Thursday, June 28, 2007

Evil worse than this...

Leader of the Shining Path

Warning: The following entry contains a graphic description of an atrocity that some readers might prefer not to read.

In his review of a recent book edited by Paul Hollander, From the Gulag to the Killing Fields: Personal Accounts of Political Violence and Repression in Communist States, the British physician and writer Theodore Dalrymple, writing for the New English Review ("The Realities of Evil," September 2006), quotes from Dr Haing Nor, a Cambodian physician who survived despite imprisonment during under Pol Pot, the Cambodian Communist whose policies led directly to the deaths of some one or two million Cambodians. According to Dr. Nor, whose words you might prefer not to read since it is a graphic description of an atrocity:
[A] new interrogator, one I had not seen before, walked down the row of trees holding a long, sharp knife. I could not make out their words, but he spoke to the pregnant woman and she answered. What happened next makes me nauseous to think about. I can only describe it in the briefest of terms: He cut the clothes off her body, slit her stomach, and took the baby out. I turned away but there was no escaping the sound of her agony, the screams that slowly subsided into whimpers and after far too long lapsed into the merciful silence of death. The killer walked calmly past me holding the fetus by its neck. When he got to the prison, just within the range of my vision, he tied a string round the fetus and hung it from the eaves with the others, which were dried and black and shrunken.
For us, this might seem to reach the depth of depravity -- ripping a child from its mother's womb -- though the man who did this terrible thing, observes Dalrymple, "was almost certainly imbued with a profound sense of purpose, given him by an ideology."

Dalyrmple, moreover, has seen even worse evil than this committed in the name of a similar ideology:
The worst brutality I ever saw was that committed by Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) in Peru, in the days when it seemed possible that it might come to power. If it had, I think its massacres would have dwarfed those of the Khmer Rouge. As a doctor, I am accustomed to unpleasant sights, but nothing prepared me for what I saw in Ayacucho, where Sendero first developed under the sway of a professor of philosophy, Abimael Guzman. I took photographs of what I saw, but the newspapers deemed them too disturbing to be printed. Human kind at breakfast can bear very little reality. But I also found it difficult to persuade anyone by means of words of the reality of what I had seen: most people nodded and thought I had finally gone mad. On the plane back from Peru, I delighted a worker for Amnesty International when I described to him some of the bad behaviour of the Peruvian Army; but when I described what I had seen Sendero do, incomparably worse, I might as well have talked to him of sea monsters, and of giant squid that could drag nuclear submarines to the depths.
That evil must have been terrible indeed, for in his article, Dalrymple refrains from describing it.

The lesson that I learned remains the same: ethics trumps aesthetics. Before striking some political pose for aesthetic effect, at least know what the politics stands for.

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At 6:06 AM, Blogger Kate Marie said...

Thanks for this, Jeffery. I like Theodore Dalrymple very much, but I hadn't read that article.

What a sad story Dr. Haing Nor's is. He escaped the Killing Fields, won an academy award (Best Supporting Actor) for portraying a victim of the Killing Fields very like himself, and then -- several years later -- he was murdered in an act of random violence (a mugging or robbery, I think) in Los Angeles.

At 6:55 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Yes, the story of Dr. Nor is a sad one. I recall when he was murdered, and I initially suspected political enemies but was then surprised by the irony of his death being due to a random act of violence.

I also like Dalrymple. He has important things to say, provides interesting insights, and writes in an informal yet literary style -- though, to be frank, this particular article seems hastily written, resulting in some infelicities. But that objection is perhaps beside the point, for ethics trumps aesthetics.

That principle just keeps on popping up...

Jeffery Hodges

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