On March 12 I spend most of the day at Tuol Sleng, also known as S-21, in Phnom Penh. This is the principal place where the Khmer Rouge interrogated and tortured its enemies in the late 1970s. Perhaps fifteen thousand people passed through here in a little over three years; fewer than a dozen survived. S-21 was once a school; then it was a torture chamber; now it’s a memorial to the agony inflicted by the Khmer Rouge, and a reminder of the ease with which we kill one another.
The buildings are of stained and cracked concrete, solemnly adorned now with photographs of the dead, instruments of torture, remnants of crudely constructed cramped cells, iron bedsteads to which prisoners were shackled while being tortured, munitions boxes in which human waste was stored (these affected me especially: the shit of those about to die as replacement for the bullets used to kill them), and much else. Prisoners were brought in, shackled, and incarcerated with as many as sixty others in a single room where they might be kept for weeks or months, hosed down every now and then, and kept alive on five hundred or so calories a day. They were waiting their turn for individual interrogation and torture, and when the time came for that it was done with the usual attention to detail. Torture is a skill human beings have been honing for millennia, and we are, by now, good at it. The Khmer Rouge were low-tech in this, as in much else, but they were certainly attentive: an interrogator could himself (or herself—there were some female interrogators) be imprisoned and tortured if someone under his care should die too soon, and that prospect fostered care with the particulars of pain. Maximal pain short of death was the goal; there’s an art to that, and care was taken with it. Confessions of complicity with the enemy were what was wanted, and they were, of course, forthcoming.
The Khmer Rouge wanted to start everything over. For their ideologues, and especially for Pol Pot, Brother Number One, things had gone badly enough in Cambodia that cities, art, machines, and religion (they were indiscriminate here: Muslims, Christians, and Buddhists were equally bad) needed to be erased. They made graveyards of automobiles as well as of people; they razed cathedrals as well as factories; they restarted the calendar to Year Zero; and they tried to transform the “new people” (intellectuals, artists, monks, priests, those with soft hands or eyeglasses, those who wrote and read and painted and composed) into “old people” (workers in the fields) by turning them—the ones they didn’t directly kill—into forced labor. Between 1975 and 1979 perhaps one in five Cambodians died by one kind of violence or another. It’s as if something between sixty and seventy million Americans were killed in less than four years.
I wept at S-21. What else is there to do? I wept not only at what’s commemorated in that place, but also at the optimism with which it’s commemorated. At S-21, as at Yad Vashem, as at the Washington Holocaust Museum, and as (no doubt, though I haven’t seen them) at memorials to the Armenian slaughter and the Rwandan massacre, the commemoration is said to be undertaken so that this won’t happen again. But it will. It always has and it always will, to the end of the age, being in this like slavery. These slaughters are among the most characteristic human activities. Memorials cannot keep them from happening again; what they can do is prompt us to tears. That’s what we can give to those who were killed in these places, as well as to those who killed them. It’s enough.