A Westerner Inside Cambodia’s Dark Era

Did you hear about the French anthropologist who was released as a prisoner of the Khmer Rouge? This isn’t a joke but rather is a true story. Unfortunately, according to Belinda Cooper’s NYT review, we learn little in François Bizot’s book, Facing the Torturer about the nature of evil   Instead, we get a unique look inside Pol Pot’s league of terror–including a fresh take on the psychological price paid by Cambodians.

The central and oft-repeated message is that Duch was not a monster, but a sometimes sensitive human being who believed violence to be necessary in the service of higher ideals. Bizot attributes his release to the empathetic connection that developed between the two men: “My face became his own, and that forbade him from killing me,” he writes. But here, as elsewhere in the book, it is difficult to judge whether his assessments of Duch’s emotions are accurate, or merely the coping strategies of a powerless prisoner. An appended essay, written by Duch after reading Bizot’s earlier book, is noteworthy in itself: it suggests that Bizot’s release had as much to do with Pol Pot’s interest in French good will as with Duch’s feelings for his prisoner.

That even the worst criminals are nevertheless human is hardly an original insight, and Bizot provides little that would add to our understanding of the torturer or his context. Nor do his attempts to link his own violence and Duch’s to a larger statement about humanity — essentially, that we are all capable of evil — rise above cliché.

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