The Act of Killing – the banality of evil redux

Wanna see something disturbing? The dark side of man? One of the many forerunners of the Islamic State? Well, then I can recommend Joshua Oppenheimer’s „The Act of Killing“ (Trailer here).

After the 1965 military coup in Indonesia, the government launches an anti-Communist campaign that leads to death of approximately 500 000 – 1 000 000 people. Death squads, paramilitaries, members of the middle class or thugs of all types engage in the killing of Union members, political activists, or Chinese (China was still a communist country and yet had to start to embrace Capitalism; Mao’s „Great Leap Forward“ had ended over for only 4 yours earlier – making every Chinese person suspicious).

The killers boast openly of their crimes, explain in detail how they killed and tortured their victims, and how they were inspired by Hollywood movies. The movie is loaded with grotesque and surreal scences, from the main Character, Anwar Congo, dressed as a Cowboy in the middle of the Indonesian jungle with an Elephant in the background, to the then-Vice president of Indonesia participating in reenacting the killing and burning of an allegedly Communist village, one of the other killers joyfully and sadistically pretending to stick the liver and penis of Anwar Congo, who is beheaded but yet conscious, into his mouth, another killer talking about the rape of 14 year olds, and another talking about how „they“ shoved wood into the anus of a victim until he died. No, the Islamic state’s horrendous crimes are nothing new, they only get more attention by the media in times of Web 2.0.
Given the impact this movie has on many viewers, I could not help but write down a few thoughts and observations in coping with it.

First, it is entirely surreal. It not only shows the largely successfuly denial of guilt on the side of the perpetrators, but also the „official“ Indonesian attitude towards these dark times; most forcefully, the killers were invited to a talks show that reminds one of the movie Idiocracy. Stating that his methods of killing were inspired by American gangster movies, the moderator reacts by showing how „amazing“ that was and called on the audience (members of the Pancasila youth, an Indonesian paramilitary group) to applaud. Upon asking whether he feared revenge, he replies that they are unable to do so, because they’d be wiped out, while another one adds that all of them would be exterminated, leading to even louder cheers. No, this wasn’t part of a movie in the movie. This was real.

Second, it is somewhat a reversal of Hannah Arendt’s thesis of the banality of evil. At the same time, it’s also somewhat of a confirmation. Let’s say it’s confusing, really confusing. Anwar Congo is a loving grandfather in his mid-70s who tells his grandchildren to take care of a wounded duck in one scene. Yet, when talking about the killings without feeling guilt (rather, he seems to fear that his victims could come after him sooner or later, i.e. after his death) and reenacting how he strangled them with a wire or how he stabbed a 1-year old in front of its mother (poor teddy bear), one can see that these are not wicked fantasies taken out of horror movies but things that actually happened. Brutality and the thin layer of civilisation; ruthless killer and father/grandfather – the regular guy a Westerner could meet at any Indonesian bar. While Eichmann’s crimes could be explained (although, obviously somewhat incorrect as it later turned out that Eichmann was indeed a devoted antisemite) by portraying him as a weak bureaucrat looking at numbers instead of real people (remember that Adolf Hitler himself most likely never killed anyone personally), Congo killed hundreds of people with his own hands. Interestingly enough, a common feature of mass killings and genocidal campaigns – de-humanization, i.e. speaking of „cockroaches, rats, or other commonly despised animals  – was not mentioned and it seems as if being a Communist was sufficient to justify their violent acts. Here we find one of the main strengths of pictures, documentaries and all types of personal narratives: They show that victims are more than numbers or names: As Stalin supposedly put it: „The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic“; a truism in the sense that numbers do not appeal to emotions, personal stories do. And this is what makes the Act of Killing so special as it dares to portray the perpetrators and thus the dark side of man, actions making us worry about how thin the layer of civilization is and what the majority of us is theoretically capable of.

In so doing, we find a common theme in the history of violence: Perpetrators almost always think that they act for a noble cause or at least find ways to justify their killings as serving a necessary purpose. They do not think of themselves as evil, not at all, but the opposite. In this case, the enemies were communists who wanted to ban American movies from the cinemas.  „The Act of Killing“ for instance shows how a state-produced movie from back then portraying Communists as super-evil villains that showed no mercy, part of a manipulation machine that led to an extreme anti-Communist bias allegedly still present in Indonesian society until this very day and standing in the way of coming to terms with history.
To quote Roy Baumeister (Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty, Owl Books 1999, p. 18), who coined the well-known „Myth of Pure Evil“, whose theoretical observations seem largely confirmed by the attitude of the main characters throughout the movie:

When trying to understand evil, one is always asking, “How could they do such a horrible thing?” But the horror is usually being measured in the victim’s terms. To the perpetrator, it is often a small thing. As we saw earlier, perpetrators generally have less emotion about their acts than do victims. It is impossible to submit to rape, pillage, impoverishment, or possible murder without strong emotional reactions, but it is quite possible to perform those crimes without emotion. In fact, it makes it easier in many ways.

Lastly, and not necessarily closely connected to the main topic of the movie, the Act of Killing also shows democracy gone really, really wrong. One of the killers, Herman, tries to run for a political position by halheartedly chanting slogans out of a small car while driving through the streets and taking absurd pictures of posing as a leader/statesman. His motivation, as he makes clear, is that as a politician, he could make tons of money simply by telling people that e.g. their house is a bit higher than officially allowed. Doing some basic math on how he could squeeze a bit of money out of many people, his eyes start to glow when fantasizing about the large sums he could make by bribery. After all, he does not get elected, arguably because he shows up in the various neighborhoods without presents, telling people he would come with presents once elected. All those who wonder about the openness people call for „bonus“ (i.e. small gifts) as a motivation to vote in a sense should not forget that „Western“ democracies are not entirely different – except that they promise gifts such as „higher pensions/more family allowances/more jobs – gifts the electorate usually never receives.

Addendum: Concerning the few parts were law/international law is mentioned, the moviemakers comitted some avoidable mistakes in the scene were they questionone of the perpetrators, namely Adi Zulkadr, about the possibility of facing a trial because of his crimes. For one, the Geneva Conventions provisions on war crimes („grave breaches“) would technically speaking not be applicable in the sense as asked by the interviewer since there was no armed conflict at all in Indonesia in 1965-66, and certainly not an international one. Also, he would never have to appear at the Internatioal Criminal Court (ICC) since Indonesia (a) has not joined the ICC (yet) and (b) even if it eventually becomes a State Party some day, its jurisdiction would only cover events that took place after its ratification.

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