Long-time readers of this blog (Hi Mom! Hi Dad!) will remember I mentioned that Elizabeth Warren joined the Choir Invisible just two months ago. An Elizabeth Warren, the one better known by her married name: Elizabeth Warren “Betty” Ford. I was distantly aware that there was another Elizabeth Warren. She oversaw the TARP thingee and then was Special Advisor for the United States Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, whatever that means. Now she’s running for Senate, trying to take Scott Brown’s seat. Continue reading
On September 11th — that September 11th of course, the only September 11th — my brother, my sister, and my two nieces were in lower Manhattan, but I, sitting in my office 3000 miles away, didn’t know that. My brother worked on Long Island; I had some vague notion that my sister’s office was in Park Slope; no one had told me that my nieces had moved out of their parents’ house in suburban Virginia. The only person whom I knew and whom I knew to be at risk was my former best friend Mark.
We were no longer best friends not for any personal reason but simply because he and I had moved to opposite ends of the country. We would talk maybe once a year, we had made new friends.
Years before, we had worked together at the Pentagon and — a small, mild irony for a day marked by large, harsh ironies — he had moved back to New York to take a job in the World Trade Center.
I called his home number. His machine picked up, of course: he’d scarcely be home at noon on Tuesday, even a normal Tuesday. As I listened to his familiar upstate-New York accent, I realized I had no idea what I could say.
“Mark, if you’re not dead, call me. If you are dead…” You see, it just didn’t work.
I had worked it out by the end of the message and just spoke my name and phone number. Somebody would call me.
My relatives I only found out had been at risk when I found out they were safe. My sister had to abandon her car on Manhattan and walk back to her apartment in Brooklyn; my brother was in the City to talk to some colleagues but was only inconvenienced; my nieces just closed the window of their tiny Chelsea apartment to shut out the dust and smoke. It was my ex-friend I was waiting to hear about.
Two days later, Mark called me, un-dead, un-burnt, un-crushed by debris. I didn’t ask him what happened to him; it seemed indelicate, prying. I didn’t want to be a tragedy-tourist. Actually, that’s untrue, I did want to be a tragedy-tourist, I just didn’t want to be seen as one. For better or worse, my not-dead ex-friend had an almost compulsive need to tell me his story. I imagine, like the old man in the joke, he wasn’t just telling me, he was telling everybody.
His company had moved across the street from the WTC some months earlier. As the towers burned, everyone in his office pressed against the windows, transfixed, fascinated by the disaster. Mark, always the pragmatist, decided to go home for the day and stepped outside and was just a block away when the first tower came down. He jumped inside a bodega and closed the door before the dust cloud could envelope him. He spent the rest of the day crossing the nightmarish landscape, and then the Hudson, arriving back at his home in Hoboken sometime after midnight, safe and sound, home to his wife and kids.
160,000 people died on September 11th, because 160,000 die every day. Think of the person you love most in the world. One day, not soon perhaps but inevitably, one day, either you will learn of her death or she will learn of yours. That is the promise that is made to each of us at birth. That September 11th is special not because people died — people die every day. Nor because of the number of people who died — statistically, it was a blip, if that. It might very well be that with the drop in dangerous activities (driving, drinking, fighting) that accompanied the disaster, that more people actually died on the 10th.
It’s special because for once, that solitary experience of waiting to learn — of gripping the phone, of sitting the hospital waiting-room, of studying the doctor’s face as he studies your chart, waiting to see if that inevitable day, that long-promised, long-feared, inevitable day was finally, finally today — for once, that experience was shared. We all face death. We are just surprised when we don’t face it alone.
I bought the book partly because I needed something to read, partly because I am interested in the subject matter, but mostly because I am a sucker for pretty Asian women. Most of the vendors around Angkor Wat are children, anywhere from six to 15 years old, enthusiastically hawking t-shirts and scarves and statuary and guidebooks and tablecloths and soft-drinks.
This one was an adult, she told me she was 25 but she looked barely 20, and she was selling books, mostly about the Cambodian Holocaust. I turned her down a dozen times but she persisted, following me (with a half dozen of her younger colleagues milling around us) past a ruined temple to the shore of a small lake. I sat on a rock, exhausted by the weather and by history, which in that neighborhood is as debilitating as the humidity. The vendor-children all clustered around me and I surrendered a bit and the sent the littlest kid off to fetch sodas, one can for me and enough others so everybody in this Dickensian mob of street kids could have a half-can.
