The Humanity Of Evil

by Jessie Roberts


In his book The Master of Confessions, Thierry Cruvellier details his experience as witness to the war crime trial of Kaing Guek Eav, or Duch, the Khmer Rouge leader who oversaw the torture and killing of at least 12,000 people from 1975 to 1979. Philip Gourevitch talked to Cruvellier about the psychology of mass murder:

[Y]ou say that what Duch’s trial revealed to you was … his humanity. You write, “Duch is not a psycho or a monster and that’s the problem.” Why, or for whom, is that a problem?

The humanity of individuals who become mass murderers like Duch is a repulsive notion to many people. I can assure you that the predominant reaction, regardless of social and educational background, is to say that they are not one of us. In fact, many people do not even understand how someone can go and defend them in court. … Refusing Duch as one of us may give us peace of mind. It keeps us in the safe belief that if, God forbid, we happened to face extraordinary historical circumstances we would behave like heroes. But it doesn’t help us better understand how mass crimes develop and succeed through mass participation.

At the genocide museum in Phnom Penh, Duch’s victims are presented as victims, which they certainly were. But eighty per cent of them were themselves Khmer Rouge, and if they instead had been asked to be perpetrators the overwhelming majority would have obeyed. To accept that Duch tells us something about ourselves doesn’t mean we accept his crimes, and it doesn’t mean we risk showing him sympathy. It makes us think in more realistic terms about how mass murder operates and how it relies on people like us.

(Image of Duch in November 2009, on the first day of closing statements during his trial, courtesy of Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia.)