Before they were monsters they were us


There are no lies in a photograph. It is simply a moment captured from time waiting to be interpreted. Some photos are joyous, like those of a recently married couple or a first birthday. Others are beautiful, like a photo from National Geographic or one found on a trendy hipster Instagram profile. Some photos are haunting. They appear ordinary but there is a horrible story embedded within.

Pol Pot and others involved with Khmer RougeThis photo of 13 men is quite ordinary. It seems as though they have just arrived somewhere, and have awkwardly posed for a camera.

Imagine the photographer trying to coordinate their pose; the man in the back is laughing about something funny that has been said. The one in the middle stands out, he looks like an enthusiastic university graduate ready to make a stamp on his world, eager to make a difference. The one on the left looks kind, he is smiling and has an open body language.

They have arrived in a Mercedes and look like they are happy to stretch their legs. They are probably quite tired after what may have been a long journey.

What is so haunting about this photo is the story of what these men would do. The man on the left is Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge, whose regime would cause a quarter of the Cambodian population to die. The 'enthusiastic university graduate' is Comrade Duch, the meticulous chief of Tuol Sleng Prison. These seemingly ordinary looking men did atrocious things.

It is tempting to ignore their normality and solely focus on the traits that made them demons. It is easier to accept horrible things when they have been done by an 'evil' tyrant. It is harder to accept horrible feats when focusing on the ordinary aspects of the perpetrators.

Many of the men met at a French University (having been sent there on scholarship). Imagine these academics sitting around at a bar hatching their plan to build a revolution. Imagine their hope and excitement, and how they would have held onto this 'ideal'. Perhaps they were good students, perhaps they were late handing in essays, perhaps they enjoyed sipping lattes and watching Parisians walk past.

There are two important historical spots in Phnom Penh: the Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng prison. During the 1975–1978 regime, the Khmer Rouge would take their prisoners to Tuol Sleng and torture them until they confessed to whatever their torturers suggested. These were typically anyone who could be perceived as a threat — leaders, intellectuals, anyone who was educated.

Pol Pot and Comrade Duch had worked as teachers prior to unearthing the 'utopian' society. Having brutalised the prisoners they were sent to the Killing Fields where they were secretly murdered, using farming equipment to save bullets. Millions of individuals died this way. Almost 40 years later Cambodia is still recovering.

Some may say what happened in Cambodia happened because Cambodia is different. It was a different time. That sort of thing does not happen in Australia.

Australia puts individuals in detention for indeterminate amounts of time. Australia imprisons innocent children. Australia imprisons health workers for speaking out about injustices they had seen. Australia forces the closure of Indigenous communities. Australia puts a high proportion of Indigenous youth in prison. Australia sends traumatised and malnourished individuals back to their persecutors. Australia celebrates the fact that victims of war, genocide and persecution no longer feel welcome in this land.

What stories will be embedded in the ordinary photographs of today? In 50 years' time, what emotions will be evoked when people reflect on the kind faces of our leaders? What stories will be attached to ordinary photos of us? What historical moments will haunt them? Where will their shame lie?

Will your children's children look at your ordinary photos and feel proud at the world you built for them? Will they recognise that their ancestors saw an injustice and did something about it?

What story are you creating?


Michael Walter

Michael Walter is a member of the youth and education development team at St Vincent de Paul Society Victoria.

Topic tags: Michael Walter, Pol Pot, Khmer Rouge, Comrade Duch, Tuol Sleng Prison



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Existing comments

How do we categorise evil? From shockingly evil, to very evil, to moderately evil? Who judges evil? The story I want to create for my grandchildren is one where "I have made a monument more enduring than bronze and taller than a pyramid" (Horace). Nothing I do will be perfect or free of guilt and shame.

Pam | 10 November 2015  

Actually no, they weren’t us. “Seemingly ordinary looking men” yes, but they were taught their grisly trade at school. Historian Paul Johnson wrote: “Of its eight leaders, five were teachers, one a university professor, one a civil servant and one an economist. All had studied in France in the 1950s, where they had not only belonged to the Communist Party but had absorbed [Jean-Paul] Sartre’s doctrines of philosophical activism and ‘necessary violence’. These mass murderers were his [Sartre’s] ideological children.” Sartre was an apologist for Stalinism, and he wrote the introduction “which is even more bloodthirsty than the text itself” to Frantz Fanon’s “Wretched of the Earth” which advocated violence to attain power in colonies. Fanon helped to inflame Africa. In turn, Ali Shari’at, the Sorbonne-educated Iranian regarded as the father of the Shiite revolution, translated Fanon and Sartre. The journalist Issandr Elamsani wrote that Arab leftist intellectuals are “all ex-Sorbonne, old Marxists.” Pol Pot wanted to take Cambodia back to Year Zero. Radical Islamists want to return to an imagined purity of seventh-century Islam. These people all put their theories first. George Orwell always put experience before abstract ideas, which was why he mostly got it right.

