Cambodia Travel Route: Phnom Penh – The Killing Fields
“I remember my mother taking me as a very little kid to the roof of our home in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, to look at the bombs exploding in the distance. She didn’t want us to be scared by the booms and the strange flashes of light. It was her way of helping us to understand what was happening.” – Tammy Duckworth
Who were the Khmer Rouge?
There are many myths about the Khmer Rouge’s bloodthirstiness and brutality, but there was one place where all the tales were real: S-21, the infamous prison and torture center, now famously known by the name: The Killing Fields. Between 1975 and 1979, the Cambodian people were subjected to some of the worst atrocities of the 20th century, committed by their own rulers – the Khmer Rouge and their deranged leader, Pol Pot. Approximately 1.5 million people (nearly 25% of the entire population) died during that time either by execution or indirectly through starvation or disease. Pol Pot’s big idea was to create an agrarian society that lived solely off the land – and anybody who potentially stood in his way, such as “intellectuals” – who were identified as such by sometimes only wearing glasses or knowing a foreign language – were murdered, along with their entire families.
The official slogan of the Khmer Rouge was: “To destroy you is no loss, to preserve you is no gain…” This is the ultimate manifestation of the famous expression coined by Hannah Arendt, “The banality of evil.” Banal evil is characterized by a belief that what one is doing is not evil. Rather, what they are engaging in, is a behavior that is, or has been, normalized by the society in which they reside. She used the phrase to describe Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi bureaucrat who hastened millions to their deaths. There are striking similarities between Eichmann and many of the Khmer Rouge officials, indicating just how universal the propensity for evil is. The book “Cambodia – Stricken Land” by Henry Kamm helped me understand all of that.