S-21

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.

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