Ross Howard | 11 November 2015  

Always easier to demonize when we ensure (in our heads) that the perpetrators are 'over there' and 'different'; geographically, politically, ethnically. Thank you Michael for reminding us of monsters in a photograph quite ordinary. Yes, change the faces and the venue and swap the Merc for a Holden... could be us. Your paragraph that begins 'Australia...' is most uncomfortable reading. How is it that we allowed dog-whistle politics to get the upper hand?

Richard | 11 November 2015  

This is an excellent article. The problem seems to be the normalisation of such things as the author Michael Walter mentions in our current Australian context. Doing these things as in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander context of NT Intervention, the 2015 transferring of funds essential for Aboriginal communities to - for example to rich sporting bodies and the shocking incarceration rates mentioned have simply become accepted and acceptable. This treatment of the Original Australians has easily led to our inhumane shocking treatment of asylum seekers which has also has become normalised. All this in a vast and rich country which we mainstream Australians have simply taken over to our own privilege, barely acknowledged. In one documentary I saw I was really struck by the kindly image of Hitler patting the chair next to him inviting someone to take it. It must be so easy when in power to fall into using it against others. So hard to keep opposing it from the grass roots. Thank you for the article.

Michele Madigan | 11 November 2015  

Great piece of provocative, conscience-stirring writing, Michael. Good to see you promoting the cause!

Paul Cahill | 11 November 2015  

Thank you for the interesting article, Michael. For me, you draw an interesting parallel with Hannah Arendt's 'Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil'.

Tina Mattei | 11 November 2015  

Usually, when reading about despotic regimes and human rights abuses, I do so with a comfortable feeling of superiority. I feel so lucky to come from a more enlightened society. Michael Walter's article makes me feel very uncomfortable. Surely every dark part of history begins with good people ignoring atrocities? That photo will haunt me for many days.

Kate Solly | 12 November 2015  

Hervey Milton Cleckley (1903 – January 28, 1984) was an American psychiatrist and pioneer in the field of psychopathy. His book, The Mask of Sanity, originally published in 1941 and revised in new editions until the 1980s, provided the most influential clinical description of psychopathy in the twentieth century. The term "mask of sanity" derived from Cleckley's belief that a psychopath can appear normal and even engaging, but that the "mask" conceals a mental disorder. It is the apparent "utter normalcy" that betrays for the trained eye the moral bankruptcy of these creeps from photogenic Avunvcular Joe Stalin to Pol Pot. The skilled psychologist detects the amoral callous ruthlessness behind that hail fellow well met pic and congeniality Since Cleckly, Robert Hare has penetrated that mask using his Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised, now the Psychopathy Checklist—revised (PCL-R), = a psychological assessment tool most commonly used to assess the presence of psychopathy in individuals. It is a 20-item inventory of perceived personality traits and recorded behaviors, intended to be completed based on a semi-structured interview along with a review of 'collateral information' such as official records. All a beginning to unmask a perennial gargantuan problem that leaves a trail of devastation [at bare minimum broken hearts and empty wallets] A caveat!!!! Not all crims are psychopaths nor does all APPARENTnormalcy hide psychopathy -thus the need for skilled and trained professionals!

Father John George | 12 November 2015  

Thanks Michael for reminding us they were ordinary human beings like us. Human beings have ability to choose good or evil. It is the same human that can soar towards the divine or spiral into evil. We have the free-will. I remember my lecturer many years ago saying 'there is an SS soldier in all of us'. It took me quite awhile to accept and know myself in that statement. Your paragraph of what we are now doing and accepting here in our own wealthy country is very powerful. For some reason we are reacting rather then reflecting and responding to events and we need to write and speak continually against this way always leading to the light.

Colleen Keating | 25 November 2015  

The one in the middle is Son Sen, I believe, not Comrade Duch.

L | 28 November 2015  

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