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Killing Time in the Killing Fields

Halls of Tuol Sleng, a school converted by the Khmer Rouge into a security prison and interrogation center.

Cambodia’s Killing Fields are one more tourist quick-stop memorial at which to mourn, shake your head, get the chills, and move along.

I’ve grown accustomed to stacks of skulls. I know they should be a personalizing reminder and serve as irrefutable evidence but they all look kinda similar and I walk away with a sense of, “that’s a lot of skulls.”

Roughly two million people, 25% of Cambodia’s population, were killed under the Khmer Rouge. Nobody has yet found a way to make those kinds of numbers real. As the saying goes, one death is a tragedy, one million is a statistic.

This year I also visited memorials in Rwanda and Auschwitz-Birkenau. And I wrote about them, briefly in this blog and more extensively and ramblingly in my journal. But really I’m not sure what that limited awareness does.

Each of these spots provides an interesting overview of what happened, but I feel like they should provide greater context of how societies can examine themselves and identify the prejudices and opinions that prevail for limited generations and administrations. How do you objectively assess your own biases?

Every memorialized massacre site in the world seems to defiantly declare “Never again,” and we can all solemnly agree and express our sympathies. And yet of course we all know it will happen again, but it seems like an inappropriate thing to consider at a memorial. The tragedy of each of these sites is something that people closest to them may well need to deal with by focusing on the idea that the future can and must be positive despite the unfathomable horrors of the past.

Fence at Tuol Sleng

But what about the rest of us? The takeaways always seem to be as pathetic as, “Humans can be so horrible!” and “Wow, I didn’t realize just how bad this particular genocide was.”

I’m sure there are think tanks and wonks who study the sociological patterns that have led to mass horror, but political intervention is heavily dependent on popular opinion. We knew what was happening in Rwanda at the time but our recent public failures & televised tragedies in Somalia, if nothing else, were enough to dissuade us from intervention.

I still feel like it’s ambiguously important to visit these places when traveling, and for all of us to try to process these tragedies in personal and domestic terms. But I still get impotently frustrated at armchair philosopher conversations where people assert poorly informed theories about barbaric tragedies caused by racism and class issues thousands of miles away in uncivilized countries. Neatly wrapping up the causes of specific inhuman activities frees people to establish irrefutable distinctions between those and the very real, complicated parallels back home.

The oversimplified scapegoating in our own country? Oh, that’s totally legit.


  1. AJ

    I agree in general – it’s too easy to not see the seeds of mass hysteria/horror in our own society by focusing on the reasons it happened there and in that instance.
    Specifically about the killing fields of Cambodia it should be no surprise I feel a little differently. One of those skulls could have been Sopahl. One of them may be her sister. And making that connection, even when it isn’t so specific to your own circumstances, is I suppose the point.
    (and yes, I’m half a year behind in your travels)

  2. Haha. I woke up down today. You’ve chreeed me up!

  3. Thanks for contributing. It’s helped me understand the issues.

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