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Tuesday, May 23, 2000

In Cambodia, hell looks like this

Staff writer
VOICES FROM S-21: Terror and History in Pol Pot's Secret Prison, by David Chandler. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999, pp. 238, $17.95.

Men, women and children are arrested on the basis of rumor, rounded up in trucks and hauled, without trial, to prison, where they are asked to give information about crimes of which they know nothing. As prisoners, they are beaten with sticks, tortured with electric wires, burned with cigarettes, forced to eat excrement. An interrogator pulls out his captive's fingernails until the prisoner manages to piece together a fiction that incriminates himself. The prisoner is then taken outside, bludgeoned to death with an ox-cart axle and tipped into a mass grave.

Although this sensationalized telling is true in its detailing of a horrific Cambodian prison, it is of little value -- it serves only to shock and repulse, emotions that trigger our flight instincts.

In "Voices from S-21: Terror and History in Pol Pot's Secret Prison," David Chandler's unsensational, restrained and even introspective book, he does the opposite: He unflinchingly examines the horror without making it a horror show.

Scholarly distance is the wrong phrase for this perspective. It is Chandler's persistent effort to get as close as possible to the minds and experiences of both the captives and captors that elevates his work.

The book opens with the beginning of the end of the Khmer Rouge's rule of Cambodia, in the first days of 1979. Vietnamese troops reached Phnom Penh after a two-week blitz, and the rank-and-file Khmer took to the hills with their leaders. The few people left behind were relieved to see their conquerors -- life under the Khmer regime had been mentally and physically brutal.

A day after their arrival, as Vietnamese troops fanned out through the ghost town the capital had become, two photojournalists who had accompanied the invaders came upon a compound, the purpose of which was not readily apparent. The smell, however, was death.

Over the coming weeks they were able to determine that the former high-school campus had been used as a top-secret intelligence headquarters. The more disturbing secrets of the compound, which has been made into a museum, would take years to unravel.

S-21, once established, was a self-sustaining entity. Chandler notes that in the prison's early days there was discomfort among the guards and interrogators at carrying out their inhuman duties. Some guards had to be told, "You must rid yourselves of the view that beating the prisoners is cruel."

However, as the violent culture became ingrained and prisoners came to be regarded as subhuman, the brutality came easier, until eventually interrogators had to be counseled that the "objective of doing torture is to seek answers from them, and not to make us happy."

Chandler found that the main recruits for the brutal work were young men, "the most dangerous people on the planet, because they easily respond to authority and they want approval." They were poorly trained, poorly informed and terrified.

By examining the context in which the S-21 workers found themselves, Chandler takes away from us the pleasing but delusional notion that these men were fundamentally "other," or evil. "It is . . . easy to judge the interrogators, guards, or executioners too severely," he writes. "They could disobey orders only on pain of death."

Following that line of thought further, he reaches the startling, sickening, but undeniable conclusion that the people who committed the acts described in the first paragraph of this review were not fundamentally different from any one of us -- what they did was "normal" in the context of their situation.

For a scholar like Chandler, studying S-21 presented many practical problems.

For one, although there were stacks and cabinets full of typed and handwritten confessions -- more than 4,000, ranging in length from one page to several hundred -- there was no way to corroborate the narratives.

Furthermore, the method of extracting the confessions puts their verity under obvious doubt. Chandler cites Aristotle pointing out two millennia ago that confessions flowing from torture often bear little relation to the truth.

The prison's administrative documentation was useful for reckoning who, what and when, but was largely unrevealing on the more critical questions of how and why.

And the questions of why are, in the end, the ones that dog Chandler. The process -- from capture to execution -- seems to defy logic.

Why force answers from prisoners, when the interrogators must surely have had some inkling that confessions were often invented out of desperate hope of relief from torture?

An even more confounding question: Why press prisoners for answers at all? The browbeating that police give suspects is a means to a specific end -- to gather evidence for court. The prisoners of S-21 would face no trial. They were guilty on the grounds that they had been arrested. And the penalty for arrest was death.

Why so uniformly brutal? Of the 14,000 prisoners "processed" through S-21, only seven were not executed.

Part of the answer to these questions is that asking why was not an option for the rank-and-file revolutionary. The society as a whole was strictly controlled, and absolute, unquestioning loyalty was required.

A partial explanation for the endless interrogations is the deep-seated and self-perpetuating insecurity of the leadership -- the insatiable need for information from ever more prisoners both fueled and reflected a spiraling paranoia.

One reason for the brutality is total secrecy -- dead prisoners tell no tales.

Exploring other explanations for the horrors of S-21 is Chandler's reason for studying this grisly subject in the first place.

Chandler's conclusion that torturers must be understood in the context of their situation is not a misplaced, bleeding-heart sympathy. His conclusion does not excuse atrocious behavior, but warns against what we as humans are capable of. A different grade of condemnation is reserved for the director of the prison, the sinister bureaucrat Duch, and his higher-ups, whom "no 'context' is spacious enough to contain."

A large portion of the book is devoted to examining historical precedence and lineage for the ideologies and practices of the Khmer Rouge, and Chandler is diligent in elucidating the differences from as well as similarities to the Holocaust, the Moscow show trials, China's Cultural Revolution and other modern atrocities. There are also astute references to literary works that inevitably spring to mind: Orwell's "1984," Kafka's "The Trial."

He is diligent in his notation as well: The notes, bibliography and index comprise one-third of the 238-page book.

Chandler has won acclaim for his earlier scholarly works on Pol Pot and Cambodian history, and this book, published last year, is a continuation of that endeavor. If there is a fault, it is that, in the end, Chandler fails to specifically pin Pol Pot with the crimes of S-21, as the book's subtitle does.

In fact, Chandler notes that the evidence showing the connection is scant. Perhaps the publisher wanted the eye-catching name of Pol Pot on the cover, but it goes against the grain of this carefully nuanced study.

In any case, this book is ultimately not about blame, but about extremes of human behavior and how they occur. It questions its own merit as a subject as it goes along, worrying that it may either exploit or soften the horror of S-21. But by arguing effectively that S-21 is closer to all of us than we'd care to think, and that the true terror is not that you could be such a prisoner, but that you could be such a guard, Chandler well justifies his work.

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