Genocide: A Conversation with Alex Hinton

Alexander Hinton is Director of the Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights. He is Professor of Anthropology and Global Affairs at Rutgers University, Newark. He was previously President of the International Association of Genocide Scholars, and currently holds the UNESCO Chair in Genocide Prevention. His most recent book on an international tribunal in Cambodia is Man or Monster? The Trial of a Khmer Rouge Torturer; a companion volume, The Justice Facade: Trials of Transition in Cambodia, is forthcoming in the Spring of 2018. In 2013, Professor Hinton served as an expert witness at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal.

Read the introduction of Man or Monster? here.

In this interview, Alexander Hinton discusses issues related to anthropology and genocide in the context of his work on Cambodia. The interview was motivated by my personal interest in genocide, the study of genocide and the issue of the “ordinary perpetrator”. Although my background is in history, I am interested in the multi-disciplinary nature of genocide studies, and wanted to establish what role anthropology can play in understanding genocide. Further, looking at the example of Cambodia, specifically the Duch trial, gave a contextual insight into the study of genocide.

Anna: Although a cross-discipline subject, genocide studies is perhaps synonymous with history or political science. What role does anthropology play in the study of genocide?

Alex: While other approaches offer important insights into genocide, anthropology is distinct in its insistence on deep contextual knowledge to understand the origins, dynamics, and aftermaths of genocide and other forms of political violence. Perhaps in part because of an uneasiness with the questions genocide raises about relativism, anthropologists long ignored this topic, though this neglect began to change in the 1980s and especially the 1990s with a surge of interest in political violence. Still, genocide hovers on the edges of anthropological interest as highlighted by the remarkable lack of work on the Holocaust and the Armenian genocide, among other cases. I attended a panel on the Rohingya of Myanmar at the last AAA meeting and just a handful of people were in the large ballroom.

Anna: I find it interesting, and unsettling, that such events appear “on the edge” of the discipline. What new perspectives do you think can anthropology give to understanding mass atrocity?

Alex: Much of the literature on genocide and atrocity crimes tends to be more experience-distant and comparative. An ethnographic approach, much like a historical approach (and good genocide scholarship combines the two), demands in-depth, experience-near engagement with particular cases – even as anthropologists keep an eye on the comparative as well but only after deep, contextual understanding.

Anna: In your most recent book, Man or Monster?, you closely address the Duch trial in Cambodia. To provide some context, Duch was the first Cambodian leader to be tried at the special court, backed by the UN and established to try crimes committed during the Cambodian genocide. Duch was the commander responsible for the notorious S-21 camp. To me, your focus on Duch relates to what you said earlier about getting the deep contextual knowledge of a situation through an anthropological lens. Why did you specifically focus on this trial in your analysis? Was there something unique about this case, or did it simply provide a good example of such a trial at a criminal tribunal?

Alex: There is a bit of a backstory here. I actually had intended to write a book that focused on how Cambodians understood the global justice experiment that suddenly arrived in the mid-2000s. This first book project ended up being the focus of my second book on the tribunal, The Justice Facade: Trials of Transition in Cambodia, which is coming out with Oxford this Spring.

Duch was the first person to be tried and I became fascinated by Duch himself, his trial and what it revealed about the court, Duch’s relationship to the civil parties, and ultimately, what his trial means to all of us as human beings. The question in the book title, Man or Monster? is in a sense a riddle that is also an answer, almost an aporia.

Anna: Is there a benefit of focusing on a single case, rather than examining the tribunal as a whole?

Alex: Always – that’s the basis of good fieldwork in a sense as long as the research is aware of and keeps an eye on the multidirectional intersections of the single case. As I mentioned, deep, experience-near understanding lays the basis for the comparative. Also, amidst the ethnodrama of the book, there is a background conversation with other broader debates and key texts, especially Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem.

Anna: In Man or Monster?, you use the term “banality of everyday thought” to distinguish from Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil.” I think this is an interesting distinction to make. Can you elaborate on what you mean by this phrase, and how it differs from Arendt’s work?

Alex: I have always been fascinated by Arendt’s book, which is admirable in so many ways even if it has been more recently critiqued for missing what some assert was Eichmann’s strong antisemitism. Regardless, her point about the banality of evil is important and does work that much scholarship today is afraid to do – venture into the realm of ethics and even speak of moral lessons.

At the core of Man or Monster? , then, is a “lesson” which is meant to echo Arendt’s “lesson” about the banality of evil. The etymology of “lesson” suggests moral edification, as in a Biblical lesson. Along these lines, Arendt was not just suggesting that Eichmann was a mindless bureaucrat as popularized versions of the banality of evil idea sometimes claim. Instead, her key “lesson” was Eichmann’s failure to think, his “sheer thoughtlessness” as she put it. His failure was a lesson to all of us about the importance of critical thinking, even if she didn’t phrase it in quite this way.

