Are we all potential murderous criminals?
Last week I visited S-21, the former main prison of the Khmer Rouge. Here, at least 12,273 people, but most likely thousands more, were brutally tortured before they were killed at the killing fields. This prison is now a museum where people can learn about those horrible times. In this museum is a picture of its former leader, Duch, with al kind of written ‘comments’ on it (see the picture above). People are understandably angry with the person who led this killing machine. Many see him as a monstrous psychopath sent by the devil, but the truth is even more horrendous: he was psychologically quite normal.
It is easy to put Duch aside as a sadistic psychopath. Under his leadership thousands and thousands of people were killed after being brutally tortured. In S-21 nobody could escape torture, because everyone had to confess a crime. Being innocent was not possible, because the Khmer Rouge made no mistakes and thus when you were arrested you were already guilty. They only had to admit it. The often imaginary confessions where then used to uphold the illusions of the regime. Duch annotated all those confessions and when he was satisfied he ordered the prisoners to be killed. As the leader of S-21 he created an effective torture and killing machine. It is very convenient to see Duch and the other perpetrators in S-21 who killed and tortured as psychopaths and monsters. Nevertheless, they were not.
A few months ago Duch was convicted for life imprisonment on higher appeal. Much too late but finally some justice has be done. I took his trial as a unique opportunity to investigate S-21. In this trial psychologists researched Duch and they concluded that Duch was quite normal and mentally stable.
At Duch’s trial a French scholar, Francois Bizot, who was imprisoned in a Khmer Rouge prison which Duch had led before S-21, testified. He said about the time when he was imprisoned and first met Duch: “I had expected to encounter a monster, an inhumane person, but I realized then that things were much more tragic, much more frightening. I realized that in front of me there was a man who looked very much like many friends of mine.” It is also unlikely that all the staff members who worked in this killing machine, hundreds of people, were all monsters.
At first sight this outcome is terrifying. It implies that people like you and me can commit such horrible crimes too. Indeed, there is a lot of research that implicates that that is the case. Nevertheless, it is far more terrifying not to take this outcome serious. If we put we the terrible deeds in shoes of psychopaths we will never understand the situation in which those crimes took place. Will we want to understand what happened we have to look at the forces of the situation that drives the perpetrators. Only then we can avoid this from ever happening again.
Don’t get me wrong, Duch is a criminal who was responsible for the death of many people. Nevertheless, we have to understand how he and his fellow perpetrators came to their deeds. Bizot could not have said it better in his testimony: “If we turn these people [perpetrators] into monsters, a category apart from human beings with which we can have no identification as human beings – not identification with what they’ve done as criminals but identification as human beings – then I think there is no way we can have any kind of grasp of what they’ve perpetrated.”