Watching the documentary movie The Act of Killing left me with with strong but sometimes contradictory emotions, because it confronts the audience with a genocide unpunished but also, intentionally or not, with Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil.” What are those who commit unspeakable acts, motivated by raging, irrational hatreds yet capable of acting like somewhat clownish grandfathers who like to dance — who seem incapable of articulating any political idea beyond boilerplate slogans?
Clownish grandfathers, perhaps, but unquestionably pitiless killers. The Act of Killing asks a simple-sounding question that is not at all simple: What does a country look like that not only allows mass murderers to live free but actually celebrates them? The country is Indonesia, where more than one million people were murdered following the overthrow of Sukarno in 1965 as Mohamed Suharto consolidated a dictatorship that would last three decades. Suharto’s dictatorship is now in the past, but the society his régime wrought remains.
Hannah Arendt could ponder what she would come to conceptualize as the banality of evil from the standpoint of a victor — her banality, in the human form of Adolf Eichmann, was on trial for crimes against humanity. In Indonesia, the winners who write history are the perpetrators of genocide. A sickening version of history, as it must be. Victors don’t face justice. The two men who form the core around which The Act of Killing centers don’t appear to face their consciences, either.
Whether or not those who perpetrate crimes against humanity can ever be “banal,” the distance from there to here is less than we ordinarily wish to contemplate; we exist on a continuum and not the opposing shore of a chasm. The Act of Killing opens with a quote from Voltaire: “It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets.” And we then meet two men, Anwar and Herman. The two are gangsters. They proudly refer to themselves as gangsters, among those who commanded right-wing death squads under the direction of the Indonesian military.
A bit of the background, from the web site set up to promote the film:
“After the 1965 military coup, anybody opposed to the new military dictatorship could be accused of being a communist. This included union members, landless farmers, intellectuals, and the ethnic Chinese, as well as anybody who struggled for a redistribution of wealth in the aftermath of colonialism.
In less than a year, and with the direct aid of western governments, over one million of these ‘communists’ were murdered. In America, the massacre was regarded as a major ‘victory over communism,’ and generally celebrated as good news. Time magazine reported ‘the West’s best news for years in Asia,’ while The New York Times ran the headline, ‘A Gleam of Light in Asia,’ and praised Washington for keeping its hand in the killings well hidden.”
Making an offer ‘communists’ can’t refuse
One of the gangsters remembers receiving a “thick book” full of the names of “Chinese communists” — the military provided names of people marked for death; the gangster used it to shake down those named. He put it simply: “Pay or die.” Seeing no moral issues with that, he has warm memories of what he calls the “Crush the Chinese campaign” — and he is depraved enough to reminisce about walking down a shopping street killing all the Chinese he saw, and when he came upon the Chinese father of his girlfriend, he killed him, too, chuckling at the memory.
The other gangster is shown shaking down merchants in the present day, demanding large sums of money for “protection.” Later he is shown demanding bribes from building owners, threatening to have their buildings torn down if they don’t pay. These and other gangsters are connected to a paramilitary youth organization, Pancasila Youth, that boasts three million members and is so connected with the government that a minister speaks at its rallies. A leader of the paramilitary explains in an on-camera interview how things work: “When a businessman wants land that someone is living on, it’d be too expensive to buy. Everybody is afraid of the paramilitaries — when we show up, they just say, ‘Take it. Pay what you want.’ ”
This gangster state was created, and is sustained, by anti-communist ideology. Again and again, the gangsters and the paramilitary leaders claim they are defending Indonesia against “communists.” Such people are bogeys to them as they seem incapable of explaining just what a communist is. They know communists are bad, and that is all they need to know.
Indonesian peasants and its nascent working class had a long history of anti-colonial struggle and of labor movements. Only once does one of the gangsters attempt to describe what communists did, and this in the context of a reenactment of a post-coup interrogation, sessions of which ended with strangulation by wire after beatings. The gangster-interrogator accuses the “communist” of giving land to the farmers and asking if the motivation was to make the communist party look good in the eyes of peasants.
That’s it. That’s the “crime.” And such a crime is not an Indonesian curiosity. The Suharto-led military coup was fully supported by the United States government, including U.S. intelligence agencies supplying the Indonesian military with large numbers of names, knowing full well the deadly use to which the lists would be put. The pop culture of the U.S. plays a role as well — the two gangsters, and not only them, style themselves after favored movie stars and modeled their execution methods on what they saw in Hollywood movies. One of them says in the film:
“Why do people watch James Bond films? To see action. Why do people watch films about Nazis? To see violence and sadism. We can do that! We can do worse!”
Force comes in many packages
The vice president of Indonesia, in another scene, is shown speaking at a Pancasila Youth rally, where he proclaims, “We need gangsters to get things done.” We need only substitute the more general word “force” for “gangsters” and we have arrived uncomfortably close to the power relations of capitalism. But the advanced capitalist countries of North America, Europe and Asia-Pacific don’t have gangsters running governments or ministers speaking at paramilitary rallies, you might say. That is true. But economics in those countries runs on similar lines albeit using far more sophisticated methodologies and with the fist well hidden inside velvet gloves, and resting on a well-oiled acculturation machine rather than on direct fear.
It is easier to remain in power by convincing people their subordinate status is a natural state rather than having to continually apply unsheathed force to maintain inequality. Economics in advanced capitalist countries is based on the wealthy and powerful taking from everyone else. Corporate profits, distributed in the form of wildly excessive executive pay and financial industry gambling revenue, are maintained by diminishing the power of working people through moving production to places with lower wages, layoffs that leave remaining employees doing multiple jobs, anti-union laws and a political system that effectively excludes all but the wealthiest and those who will do their bidding. Abuse of eminent domain laws, bank foreclosures, the taking of commons, privatization of public services, corporate domination of the mass media — what are these if not force?
And let us not forget that the standard of living of working people in leading countries has been based on exploitation of countries like Indonesia, even if imperialism is now dialectically turning into a net negative for Northern working people because corporate globalization is speeding the pace of sending jobs overseas. The U.S. did not support the Suharto coup — or dozens of other coups around the world — because it had a fondness for this or that dictator. These were done to keep the developing world open for exploitation for favored corporations back home, and local elites in the targeted countries were allowed a cut of the action.
Suharto did particularly well in this regard. He and his family embezzled between US$15 billion and $35 billion during his reign. Control of state-run monopolies were handed to family members and friends, kickbacks and payments to the family were standard, and new ventures were expected to give financial stakes to family members or cronies.
The gangsters shown in The Act of Killing have done well, too, quite visibly at the expense of almost everyone around them. They repeatedly exalt in their belief that “gangster” means “free man.” Financiers and industrialists also consistently speak of their acting in the name of “freedom.” The gangsters’ methods are but a funhouse-mirror distortion of the gloved fist that underlies relations in the more comfortable parts of the world.