The “banality of everyday thought” takes up her insight about genocide and the lack of critical thinking while taking off in a different direction, even a bit of a reversal. If the action of perpetrators like Eichmann and Duch are “thoughtless,” the lack of critical thought is directly tied to the way we think – parsing our worlds in reductive terms as we navigate the dilemmas and anxieties of our human predicaments. Here the book draws on philosophy and psychology (Lacan, Derrida, and Levinas) in considering subjectivity even as the book recognizes the larger structural forces at play in producing subjectivity, a notion I discuss in part through the concept of the “thick frames of power.”

Let me conclude by saying that, while observing Duch’s trial, I saw direct parallels in the way meaning was articulated during torture at S-21 (the prison Duch ran), the KRT Trial Chamber / law, the psychological assessment, and so forth. A simple paradox is at work: by the way we think (our articulations) we redact complexity. At S-21, confessions produced an articulation of the enemy; at the ECCC, the juridical process produced the criminal (Duch was convicted). And so forth.

My book ends by calling for an ethics of afacement as opposed to the effacing convictions that propel not just genocide, but the way we operate in our everyday lives – thus the banality of everyday thought – amidst the thick frames of power in which we are enmeshed (discourses, disciplines, structures of power, including law, and so forth). And here the insights about Duch also bear upon contemporary issues such as the rise of bigotry and hate in places like the U.S.

Anna: We indeed live in a world where hate is on the rise. When reflecting on the development of mass atrocity, the notion of the “ordinary perpetrator,” or the idea that anyone can become a perpetrator of genocide, becomes disconcerting. I think that people like to distance themselves from the idea that they can become perpetrators and believe that they wouldn’t commit crimes, even if pushed to do so. But I suppose this isn’t the case, and it is true that anyone can become a perpetrator?

Alex: The easy answer – though perhaps unsettling to many — is that anyone can become a perpetrator. That said, the difficulty of explanation arises in explaining the paths to – and sometimes in and out of – participation in genocide and mass murder. If any of us might become a perpetrator, the book implicitly argues that those who are driven by effacing conviction may more readily be attracted to totalizing ideologies of hate, ranging from totalitarian sentiments to genocidal imperatives.

Perhaps this resembles Adorno’s search for a set of dispositions that may incline people to violence and hate – “the authoritarian personality” as he puts it. But I discuss the idea of “disposition” with great wariness, noting that our subjectivities are bound up with power and also deeply enmeshed with personal and social histories. The idea of a disposition can naturalize the fluid and historical, mask power, and thereby redact precisely the dynamic processes to which we need to attend.

Here is where the deep contextual knowledge issue arises – those who move too quickly to the comparative (or the natural) oversimplify and, to use the terms of Man or Monster?, render articulations of the perpetrators that redact their complexity and make them “other” than us. Indeed the word “perpetrator,” like “criminal,” “enemy,” and so forth, is dangerous in this regard since we emplot complex individuals in reductive categories and narratives. We can’t help but use abstraction and simplification but we can do so with varying degrees of reflexivity. To aface or efface? That is the moral question that we confront everyday as we decide to act in complicated worlds. It’s also the key ethical question Man or Monster? raises.

Anna: There are a number of tools used by leaders to initially incite hatred, and then to justify killings of “another” group. A common thread in the build-up to genocide is that the reality of the massacre disappears behind other words, phrases and justifications. A famous example is that of Rwanda, where the Tutsi were described as “cockroaches” and genocidal killings as “work” or “clearing.” In Cambodia, the reality of what was being perpetrated in prisons was sanitized by discussion of eradicating the ‘woodworm’ that would eat away at the healthy revolutionary people. How does this language develop, and how is it used by a regime?

Alex: Yes, for sure. There was pervasive ideological language that included metaphors exhorting people to work, purify themselves, and eradicate the enemy. Discourse helps constitute the “thick frames” that push actors to think and act in certain ways, including violent ones. This language of hate legitimates violence, making it not just morally more acceptable but even urgent.

Mary Douglas’s work on language, the body, and border provides one anthropological perspective for considering the motivating force of language and symbolism. As she suggests, the language and symbolism of violence, hate, and genocide don’t emerge out of the blue, but play upon what preexists and has bodily resonance (Turner highlighted the intersection of the political and felt dimensions of social action through his discussion of the sensory and ideological poles of meaning).

The Khmer Rouge, for example, banned Buddhism even as they drew upon Buddhist concepts such as the idea of renunciation (revolutionary renunciations paralleling Buddhist renunciation). There are many examples of this in Khmer Rouge Cambodia, ones that emerged in Duch’s trial but are also discussed in detail in an earlier book I wrote, Why Did They Kill? Cambodia in the Shadow of Genocide.

