“I admit that I am responsible for the crimes, torture and execution at S-21.”
– From a prepared statement by Kang Kek Ieu, a.k.a. “Duch,” March 31, 2009.
Kang Kek Ieu, the born-again Christian who once ran the Khmer Rouge’s most notorious torture facility in Phnom Penh, came tantalizingly close to making one of the most dramatic gestures in the history of international war crimes tribunals last Tuesday as his trial at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal opened.
Duch, as he was called in his days of active duty with the Khmer Rouge, actually took a measure of responsibility for the thousands of brutally painful deaths inflicted at the Tuol Sleng S-21 facility.
He asked forgiveness for his actions. “I apologize to the survivors of the regime and also the loved ones of those who died brutally in the regime. I don’t ask that you forgive me now, but I hope you will later.”
Positing the Khmer Rouge holocaust as one of the most massive and tragic manifestations of the Lucifer Effect in recent memory, it might seem that Duch had at long last done what Dr. Zimbardo says we all must do to break the cycle; he had, as an individual, confessed moral error.
But . . . all of this was tempered with an explanation for his actions that has an unfortunately familiar ring. “Although I knew the orders were criminal, I never dared question them because it was a life-or-death situation for me and my family.”
As so many alleged war criminals have done, Duch wound up claiming that he was following orders. While it is undoubtedly true that he was following orders and that he risked death for himself and his family by failing to do so, including that qualifier dilutes some of the moral authority of his confession.
Even so, Duch’s acknowledgment of personal responsibility is almost without precedent in these kinds of international tribunals. His statement indicates an awareness that, as an individual, he is accountable for his behavior even in the context of a brutal regime.
All indications are that the other four defendants in the trial will be disclaiming any responsibility. Each is likely to follow either the I-didn’t-do-it or the I-was-just-following-orders track. Duch’s tentative one step forward is probably going to be followed by four big steps back.
As I have noted before, the Khmer Rouge Tribunal is heading dangerously close to its own brand of injustice. Each of the other four defendants was higher in the Khmer Rogue hierarchy than Duch. None has confessed or is likely to confess. There is a considerable possibility that some of all of the other four will die before their cases come to trial.
So, Duch, whom no one is accusing of making policy, may well be the only defendant convicted. The only one who is willing to confess may be the only one who ever pays the price.
It will be fascinating to watch the remainder of the trial play out. Under the rules of the Tribunal, guilty pleas are not possible, so the prosecution will be putting on its evidence in spite of Duch’s confession.
What picture will emerge? Will we get new and different insights into the institutional pressures that might cause an otherwise ethically responsible person to participate in butchery? Will we be in a better position to assess the true extent of Duch’s individual responsibility? Might we have a truly dynamic case study in the interplay between the individual conscience and dominant group paradigm?
For now, let’s accept that the glass is half full. Somebody who committed atrocities declared in a public forum that his actions were morally indefensible. In the grand scheme of the history of the Lucifer Effect, that’s progress.