I have been listening to the audiobook “Ghostwritten” by David Mitchell, read by William Rycroft. Mitchell is a storyteller par excellence; his words transport me right into scenes as they unfold, for example, into a far flung hostel where a member of a cult group is in hiding after unleashing a gas attack on a Tokyo subway.
As the townsfolk shake their heads, unable to comprehend the motivation behind such senseless killing, a lady in the group, a teacher, suggests that none of the cult group members had chosen specifically to become killers. What they had done, she said, was to abdicate their inner selves.
She elaborated: ‘Society is an outer abdication. We abdicate certain freedoms, and in return we get civilisation. … However, we all have an inner self, that decides to what degree we honour this contract. This inner self is our own responsibility. I fear that many of the young men and women in the Fellowship handed this inner responsibility to their Guru, to do with as he pleased.’
As part of my research into Cambodia for Place of Refuge, I am also reading ‘Facing the Torturer’ by Francois Bizot. In 1971, Bizot convinced his Khmer Rouge captor, Duch, that he was not a spy. Duch, in turn, worked to secure Bizot’s freedom. The night before Bizot’s release, Duch confessed to Bizot how hard it had been to carry out his duties. Bizot recounted: “Finally, the young commander with whom I spoke every day … had revealed that he had to beat the prisoners himself. … It was nothing more than putting the ardour of his commitment into practice, the action being in proportion to the greatness of the revolutionary ends.”
Putting these two images side by side, one, a fictional cult member who gasses travellers because he believes the world is corrupted, and the other, a non-fictional account of a Khmer Rouge prison guard who vomited the first time he beat his prisoners, his own body rebelling against his task, I reflected on how, from time to time, we justify our actions, by saying that we are ‘acting under orders’.
I thought of the fishermen who delivered food to the Rohingya refugees adrift at sea. Was it their humanity that compelled them? How did the patrol guards feel when they had to tow boats away? (It has been reported that this is no longer the practice.) Did they have to suppress their natural human instinct to help their fellow man? Did they have to convince themselves that they had to a job to do, regardless of how unsavoury it was? That they had to be professional? What would I have done in their shoes?
If a person suppresses their conscience once, does that conscience slowly begin to die? Does it get easier the next time? In 1998, Bizot is startled when he visits a prison museum, and recognises Duch’s face in the exhibit, and ‘discovers the horrifying extent of his actions from 1975 to 1979, as well as his responsibility in the organisation of torture and executions. … I felt myself shivering as I thought of the brilliant young revolutionary I had known compared with this possessed being, who remained my fellow man.’
Bizot writes with great compassion, and also with fear, recognising that he is himself capable of evil, and capable of justifying evil. Each time we silence our conscience in the name of a ‘greater good’, do we deaden ourselves a little?