- Man or Monster? The Trial of a Khmer Rouge Torturer by Alexander Laban Hinton
Alexander Laban Hinton’s Man or Monster? offers an interesting and novel treatment of the trial of a Khmer Rouge revolutionary accused of participating in Democratic Kampuchea’s (DK) genocide of 1.7 million Cambodians (1975–79). Duch (his nom de guerre) was charged with crimes against humanity, specifically the torture and execution of 12,000 victims. Hinton conducted numerous interviews with Cambodian witnesses, observed the trial, and utilized material from the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.
Avowedly literary, Hinton’s work is also extraordinarily detailed in its descriptions of the prosecution, the defense, and the defendant himself. In many respects the book assails the categorical concept of “evil” as a descriptor for perpetrators of genocide. Duch—a mathematician, teacher, and supervisor of M-13 (the Khmer Rouge’s Security Office during Cambodia’s civil war) and S-21 (the Security Center of DK)—described himself as “meticulous,” calling to mind Nazi recordkeeping. Obviously intelligent, diligent, and well read, Duch could recite French poetry by heart. One is again reminded of the well-educated SS guards who reveled in classical music after “a hard day’s work” of mass murder. Like the Nazis, Duch ordered the exhumation and cremation of bodies, lest evidence of his crimes be revealed. But Duch was apologetic, and cooperated with the prosecution in providing information about the regime’s activities. Like that of many Nazis, his defense relied in part on the “need” to respect the demands of the Party.
Thus, a complex portrait of the torturer and mass murderer emerges. Despite his education, Duch was “thoughtless,” succumbing to an ideological rigidity that stripped away complicated detail “to assert a narrower, categorized vision of the world, disempathy, and desire for ‘black and white’ truth. If this orientation did not predetermine his path to becoming a torturer and executioner, it likely predisposed him to do so in a context like DK” (p. 296). Duch affirmed that in his mind there was no path other than “to respect the discipline of the Party” (p. 76).
Hinton’s nuances are welcome. But to what extent can we ignore the hideous nature of Duch’s behavior, utterly divorced from moral sensibilities? The torture went beyond the “ordinary,” and included sexual violence such as the burning of female breasts. The M-13 building was originally a school. To convert a fundamentally constructive enterprise into a site of murder and human misery symbolized a realm of complete moral perversion. Duch’s original sentence from the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) was thirty-five years, but with a five-year reduction for an illegal detention and credit for the eleven years of time served, Duch would have served only nineteen additional years. However, the Supreme Court Chamber (SCC) of the ECCC (in part due to public opinion and political pressure) overrode this decision and sentenced Duch to life in prison.
To a certain extent Hinton follows Hannah Arendt’s famous characterization of Adolf Eichmann as an example of “the banality of evil.” Hinton interprets such “banality” as a simplification of the world in order to navigate complexity. As Eichmann seemed banal and unexceptional, so too did Duch. Yet at their trials both Eichmann and Duch’s lives were at stake: for Eichmann to display virulent antisemitism in Jerusalem or for Duch to have paraded himself as a violent revolutionary would have been counterproductive, to say the least. Yet these characterizations of both men are accurate. As we learned later, during World War II Eichmann at times displayed an almost rabid antisemitism, and Duch was indeed a violent revolutionary in the mold of Mao Zedong. [End Page 134]
To draw general conclusions from their demeanors at trial is itself a simplification. Both Eichmann and Duch probably dissimulated in hopes of better treatment, and their more advanced age made them appear less threatening. Duch’s projected persona worked before the lower court. Eichmann...