A couple of weeks ago, the New York Times carried a fascinating article that detailed the pride that a particular torturer took in doing his job well. The man expressed “pride in the efficiency” with which he did his job. As he put it, “In my entire life, if I do something, I’ll do it properly.” As a boy, he said that was “well-disciplined” and “respected the teachers and did good deeds.”
The man is Kaing Guek Eav, also known as Duch. He is a former member of the Khmer Rouge, who killed some 1.7 million people in Cambodia from 1975-1979. Duch’s prison staff tortured more than 14,000 of those people and killed almost all of them.
Today, Duch is being prosecuted for the torture and killings, even though at the time the Cambodian government considered them legal and essential. As a public servant, Doik had loyally obeyed the orders of his superiors to torture and kill, especially since he “operated within a chain of command where disobedience often meant death.”
Some 40 years later, Doik is facing the possibility of a life sentence for crimes against humanity, war crimes, homicide, and torture.
Was Duch’s torture effective? He told the court: “I never believed the confessions I received told the truth. At most, they were about 40 percent true.” When prisoners were coerced into naming accomplices, Duch believed that only 20 percent of them were genuine. Nonetheless, the lists of supposed accomplices provided the authorities with new people to arrest, torture, and murder. As Duch put it so well, “The work expanded, people were arrested illegally, right or wrong. I considered it evil eating evil eating evil.”
While Duch is now expressing remorse for what he did, the article points out that over the course of the trial, the pride that he took in doing his job has gradually surfaced and effectively subsumed the remorse.
And why not? After all, wasn’t Duch simply doing what so many other people in history have done: serve their country as public servants of the state, loyally carrying out the orders of their superiors to torture and murder evildoers, afraid of their superiors and overly anxious to please them, lacking the moral fortitude to say no, and then later seeking understanding, forgiveness, and pardon when facing punishment for their crimes?