17,000 prisoners were held in Tuol Sleng during the Cambodian genocide. Before conversion to a death camp, the prison had once been a High School. Now it is a museum devoted to recounting the fate of the victims. About 500 visitors walk quietly through the halls each day.
"Of all the things I've witnessed on this journey the faces of the damned in Tuol Sleng have haunted my nights," wrote one man. "It was a horrifying experience, just seeing the photos." Of the 17,000, only four people are known to have survived. Over 14,000 are documented as having been killed. The rest of the dead were untracked by jailers, their fate is not sure, but can be reasonably guessed at.
Vann Nath is one of the survivors. The quality of his painting attracted the attention of the staff. Attention was not normally a desirable development during those dark days. Talent was a deadly attribute and was punishable. But he had a use. He might be suited to painting portraits of General Pol Pot.
One of Vann Nath's paintings occupies a space on one of the walls. It is not a portrait. It is a depiction he put on canvass from personal memory. It shows the artist being tortured by waterboarding.
The Khmer Rouge were not interested in obtaining secret information. They wanted confessions of invented crimes before executing the tortured. They always, always got the false confessions they were after. They did not invent waterboarding. It originated in the Spanish inquisition. It was used in those dark days to extract confessions from accused witches, who then named others as co-conspirators.
Just as there were no Jack Bauers seeking accurate information in medieval Spain or the torture chambers of Cambodia, there were no such tormented heroes leading American captors of suspected terrorists. The sad fact is that a very large number of those held for American interrogation were guilty only of the accident of walking on the wrong sidewalk at an unfortunate moment.
The Khmer Rouge tortured because ideology was more important than mere individuals. The inquisition held religious zeal to be more urgent.
Centuries of history send a clear message. Those subjected to torture can be relied on to invent whatever tales are required. Confessions are there for the taking: confessions of terrorist plots, of witchcraft, of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. And all are equally reliable. What is true is not easily distinguished from desperate creativity.
But in those days of fear and fury, with images of innocent victims burning alive in tall buildings, it wasn't really about information. It was about a righteous rage. We had them, and now they were going to pay. And that was more important than the mere individuals who were strapped down.
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There HAS to be an accounting.
But we have to be very careful in doing it. This is how the Roman republic died: outgoing politicians were jailed for their policy decisions. The only way to keep your head (literally) was to hang on to power at all costs. We need to know the truth of what happened, and who ordered it. But we need to do it in such a way that doesn't end up damaging our institutions any further.
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