Anna: The Duch trial is interesting because it represents the first trial of a commander at the tribunal. It also provides a good example of the notion of command responsibility, that the most responsible is the person in charge. However, Duch contended that he was acting on orders from the government and was not in a position to argue. This can raise the question of how responsible an individual is for their own actions in these circumstances and whether state responsibility takes precedence over self-agency.

Alex: That’s a complicated legal question. But perhaps the easy answer is that, when asked to violate international law, each person become culpable and is obligated to disobey superior orders. In other words, superior orders are preempted by international law even if, paradoxically, it may be illegal to disobey such an (internationally illegal) order within a domestic jurisdiction. Duch, for his part, claimed that S-21 operated long ago and that he knew little of international law – he claimed he just obeyed the dictates of his superiors, a classic “obedience to authority” defense, and followed Khmer Rouge law. Nazi criminals, including Eichmann, made similar claims — as have many others accused of genocide and atrocity crimes.

Anna: Although Duch claimed to be obeying his superiors, it can be argued that he did have his own agency and made conscious choices to commit the crimes he did. Here, the links between collective behavior and individual conviction are apparent. But can these collective actions prove the individual conviction or motivation for involvement in genocide?

Alex: No but it provides context, a marker of context — the thick frames of power — in which individual conviction may be transformed and accentuated in a manner that motivates genocide and mass murder.

Anna: Understanding motivation is clearly an important aspect in understanding genocide. There are a vast number of people in different roles involved in a genocidal regime – from those following orders and doing administrative tasks distant from the killing to those actively killing, or ordering others to kill. Do you consider there to be a difference in motivation, beliefs and the kinds of people that fulfil different roles within a genocidal regime?

Alex: There may be, but it is difficult to parse things in this way due to variation. Scholars now sometimes differentiate between the micro-, meso-, and macro- levels, but even these categories totalize things. The best approach is one that is processual and fluid, taking into account intersections of structure, power, and agency that ebb and flow in different ways across context. Performance theory is suggestive in this regard as perpetrator motivation may be disaggregated in considering the flow of experience, audience, and emotion.

Anna: International trials, such as that of Duch, have brought these perpetrators increasingly into the public eye and into discourse surrounding the conflicts. In some senses, these tribunals have provided a “face” of the conflict, a recognizable perpetrator. This must lead to the media and politicians framing these perpetrators differently.

Alex: Yes, though different actors appropriate the legal proceedings in different ways. There are often very different, and sometimes directly conflicting, stakes for the “international community,” government elites, civil society actors, and local communities. This has been true in Cambodia and other situations as the literature on transitional justice demonstrates.

Anna: Despite its successes in providing a historical record and providing some justice, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia was divisive, it made some into heroes and further victimized others. There were some notable differences between the tribunal for Yugoslavia and that of Cambodia, not least that the Yugoslav tribunal was established before the end of the conflict whereas the Cambodian trial followed years after the genocide. Reflecting on the two tribunals, do you think that the Cambodian tribunal had the same issues that faced the Yugoslav tribunal?

Alex: I think this is the case for international justice in general. It is always politicized and leaves some more or less satisfied or dissatisfied.

One key difference in this case is that the Khmer Rouge Tribunal is being held in Cambodia. The complicated hybrid structure and rules of the tribunal, which give the Cambodian government a great deal of influence over things, have made this one even more politicized with controversies over corruption and political influence.

Overall, and this is too sweeping a statement, I would say that the victims are more satisfied with the KRT even if the population is somewhat less engaged with it due to the amount of time that has elapsed, the fact that there is a degree of victor’s justice involved, and the on-going difficulties in Bosnia and the former Yugoslavia that continue to amplify tensions. The situation is different in Cambodia.

Anna: Finally, I find it important within the study of genocide to reflect on what we can learn or take from previous experiences, as it can be easy to become disheartened that things won’t change. In this spirit, do you think there any lessons that the international community can take from the Cambodian case to apply to ongoing atrocities, such as that facing the Rohingya?

Alex: We return to lessons! I spoke earlier of the lessons of Man or Monster?, including the imperative of afacement. The Justice Facade similarly argues that we need to step aside from the transitional justice imaginary and focus on lived experience and on-the-ground understandings. Here are a couple of imperatives with which can perhaps finish.

Aface others — even those (like the Myanmar government) who appear to act in illegitimate ways.

Step behind the (justice, human rights, peacebuilding) facade. Understand conflicts from an experience-near, deeply contextual, historicized perspective. This is the first step in any sort of process of conflict resolution and prevention.

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