The Killing School

For a generation now, the world has known the grim history of Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge -- the dislocation, the death camps, the terrible human toll. A million dead, perhaps two. Pol Pot, the Paris-schooled intellectual who led that peasant revolution, has earned a seat alongside Hitler, Stalin and now, perhaps, Milosevic, in this century‘s pantheon of villainy -- architects of evil who seem so far outside the norms of conduct as to affirm for us, in some perverse way, our own righteousness. We shudder; we shake our heads; we wonder, “How could they?”

Now there’s more -- more evidence of perfidy, and along with it, a more probing look at the question of what happened, and how, and why. In Voices From S-21: Terror and History in Pol Pot‘s Secret Prison, Australian historian David Chandler explores the heretofore untold story of the concentration camp at the center of the vortex of violence and recrimination that was the Khmer Rouge, and, in the process, looks deeply at questions of culture and humanity.

The basic contours of S-21 are familiar enough to anyone with even a glancing knowledge of the Holocaust or the Soviet gulag. Located on the grounds of a former high school in the southern section of the capital city of Phnom Penh, the complex was never named but came to be known as “the place where people went in but never came out.” (The designation “S-21” came later, in official Khmer Rouge documents -- it was the code name for the party’s secret police.) In practice S-21 was an interrogation and torture facility, where perceived enemies of the state were taken to confess their crimes. If they survived that process, they were taken out and slaughtered.

It was not a huge place -- four whitewashed three-story buildings framing a compound of not more than an acre -- and over the course of the four years the Khmer Rouge were in power, S-21 claimed the lives of just 14,000 victims, a fraction of those dispatched at Auschwitz or Buchenwald. But within its walls, the cruelty matched anything that had come before.

Distilling thousands of pages of Khmer Rouge documents, assembling hellish details from the sparse commentaries of half a dozen survivors and from internal camp documents, Chandler re-creates the patterns of daily life inside S-21. Torture was the dominant theme. As one staff member recalled, “There was lots of screaming, especially at night, when there was no noise in Phnom Penh. The cries were so loud we could hear them from half a mile away.” Another, a former guard, said he could hear people screaming “every time I went on duty.”

The ordeal endured by the individual prisoners is hard to fathom, especially considering that many were loyal cadre who never imagined their own party could turn on them so ruthlessly. Ten Chan, an S-21 survivor, recalled being beaten and occasionally tortured for 26 straight days. One pathetic “confession” reels between anger and residual loyalty: “I beg the Organization to kill me because I have not followed the revolution . . . But I must declare that in my heart I have not betrayed the Organization at all. I declare my guilt . . . because I am dying. Long live the glorious revolution!”

Nor was the terror limited to the prisoners of S-21. The guards, the interrogators, even the clerks at the camp were in constant danger of being judged insufficiently zealous, and were often pushed over the line from captor to victim. In the end, 79 prison workers became prisoners themselves, and thus fell to the terrible logic of the camp -- interrogation, torture and death.

But Chandler is not satisfied with detailing the wrongdoings of the Khmer Rouge jailers. What fascinates him are not the holding tanks and torture cells, but a freestanding wooden structure at the center of the compound, the S-21 administration building, where thousands of transcribed “confessions” of tortured prisoners -- some handwritten and some typed, ranging from a single page to several hundred -- were stored.

The very existence of such an archive challenges easy assumptions that would explain S-21 as simple barbarism, or even as a typical institution of extreme punishment. Chandler wonders, “Why was it maintained? Why were such lengthy and detailed confessions extracted from people already condemned to death, and kept on file after the prisoners had been killed?”

The apparent answer lies in the paranoid dynamic that drove the Khmer Rouge leaders who set the party agenda -- a self-fulfilling hunt for enemies not unlike the Red scare that swept the U.S. in the 1950s. From a distance such fanatic witch-hunts can easily be dismissed as insane, but from the inside, they proceed inevitably from their own internal logic. That logic is at the heart of Voices From S-21.

Prisoners were not mere criminals, or even proven traitors. Usually they were ranking party members, sometimes just a step away from the ruling circle, scapegoats for the national breakdown that marked Pol Pot‘s regime. Determined to assign blame rather than accept the mounting evidence of their own failure, the party leaders became obsessed with the idea of betrayal, and convinced that torture would in fact reveal the hidden plots against them.

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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