On the day after Pol Pot's death was announced, the New York Times ran a front-page headline: "Why? Pol Pot Takes His Answer With Him." The Times wanted to know why, about 20 years ago, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge killed roughly a million people, a seventh of his fellow Cambodians. The Times article quoted a Cambodian who also wondered: "I still want to know...why Pol Pot killed so many people."
It seems strange that the Times, and its Cambodian source, should ask that question at this late date. Asking it now betrays a shaky grasp of history or a squeamish evasion of the implications of ideology. The truth is, Pol Pot did it for the good of humanity. He did it for the future. He did it because it was his revolutionary duty. He did it because he learned in youth that killing was a legitimate political technique. And of course he did it because killing, once started, is not a habit easily broken.
Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Hitler, Mao--these were the great society-transforming killers whose path Pol Pot followed. Like him, they all had clear reasons for what they did. They were full of passionate justification, angry self-righteousness. Always they had (and their successors have) euphemisms. Dictatorships torture language while torturing people. Class war. Final solution. Cultural revolution. Ethnic cleansing.
Many of these killers acquired overseas fan clubs; some still have them. Even when their ideas have proven fatuous and futile, even when murder has corrupted them and turned their lives rancid, they continue to attract admirers. Many educated and prosperous people, entirely free to do otherwise, have casually accepted communist mass murder. Millions, in fact, have embraced the murderers as progressive forces, while occasionally regretting their "excesses," a term that usually means outright evil. "You can't make an omelette without breaking eggs," says the old French proverb. Communists loved that metaphor, loved its clever combination of homely wisdom and vicious cynicism. Pol Pot also had metaphors: "We will burn the old grass and the new will grow."
Long after Josef ("A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic") Stalin had proven himself a moral as well as an economic failure, intellectuals around the world continued to think killing would solve social problems. The case of Frantz Fanon is instructive. In the 1950s Fanon was a radical psychiatrist working for Algerian independence. He conceived the idea that violence is not only necessary but beneficial. He believed Third World peasants could liberate themselves by "collective catharsis." It was a question of mental health: killing their oppressors would free them psychologically from the bonds of colonialism. In Fanon's defence, we can say that he did not lack imagination. Perhaps he didn't dream of Cambodia, but he acknowledged that revolutionaries would, at least for a while, commit violence against one another. Even so, they would be liberated from the despair of colonialism. Those who survived.
Intellectuals all over the world read Fanon's books, quoted him, and nodded solemnly. God knows how many deaths his madness helped justify. As George Orwell remarked in a similar context, "You have to be a member of the intelligentsia to believe things like that--no ordinary man could be such a fool...." Or take such a fool seriously.
But Fanon's ideas became fashionable in left-wing circles in Paris during the 1950s, when the young Saloth Sar, not yet renamed Pol Pot, was learning the revolutionary's trade. Violence had acquired an exhilarating chic, it had become a soul-lifting act. The 1960s movies made by Jean-Luc Godard are populated by characters intoxicated by Fanon-like notions. Godard, who was then among the world's most influential moviemakers, knew those young would-be revolutionaries were fools, but even as he displayed their foolishness to his audiences he winked indulgently.
In the 1950s, after some East Germans demonstrated against the communist regime, a solemn ass in the government declared that the people had disappointed the leadership. Bertolt Brecht wrote a rueful poem suggesting that the government, being displeased, should dissolve the people and elect a new people. It was a joke, and had no effect on anyone. But curiously, that's how certain governments began thinking about what they called the masses. You citizens (they said in effect) are not up to the standard of the government. You must be improved.
This was a natural and inevitable extension of the belief that a government can transform the people, reshape them as human beings fit for the new society that the government is planning. If the masses do not agree, it's only because they don't know what's good for them. They are uninstructed. Even if they think they are happy, they are wrong, suffering from "false consciousness." That means they need re-education and forced labour. A certain number may die; things occasionally get out of hand.
Possibly these are among the facts that future centuries will remember most vividly about our time. Perhaps Pol Pot will one day be seen not as an aberration but as a characteristic figure of his era. If the world recognizes the madness in the policy of killing for social improvement, civilization may one day look upon the 20th century with utter contempt. We can only hope so.