Michael's Dispatches

No Darker Heart

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The tree upon which babies were crushed.

A Killing Field, Cambodia

After the monsoon rains abate, the draining earth offers up fragments of clothing, human teeth and bones as final testimony of the restless, wronged dead. Murdered on this now sacred ground, thirty or more years ago, they are among the millions of souls sacrificed to a fevered ideology that was completely broken only a decade ago. The remains that seep up through the mud under my feet in this Killing Field are from a different war, but they echo a mournful reminder of how jarringly common it is for societies at war with themselves to descend into madness. Death squads under holy orders, suicide bombers in mosques, machete-wielding mobs in Rwanda, industrialized gas chambers in Europe, fire-breathing Janjaweed militias in Darfur, and here the tree named for its function as “killing tree against which executioners beat children.”

Paintings on display at the S-21 torture prison, Phnom Penh.

Powerful, philosophical memes, forever pulsing through human populations, are never far from pushing us to some brink. The best memes land people on the moon; they create more cures than afflictions, more freedoms than restrictions, more heroes than villains, more hope than despair. These memes tend to pump knowledge into the human mind rather than vacuum it out. Perhaps memes are just memes, philosophies just philosophies, mental scripts piled atop mental scripts much as we build upon the lands where our ancestors lived and died. I once spent two days coursing down the Mekong River deep into Laos, wondering who had gone before me, and how many times humans have reinvented the boat. Today, we walk across the bridges, a concept others imagined then built, and we walk along trails and routes that have lasted for centuries or millennia, all while making new connections. Some trails lead to Hell.

Despite that many paths are clearly marked “This fork to Hell: Take right fork to nicer place,” a herd inertia prevents stopping long enough to read the signs or heed the caution. Signs appear in many forms, but they are always there. Jets crashing into buildings, yellow stars on lapels, people disappearing into the night, mass graves appearing on the edge of town, official languages, and always, the silent assent of enough people greasing the sides of the slope: visit enough genocide memorials in Germany or Poland or here and the patterns of pathology present themselves.

Painted from collective memory.

Here in the sweltering jungles of Cambodia, the educated, cultural elite Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge denizens perpetrated horrors ranging from ripping off nipples with pliers to vivisection, all part of a master plan to create a Utopia cleansed of all impurities of Western influence. Although Cambodia had been an ally of the West, during Cambodia’s years of darkness the eyes of world leaders were studiously averted, providing complicit cover for a charismatic zealot to excavate along ancient cultural divides and exploit rich veins of resentment.

The feeding frenzy of bloodlust traumatized the kingdom. But only when it began to burst and spill out, threatening the stability of neighbor states, did outcry lead to intervention. Too late for as many as three million people who had been herded into killing fields, slaughtered, and starved or worked to death, their corpses clotting the fertile paddies.

Victims sacrificed along the path to “Utopia.”

Like Nazis and Baathists, Khmer Rouge kept meticulous files on people who were tortured before their execution. Unfortunately for the survivors, who bear the sacred duty of assuring proper funeral rituals so that the souls of the dead can have a new chance at life, records of those killed in work camps were not as precise.

Thousands and thousands of faces, all dead.

Children from the torture prison shipped off to Killing Fields: What was their crime?

Genocides require demon traits that mark targets as “deserving death.” Tribal identity, race, and religious affiliation are convenient rallying points for despots with a feel for local history, an uncanny sense of timing and an utter lack of conscience. Pol Pot selected impurity by virtue of Western influence, and used education as the measure of the threat.

In a spiraling perpetual motion machine of death, Pol Pot ordered all “elites” killed, wiping out a generation of teachers, doctors, government workers, priests and monks, business owners, soldiers and artists. Many were first tortured beyond simple imagination, to secure the names of other infected Khmer. As word of the new order spread, survival instinct overtook pride of place and suddenly everyone was a peasant. Any person who could speak a foreign language was targeted for torture. Along with the “elite,” targets expanded to include entire family trees uprooted and destroyed.

Memorial at a Killing Field.

Anyone who could have read these words would have been killed for at least two reasons: 1) They could read a foreign language; 2) They could read. People who wore glasses were assumed to be educated and were killed. The children of people who could read, children who it was feared would grow up to be intelligent, were murdered while still babies, their tiny bodies split open against trees.

The Khmer Rouge used such fronds to more painfully saw off the heads of living victims. The fronds are hard and sharp, and even more horrible than the knives of our enemies in Iraq.

Painting in the S-21 torture prison: Khmer Rouge pulling the trigger, shooting a baby off his bayonet.

One problem with killing all the smart people is that no one is left to fix the machines, farm the rice or build the new rural workers’ Utopia. Quotas aren’t met, pressure builds among the rebel sects eager to deflect the bayonet of blame, and eventually the army of the revolution begins to cannibalize itself. On the verge of imploding, Cambodia’s jungle bled hordes of refugees into Thailand. With a floundering economy, no rice to export, and a factionalized and largely starving army, the Khmer Rouge were routed by the Vietnamese army. Ironically, when our former ally Cambodia was invaded by our former enemy Vietnam, some of the few Americans paying attention at the time were relieved.

What remains: a towering legacy rises in the jungle.

Today, Cambodia is slowly rising from the dark and coming to terms with its tortuous recent past, using the power of the arts to memorialize the suffering and death of so many for the glorification of an idea that wears many disguises but is always revealed to be a hollow smear on human history. This viral delusion that one religious faith, or ethnicity, or system of government is right to the exclusion of all others and can only be secure when all others are eradicated, whether by brainwashing or brute force, is the rotten core of many civil wars.

Given how easily despots and tyrants can train the hatred in the hearts of rivals to make them willing accomplices in genocidal atrocities, it’s tempting to affix permanency to the hate and desire for revenge. Long-term regional solutions are then limited to some variation on enforced separations of rival factions, or waiting until one side succeeds in wiping out or subduing the other. But in Cambodia today, where roads are being built and travelers along them are welcome and safe, a different truth emerges from the mud. Rain and remembrance of the dead are vital purgatives.

Instead of using a tree to crush children and innocent lives, al-Qaeda uses car bombs and other weapons.

Standing on this sacred burial ground, staring into portraits of faces that saw death impatient for the shutter release, I think: What now for Iraq? In considering how to find a way back to goals all sides embrace, as the country devolves into the kind of civil chaos that precedes genocide, we should remember our friends in Iraq, while they are still alive.

For Iraqi children . . .

. . . the future is now.



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