Man or Monster? The Trial of a Khmer Rouge Torturer by Alexander Laban Hinton (Duke University Press, 350pp), $26.95 (paperback)
Asked of the notorious S-21 prison commander Comrade Duch, the question “man or monster?” bears all the hallmarks of a cliché. Kaing Guek Eav – better known by his chosen alias – is the only one of three people so far convicted for atrocities committed under the Khmer Rouge regime.
Assessing Duch as a savage torturer who reflects our basest instincts serves to comfort those who see him as an outlier. But he was also a meticulous mathematics teacher who, during his trial, recited French poetry and at times seemed to express genuine contrition for his actions. Perhaps anyone in his circumstances would have followed gruesome orders.
Man or Monster? is a also deceptively simplistic title for genocide scholar Alexander Laban Hinton’s new book, which examines Duch’s trial before the Khmer Rouge tribunal. Hinton is aware of constructing such a dichotomy: it’s meant, he says, as a provocation.
And Hinton, the director of the Centre for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights at Rutgers University, is no stranger to provocation.
His anthropological studies and 2005 book Why Did They Kill: Cambodia in the Shadow of Genocide, qualified him as an expert witness in the Khmer Rouge tribunal’s second case, against former “Brother Number Two” Nuon Chea and head of state Khieu Samphan.
His testimony this March was so provocative that the ailing Nuon Chea, who usually views the court proceedings from bed, materialised in the court room to challenge him. Afterwards, Hinton continued to ruffle the feathers of the defence; in a post-testimony interview, he described Nuon Chea as “one of the architects of the genocide, a legendary mass murderer”.
Hinton doesn’t shy away from stating his opinion in this latest offering. He recounts speaking with an S-21 survivor, Chum Mey, about the two accused and hands down his own verdict in parentheses: “He hopes the defendants in that case will also be sentenced to life (a wish that will be fulfilled).”
But the author also points out that during his testimony he noted that it would be “wrong” to “simply dismiss Nuon Chea as a ‘monster.’”
“He is all too human, a complex human being like all of us,” he said in an interview this week.
Testifying was an experience Hinton describes as “both familiar and odd: familiar, since I had extensively studied the court; odd, because I was now sitting in a position that I had observed from the outside, through the glass walls from the public gallery”.
Though he set out to write a study of the tribunal from an anthropological standpoint, Hinton says he found himself “swept into the drama of the Duch trial”, and elected to deviate from the typical academic work in favour of “ethnodrama”.
Hinton’s book doesn’t just tackle the complexity of a character like Duch through the lens of the trial. It offers a way to understand the court proceedings, which can often be dry, convoluted, and peppered with legalistic jargon.
It also employs more literary techniques than the average exegesis. Hinton takes court documents and recasts the text as poems, or places himself in the centre of the story, acting as a guide around the S-21 premises.
The book attempts to tweak the famous “banality of evil” concept into what Hinton sees in Duch as the “banality of everyday thought”, and looks at what parts of Duch have been focused on in public view, leaving what’s unsaid simmering beneath the surface, ready to burst.
Just three months after Hinton’s testimony, Duch again took the stand. His drastically different appearance – he had shed his grey hair and become noticeably thinner – left Hinton and many others wondering how much longer Duch, the man, will live.