Sunday, May 20, 2012

We Will Always Forget...

Recently I watched the superb documentary "Comrade Duch" on PBS World ( Like so many documetaries these days Adrian Maben's "Comrade Duch" does several things during its hour and a half length. On one level "Comrade Duch" offers viewers a biography of Duch, born Kaing Guek Eav (1942), a promising student of mathematics who became a leading figure in the Kampuchean Communist Part and head of the Khmer Rouge government's internal security branch and who oversaw the infamous and brutal Tuol Sleng (S-21) prison camp where thousands were held for interrogation and torture. On another level it provides viewers with a history of the Khmer Rouge takeover of Kampuchea from 1975 until 1979 when the Vietnamese invaded and overthrew the regime. On still another level it allows viewers to follow search of the Irish photojournalist and author Nic Dunlop for Duch, a search which finally ended in 1999 with Dunlop's discovery of Duch in Samlaut, Kampuchea. And finally it takes viewers to Duch's trial before the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia with UN sponsorship in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, a trial which found him guilty of "crimes against humanity".

Amidst the biography, history, search, and trial the documentary details, through paintings, photographs, detailed documentary records, and survivor testimonies, the tortures, confessions, and executions that took place during the years the Khmer Rouge ruled Kampuchea and Duch ruled the security apparatus of the Kampuchean state. Under Duch's watch "traitors to the party and the state" were beaten with cables until their bodies bled, had their heads stuck in water pots, had plastic bags stuck over their heads and water poured over them, and were forced to eat feces in order for the Kampuchean state gain "confessions" of their counterrevolutionary crimes. Then most of them were executed.

As I watched "Comrade Duch" I couldn't help but think about punishment and torture in general. As the documentary makes clear torture, and the slavery which the Khmer Rouge to some extent revived, were present in Kampuchea as early as the 12th century as reliefs on the walls of the famous Hindu temple complex at Angkor Wat makes clear. There, as in the 18th century BCE Mesopotamia (think the Code of Hammurabi), body parts were cut off to make punishments fit a variety of crimes.

Torture, of course, has a long history. If we concede that the dismemberment of bodies is torture than it has a very long history indeed. And it usually goes along with "interrogations" and the attempt to gain "confessions". Beyond Ancient Mesopotamia the Phoenicians, Persians, Ancient Greeks, Ancient Romans, Mediaeval Christians (remember the inquisition), the Protestants of Civil War Era England, who tortured Quakers like James Nayler, and the Puritan Christians of Colonial American, who tortured those they believed to be witches in Salem Village, used torture to obtain "confessions" for a variety of "crimes".

The birth of the modern world may have stimulated the development of a conception of civil and human rights (one could argue that what we today call India has long had some conception of tolerance thanks to religious diversity and, with respect to the West, one could and some have argued that Western notions of tolerance arose in the Anabaptist conception of the separation of church and state during the Protestant Reformation) but despite the rise of the modern world and its conception of human civil and general human rights this has not ended torture. The Soviet Union, for instance, tortured "traitors" to the communist cause in order to gain confessions of treachery while the United States and Great Britain have tortured and aided and abetted torture in order to pursue their fight against the "terrorist" cause they see as threatening contemporary America and Britain.

One of the things I found particularly interesting about "Comrade Duch" is that at one point in the documentary Nic Dunlop, the journalist who tracked down Duch and who has had a longstanding interest in torture and genocide, comments that torture generally does not work, generally does not obtain accurate confessions. Many of those who survived the tortures of the Khmer Rouge and Comrade Duch confirm Dunlop's point. One survivor claims that perhaps twenty percent of confessions like his were accurate. Many polemicists and scholars have argued that the confessions obtained from supposed "counterrevolutionaries" during the Stalinist "show trial" of 1938, confessions that seemed to substantiate the Soviet leaderships contention that "counterrevolutionaries", some of them with ties to Leon Trotsky who had been exiled by Stalin, were attempting to overthrow the leadership of the Soviet Union, were false.

Americans since 9/11, when as CIA agent Cofer Black said the "gloves have come off", have been debating this issue of whether torture, some Americans refuse to even call it torture preferring to describe what American military and intelligence agencies are doing by the more innocuous and ambiguous phrase "enhanced interrogation", works. Some, most of them on the right, most prominently former Vice-President Dick Cheney, claim it does. Others, most of them on the left, claim that it doesn't. Many have claimed that the torture and the aiding and abetting of torture (renditions of "terrorists" to nations that do torture, for instance) Americans are doing is a violation of the very civil rights and human rights that are at the foundation of the United States given its Enlightenment background. What really interests me here, however, is whether those same people who claim that the torture of "terrorists" has helped the US government stop further terror attacks on American soil would make claims that torture produced accurate information and confessions during the Soviet show trial and the Khmer Rouge rule of Kampuchea. And if they don't I want to know why the inconsistency? Do they assume that there is a distinction between the torture of the good guys, torture that produces accurate information, and the torture of the bad guys, like that of Stalin and Pol Pot, torture that that doesn't work? And if they are making this distinction can they "prove" this very clearly moral statement by pointing to any empirical evidence that shows that the torture by good guys is good because it produces good information while the torture by bad guys is bad and it produces mostly false information?

Another point that Dunlop makes which I found interesting and absolutely correct in the documentary is the notion that evil, contrary to popular belief, is not extraordinary but is instead rather ordinary and all to human. Duch, Dunlop contends, was an ordinary human being capable of being both an "angel" and a "demon". Duch, like Adolf Hitler, was also a product of his times. While Hitler was influenced by the anti-Semitism rampant in the Europe and Vienna of the early twentieth century and before, and the alliance of this anti-Semitism with the new science of racial variation that was sweeping across the "civlised" West, Duch was influenced by a left wing teacher and by what he saw when he like many other leftists in Cambodia were arrested and tortured simply for being leftists.

In closing let me make one final general point. Torture is neither non-Western or Western. It has been used and continues to be used by Western nations like the US and non-Western nations like China. It is neither traditional or modern. It has been used and continues to be used by traditional societies like that in Saudi Arabia and modern societies like that in Great Britain. It is neither democratic, authoritarian, or totalitarian. It has and continues to be used by democratic regimes like that in the US, authoritarian regimes like that in Egypt, and totalitarian regimes like that in Uzbekistan. So much for the Western commitment to civil and human rights. So much for Western exceptionalism. So much for English, British, or American exceptionalism.

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