see how the countrys changed.

On a side note - Re travelling in groups, I know what you mean. Though I almost always travel alone so in some sense I think I'm also more set in my ways and stubborn about stuff. I enjoy travelling with people who have similar conception of travel or are interested in the same things. But thats usually in pairs or trios. Like your Silk route thing I'm obsessed about reaching Istanbul and I would never go there with anyone for the first time....I'd much rather see it alone. I was alone in Paris for two whole weeks. By the end of it it was almost like I had made friends with the city :)

4/13/2007 2:37 PM  
Blogger Abi said...

If the Khmer Rouge leaders were a bunch of 'almost pleasant' intellectuals with no history of genocidal thoughts/actions, what flipped? Is it the power, over which they had a monopoly immediately after their takeover of the country?

Didn't communism target intellectuals within the same society in other countries too? China (Cultural Revolution) and Soviet Union (in the 1920s to 1950s), etc.

You make an interesting (and hope-inducing) point about the KR turning its murderous campaign inwards, which weakened it so much that others could walk in and destroy it. Do you see this as a general phenomenon? In other words, do all totalitarian regimes contain seeds of their own destruction? Historical determinism and all that ...

4/13/2007 7:52 PM  
Blogger MockTurtle said...

Grand scale ideals usually lead to grand scale misery. Look at the tens of millions that Stalin and Mao butchered in pretty much the same modus operandi that you describe. Powerful leaders with grand visions for the future have always boded badly for the populations they govern. Anarchism, or at least a minimalist and completely free market based government, should be the ideal.

4/13/2007 11:05 PM  
Blogger M (tread softly upon) said...

Think I'll have to wait till the weekend to read this :)

On a diff note thanks for directing me to the posts on Nanopolitan. Read the one on Josh Bell and followed the link to The Situationist and was pleasantly surprised at how similar my post was to that. And I promise I did not plagiarize. Just freaky coincidence.

cheers!

4/13/2007 11:43 PM  
Blogger ajanabi said...

TR, you are so right when you say that the sort of thing that happened in Cambodia can happen anywhere. The conditions are straightforward:

1. You need a person or a power with a strong ideology. Pol Pot, Hitler, Mao, the Brits (trade and christianity was their ideology).
2. You need that person or power to have a strong belief in himself/herself or itself.
3. You need a power vaccum (a weak ruler or weak governance). In Cambodia, the American bombings created the unstability and the American withdrawal created the vaccum. For the Brits in India, the dying Mughal Empire was the perfect power vaccum.

There was something that marked Khieu Samphan and Pol Pot as being something other than ordinary people. It is the same something that marks Dick Cheney when he said "I had more important things to do," Paul Wolfowitz, in a smaller way, when he ups his girl friend's compensation; the something that says "I am smarter than most people and have better ideas than them. I am more important."

Will something like this happen again? You can bet your bottom dollar it will. Not necessarily where you expect it, but it will.

4/14/2007 7:28 AM  
Blogger km said...

Ssshhh...Ajnabi! No need to spell out the Evil Empire Methodology in such loving detail :D

4/14/2007 7:31 AM  
Blogger ajanabi said...

You never know, someone may be on the lookout for a recipe :-)

4/14/2007 8:11 PM  
Blogger ajanabi said...

Ruthless dictators are people too. Think Roderick Spode, the Eighth Earl of Sidcup.

4/14/2007 9:48 PM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

km:
yes, something like that -- though a little more complex, i'd say.

rahul:
ok that was a slip. i'd meant to sya something along the lines of "own team". most genocide has been against an out-group.

szerelem:
i hope you have a great time in cambodia!

abi:
from what i read, nothing flipped. they were extremely concerned about the success of their mission, to the extent that they became completely paranoid and did what they did for the sake of the cause. this does not seem to have changed how they came across in personal interactions -- theary seng describes her meeting with khieu samphan, one of the top leaders, in 2005 -- and calls him 'grandfatherly'. unlike some other dictators, the khmer rouge were never really in it for personal glory -- it was nearly three years after they came into power that they revealed who they were.

that's an interesting point about the seeds of destruction. i'd say they are contained within all regimes, whether totalitarian or not -- sooner or later they get unmanageable in *some* form -- and then decline and fall.

mt:
i'm not sure grand scale anarchism and grand scale minimalism wouldn't lead to similarly unhappy endings.

m:
my pleasure :-)
i hope you have a weekend good enough that it absorbs this.

ajanabi:
aha, welcome! out of the shadows at last!

thanks for the recipe, and the dessert in the form of the spode reminder. i agree with most of what you said except that bit about the vacuum -- all that's needed is an opportunity, not necessarily a vacuum (which sounds to me more like the kind of anarchy that the mockturtle recommends). the khmer rouge had to fight tooth and nail for over a decade to get to power. hitler, mao, the bolsheviks -- none of them just walked in to power.

interesting stuff, this, and terrifying.

4/15/2007 10:45 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

TR: Thanks for this.

Would also recommend reading if you haven't already Philip Gourevitch "We Wish To Inform You that We Will Be Killed With Our Families", a chilling journalistic account of Rwanda.

n!

4/16/2007 6:50 AM  
Blogger Abi said...

In this interview, Philip Zimbardo opens with the following:

"One of the questions I’ve been asking myself is, Is there a counterpart to Hannah Arendt’s classical analysis of evil in terms of her phrase “the banality of evil.” If you remember, she created that concept after having watched the trial at Nuremberg of Adolf Eichmann and the other Nazi henchmen accused of the mass murder – genocide – of millions of Jews. And one of the questions the world was asking itself was, “How do we understand these monsters?” After these lengthy trials, Eichmann and others were assessed, interviewed, and studied inside out by teams of psychiatrists. Their conclusion, at least in the case of Eichmann, was that he was absolutely normal. In fact one report-writer said, “He’s more normal than I am. He’s a good father, good husband, good citizen.”

