In 1971, Francois Bizot was kept prisoner for three months in the Cambodian jungle, accused of being a CIA spy. His Khmer Rouge captor, Comrade Duch, eventually had him freed and it took Bizot decades to realize he owed his life to a man who, later in the Killing Fields regime, was to become one of Pol Pot's most infamous henchmen. As the head of the Tuol Sleng S-21 jail, Duch personally oversaw the detention, systematic torture and execution of more than 16,000 detainees.
Duch's trial as a war criminal ended in July 2010 amid a blaze of publicity. He was sentenced to a controversial 35 years imprisonment. In the tradition of Gitta Sereny, who sat with Speer in the Nuremberg trials, Bizot attended Duch's court case and spent time with him in prison, trying to unearth whatever humanity Duch had left.
'It would be all too easy,' says Bizot, 'if this man was a monster, not a member of the human race. We could use the slogan 'never again' and move on. But the deep horror is that this man is normal...Through his very qualities he became a mass murderer. Does that exonerate him from the crimes? Certainly not. But it does force us to question ourselves in a way that is deeply unsettling.'
At once a personal essay, a historical and philosophical meditation, and an eye-witness account, Facing the Torturer will join a very short list of important books about man's personal responsibility in collective crimes.
The unsettling ordinariness of one of history's worst episodes of mass murder haunts this anguished memoir of the Cambodian genocide. In this follow-up to his 2003 The Gate, which chronicled his months of captivity by the Khmer Rouge in 1971, ethnologist Bizot probes his relationship with Duch, the camp commandant responsible for his release. Duch later became known as "the Butcher of Tuol Sleng" for his role supervising the torture and murder of thousands of Cambodians. (A lengthy appendix reprints the author's testimony at Duch's 2009 trial). Bizot explores the bond that developed between him and his captor part Stockholm syndrome and part genuine empathy for Duch's twisted sense of duty and integrity. The experience prompts agonized introspection over the author's own killing of an inconvenient pet and abandonment of two Cambodian colleagues who later died in Khmer Rouge custody. Bizot's conflicted musings are so dense and gnarled as to be almost incoherent at times, still, he raises profound and moving questions about good, evil, and our impulse to see "the mask of the monster so as not to make out the familiar face of a human being."