Torture Theater


I’m currently reading Man or Monster: the Trial of a Khmer Rouge Torturer, about the trial of a man named Duch, who literally wrote the book on how to torture and interrogate detainees during the brief rule and genocide perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.

Duch was in charge of S-21, a Khmer Rouge prison dedicated mostly to routing out “spies” among KR cadre. His torture manual (which was actually named, in a tribute to Arendt’s concept of the banality of evil, “Statistics List”) lays out in great detail how to torture just enough to get a “good” confession, but not too much, so that the tortured will not just say anything to make it stop. A “good” confession is arrived at by a lengthy process in which the interrogator relays the initial confession to a superior (usually Duch), who annotates it with the further information it ought to have and returns it to the interrogator, who then works on extracting that information from the victim, followed by another round of annotations and extractions, and so on, until finally the tortured has not said just anything, but instead exactly what the interrogator wanted, and in such a way that the interrogator may be assured that the confession is “good.” Typically such confessions had to contain, at minimum, the names of associates who are also spies, who would then be rounded up and tortured in turn. Detainees who persisted in refusing to confess would be handed off to the also ironically-named Comrade Toy, the most brutal of the interrogators at the camp. But even in that case, the theater of confession would have to be produced in the usual fashion, albeit with more violence.

It is beyond the scope of the book to speculate on why the Khmer Rouge expended so much effort on eating itself, but it really does appear that interrogators did believe in the confessions they coerced from their comrades before killing them. Or, at least Duch did, in calling them “good.”

As surprising as this form of self-deception may seem to the rational mind, it appears to be rather common. In Robert Cullen’s excellent The Killer Department, for example, it is evident the Soviet police believe the confessions they coerce from random suspects every single time in their pursuit of the killer who turned out to be Andrei Chikatilo, and every time, they are surprised when the killings continue.

Of course in our own popular culture, the information the hero detective beats out of the suspect is always true, too, so there you go.

Original photo caption: This is the actual room and the bed where many Cambodians were tortured and murdered by the Khmer Rouge. It used to be a classroom in a school but the school was converted into into what was known as the notorious Security Prison 21 (S-21). As many as 17,000 people were interned here and only 12 survived. This place is now part of the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and is in the same condition as when.

One thought on “Torture Theater

  1. Pingback: Man or Monster | Damn'd Spot

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