By Catherine Wagley
By Catherine Wagley
By Wendy Gilmartin
By Jennifer Swann
By Claire de Dobay Rifelj
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Catherine Wagley
By Zachary Pincus-Roth
Interrogations generally followed the same pattern: Prisoners were beaten and tortured, sometimes for weeks on end, until they concocted a personal history of their schemes. Once their spirit was broken, they were pressed to reveal secret allegiances -- to the Vietnamese, or the CIA -- and finally to name “strings of traitors,” colleagues and friends who would then become targets of a new round of party purges. In most cases, the “crimes” had never been committed, leaving the desperate captives to fabricate their stories, like the prisoner who “said he had been recruited by an American named ’Kennedy‘ in the 1960’s and confessed that one of his high school teachers . . . had been a CIA agent.”
It didn‘t matter that these stories were fantastic. What mattered was that they corroborated the implacable logic promulgated by the party leadership. In the end, of course, it was all madness, finding its ultimate expression in the collapse of the Khmer Rouge. “The ’wheel of history‘ had developed an inexorable momentum,” Chandler observes, “crushing everyone in its path. Indeed, as an interrogator at the prison arrested at the time asked plaintively in his confession, ’If [the party] arrests everybody, who will be left to make revolution?‘”
Voices From S-21 is a slim volume, and its tight focus precludes serious exploration into the context that gave rise to the Khmer Rouge -- the bitter legacy of rural poverty, the political upheaval in the region, the devastating U.S. bombing campaigns of the early ’70s. More interesting to Chandler is the result: a society built on a monumental consensus whose implacable logic can finally give rise to so inhuman an institution. The command staff at S-21, he points out, consisted largely of schoolteachers, the rank and file of farmers and otherwise unremarkable young men. Their inhibitions were compromised by their fear and their fealty.
It‘s a subtle point, one that might easily be lost in what Chandler calls “the hubris, pain, fear and malodorous confusion that made up the everyday culture and everyday horror of S-21.” But Chandler aims higher than simple indictment -- that ground has already been covered. He shows not what sets the Cambodian experience apart, but how it connects to our own experience.
To get there, Chandler reviews the literature on the Holocaust and the work of Stanley Milgram, who recruited students in New Haven to administer electric shocks to anonymous subjects. He finds that “Most of us, I suspect, could become accustomed to doing something (such as torturing or killing people) when people we respected told us to do it and when there were no institutional constraints . . . What is permitted, or commanded, however awful, is usually what occurs; resistance is rarer than compliance.”
“Human nature” is devoid of what we like to think of as humanity, Chandler implies, as the world’s recent surge of random, heinous mayhem -- from Bosnia to Chechnya to Timor -- would seem to confirm. “Explanations for phenomena such as S-21 are embedded in our capacity to order and obey each other . . . to lose ourselves inside groups, to yearn for perfection and approval . . . To find the source of evil that was enacted at S-21 on a daily basis, we need look no further than ourselves.”
That‘s a great leap from the black-and-white world of Nuremberg and the nightly news. Chandler brings it off with painstaking scholarship and elegant, restrained prose. Voices From S-21 is by turns startling, fearsome and profound.
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