Her books were outrageously overpriced, $10 for a pirated copy of First They Killed My Father, which I’d already read, and $15 for voluminous study of the Holocaust as a whole. Both to save money and, more importantly, to save weight in my already overloaded pack, I chose a slim paperback apparently titled Year Zero.
I say “apparently” because the title page (including any copyright information and the author’s name) was missing from the poor-quality copy and because the book wasn’t about Year Zero (the Khmer Rouge’s insane plan to re-make Cambodian society) at all; it was a scholarly analysis of records discovered at the KR’s infamous prison, S-21.
What clearly fascinated the nameless author was the entirely purposelessness of S-21. A converted high school, S-21 was used to hold political prisoners for weeks and months so they could be mercilessly tortured. The torture wasn’t meant as punishment, it was forensic, investigatory. Each prisoner was forced to produce an elaborate, detailed confession; any reluctance to confess and the prisoner was flogged with wire or forced to eat excrement. When the confession was deemed complete, it was typed up and filed, and the prisoner, almost as an afterthought, was clubbed to death in an adjacent field.
And that was it. There were no show trials, the confessions were not used to generate additional arrests. S-21 was kept strictly secret so it couldn’t even be used to intimidate people.
Most atrocities raise the question “why” in the big sense: “why do such horrific things happen?” S-21, for all its horror, raises a much more trivial question: “why bother?” As awful, as chilling, as S-21 was, it was also puzzling. Why did they spend all this effort tormenting people, forcing people to concoct fanciful confessions, and then just kill them and pretend the whole thing never happened?
The author compares the process several times to Freudian psychotherapy, in that the subject knows, deep down, what the problem is and it is the interrogator’s job to bring that knowledge to the surface, and that just understanding the problem will actually solve it. Surprisingly, he does not compare it to the Catholic sacrament of Reconciliation, with its endless cycle of confession, contrition, and absolution. Perhaps the KR had just misread Orwell’s warning as instructions: we make the brain perfect before we blow it out.
The author also several times describes the prisoners as “guilty because they were arrested” but only once, in a brief paragraph, makes the harshest point. S-21 contained political prisoners. Almost everyone there was himself KR; indeed, disgraced former guards and interrogators at the prison itself made up a substantial minority of the inmate population.
The inevitable arithmetic is this: every inmate necessarily fell into one of two categories. Either he was actually working to undermine Democratic Kampuchea, as a saboteur, a CIA informant, a Vietnamese stooge, whatever — in other words, he was objectively guilty of what he was accused of; or else he wasn’t, he was supporting, or at least not actively opposing one of the worst regimes in living memory. In other words, actually guilty in any reasonable meaning of the phrase.
I don’t know exactly what I was expecting, something from a movie, ruins in a jungle clearing, ominous and overgrown with lianas. Pythons and huge furry spiders. Instead it looked like what it was: a popular, well-tended public building, like the White House or the Louvre. The grounds were manicured and roads around it had thorough signage in several languages. It reminded me of an good airport, maybe Dulles.
I got to Mo Chit bus depot exactly at 3am. The cabbie had offered to take me for a flat 200 baht but I insisted on the meter. 97 baht, plus a 45-baht toll, plus a 50-baht tip for the guy, so I saved 8 baht, almost almost a quarter US.
The depot is very quiet at 3 in the morning. There were a dozen drowsy or sleeping passengers in a huge waiting area ringed by walls of darkened ticket windows. Three or four were lit, manned by depressed-looking clerks, no doubt wondering what they did wrong to deserve this shift. There were signs posted everywhere but few in Latin characters and none that mentioned any place I recognized. In my jet-lagged state, I couldn’t remember the name of the Thai border town I needed to go to (it’s Aranya Pratet, by the way) nor the Thai word for “Cambodia” (it’s “Kampucha” of course) and the clerk I tried didn’t know where “Poipet” is. “Cambodia” I tried. The clerk was still dubious but pointed down.