Creepy!

4/16/2007 7:08 PM  
Blogger Revealed said...

The Zimbardo interview's very interesting. I've often wondered if the reason people don't stand up for things is cos the morals/values they're supposed to implement are not ones that they've directly evaluated as important beliefs in their lives but are rather culturally conditioned morals/values that they take for granted. Hence de-emphasizing the 'rightness' of it, or the importance of it.

4/16/2007 10:28 PM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

n!:
not sure why the thanks but i'll accept them anyway :-)
thanks back for the reco -- i think i've come across this before -- in "collapse", perhaps?

abi:
thanks for the link -- very interesting! i've always found zimbardo's work completely fascinating. coincidentally, today in class i took a bit of a detour to talk about personality -- the nature vs nurture debate, and how attributions of behavior tend to be biased towards dispositional characteristics and away from situational factors. ultimately. that's the root of this post -- this kind of thing can happen anywhere, and it could be caused by anyone. in some way we all are potential pol pots.

revealed:
that's another piece of the puzzle -- the fact that the relationship between attitude and behavior is mediated by attitude strength. that is, you will act in accordance with what you believe if (and to put it more strongly iff) your belief is strong enough. people in the situations you describe who don't act in accordance with their stated morals either didn't believe in them strongly enough or stated these morals due to certain subjective norms, which may have been absent at the time of action.

4/17/2007 12:40 AM  
Blogger Revealed said...

@tr: Exactly what I was thinking. It seems to me that we're not encouraged to identify which beliefs we *really* want to believe in. I was punished as a kid when I was dishonest. But now, I'm older and I find that honesty sometimes is over rated. It seems simplistic to quote aphorisms like honesty is the best policy. Firstly, sometimes honesty is *not* the best policy. Secondly, don't we also have to question our motivations for our honesty? More often that not, it seems to me that people are honest in order to rid their conscience of unwelcome burdens, thereby thrusting the burden of pain and having to deal with the situation onto the other person.

(Reading through that comment I don't know if it makes as much sense here as it does in my head. Maybe it deserves a post)

4/17/2007 4:01 AM  
Blogger GhostOfTomJoad said...

Slight digression from your post...around the time of the Rwandan genocide, I used to listen a lot to the radio, especially the BBC. And, a little later I did manage to read a bit of 'We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families', which someone has mentioned here. To me, the detailed description of these horrible events - whether in Rwanda, Gujarat, Cambodia - seems almost as perverse as the events themselves. Do we, for instance, need a graphic account of how a pregnant woman's stomach was torn open and her unborn baby was thrown to the ground? Isn't it enough for us that a woman was killed because of some intolerant zealot? Isn't it enough to know that many people have died? Isn't that horror enough?

Maybe our tragedy is that the one answer to all these questions is, "No, it isn't enough."

4/17/2007 1:46 PM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

revealed:
some culturally conditioned values can be held more strongly than anything else. (indeed, at some level all values are social constructs anyway.) however the point stands that some attitudes are more strongly held than others, and it's usually at times of conflict that people realize what they "truly believe in".

ps. "thrusting the burden of pain" is an awe-inspiring turn of phrase.

pps. remind me to not buy any bridges from you.

ghost:
i think there are two answers to your question (or the single answer is a combination of these two things). one, as you say and as i've posted about earlier is that we are indeed becoming inured. the other is that humans anyway are hardwired to respond in specific ways to different types of stimuli, and one way in which feelings of sympathy/empathy are evoked is by representing the target of the feelings more vividly. there's some really interesting research that shows that people donate more to a charity that uses an advertisement describing a single affected victim, compared to one that reports the total number of affected victims. makes no sense from an economics pov, but that's the way we're hardwired.

4/17/2007 8:02 PM  
Blogger ajanabi said...

Not sure if this is a natural corollary to your actions follow from the strength of beliefs thing, but that is what drives the Pol Pots of the world. Pol Pot (and his comrades) strongly believed that the best future for Cambodia is in a return to an agrarian economy that is completely free of intellectual claptrap (other than their own intellectual claptrap, of course!) and acted to reshape the world accordingly. Much like Mao and his various leaps forward and blooming flowers. Strong beliefs are perhaps not a good thing. (Strong beliefs of any kind because there is no objective way to ascribe values to beliefs. Perhaps the Maos and PolPots have it right, after all.)

4/19/2007 1:43 AM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

ajanabi:
i'm with you except for the last bit. the maos and pol pots did have strong beliefs (like you pointed out!) the basence of beliefs *that* strong certainly seems like it has its positives (i strongly believe...:-) that's somewhat like the whole buddhist/confucian idea of moderation, right?

in a sense one can also make an argument that strength of beliefs <=> conservatism, as opposed to liberalism which inherently allows for one to change ones beliefs. let me know if you like that line of thought :-D

4/19/2007 8:52 AM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

On Abi's comment on Arendt's analysis: That's the difference between the person and the institution. For example, I am sure Kenneth Lay may have been a good person individually, but he had to follow the dictates of the institution he stood for, The Corporation, and in case of Eichmann, The Third Reich. In the institutional context, both these people were evil and not good by any standards (except those of the institution themselves).

4/22/2007 1:08 AM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

ashutosh:
thanks for stopping by.
i'm not sure i agree that the distinction is so totally clear-cut. the dictates of kenneth lay's institution were they way they were in large part due to kenneth lay himself. in fact, rather than drawing this distinction between a person and their institution, i'd be more comfortable ascribing these differences to differences in roles played by the same person (roles in a goffman sense, if you know what i mean).

4/22/2007 11:03 AM  

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