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The Act of Killing

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There is more applause.

Oppenheimer, in the film's strangest but most psychologically astute device, persuades the killers to re-enact some of the mass murders they carried out. They don costumes -- they fancy themselves to be the stars of their own life movies -- and what comes out in the costumed scenes of torture and killing is the vast disconnect between the image they have of themselves, much of it inspired by Hollywood gangster films, and the tawdry, savage and appalling crimes they committed. 

These scenes include one of the old killers named Herman Koto -- Koto and the other murderers refer approvingly to themselves as gangsters -- done up to look like the drag queen Divine. And in these moments Oppenheimer captures the playfulness, the black humor and the comradeship that create bonds among killers. The killers stage a scene at the end of the film in which actors playing their murdered victims hang a medal around the neck of Congo -- who is dressed in a long, black robe and standing in front of a waterfall -- and thank him for saving the country and "killing me and sending me to heaven." This bizarre fantasy's background music, specified by Congo, is the theme from the movie "Born Free."

These same human bonds, along with the same schizophrenic self-delusion, can be glimpsed in photographs of off-duty Nazis in the book "Nein, Onkel: Snapshots From Another Front 1938-1945," or in the photographs of off-duty SS camp guards at Auschwitz. One of the pictures in the Auschwitz album shows the SS leadership, including the commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Hoess, and Dr. Joseph Mengele, who carried out inhuman medical experiments on children, in a raucous "sing-along" on a wooden bridge with an accordion player at Solahutte, an SS resort about 20 miles south of Auschwitz on the Sola River. Mothers and children not far away were being gassed to death, some of the 1 million people murdered at Auschwitz. And it is this disquieting moral fragmentation, this ability to commit mass murder and yet to see oneself as a normal, caring human being, that Oppenheimer astutely captures. The bifurcation between work and life -- a bifurcation that many in the U.S. military, today's fossil fuel or health insurance industry or Wall Street firms such as Goldman Sachs also must make -- allows human beings who exploit, destroy and kill other human beings to blot out much of their daily existence. 

"I killed every Chinese I saw," Congo remembers as he tours the Chinese area of Medan in a car. "I stabbed them all! I don't remember how many, but it was dozens of Chinese. If I met them, I stabbed them. All the way to Asia Street, where I met my girlfriend's dad. Remember, I had two motives: crush the Chinese and crush my girlfriend's father, so I stabbed him, too! Because he was Chinese too! He fell into a ditch. I hit him with a brick. He sank."

"Killing is the worst crime you can do," says one of Congo's former associates. "So the key is to find a way not to feel guilty. It's all about finding the right excuse. For example, if I'm asked to kill somebody, if the compensation is right, then of course I'll do it, and from one perspective it's not wrong. That's the perspective we must make ourselves believe. After all, morality is relative."

Congo patiently explains to Oppenheimer his technique of garroting his victims with a piece of wood, a pole and wire, a technique he adopted to avoid the mess of excessive bleeding.

"There's probably many ghosts here, because many people were killed here," he tells Oppenheimer as they stand on a rooftop at one of his former murder spots. "They died unnatural deaths -- unnatural deaths. They arrived here perfectly healthy. When they got here they were beaten up..."

Congo crouches and puts his hands over his white, curly hair to imitate the last moment of his victims.

"... And died," he goes on. "Dragged around. Dumped. In the early days we beat them to death. But when we did that blood spurted everywhere. It smelled awful. To avoid having blood everywhere, I used this system."

He holds a piece of wood, about two feet long, and long wire.

"Can I demonstrate it?" he asks.

He secures the wire by wrapping one end of it around a mounted pole. A friend, whose hands are behind his back, sits on the floor near the pole. Congo loops the wire around his friend's throat. Standing several feet away, Congo pulls lightly on the wood, attached to the other end of the wire, to show how the victim was killed.

"I've tried to forget all this by listening to good music," Congo says when he finishes his demonstration. "Dancing. I can be happy. A little alcohol. A little marijuana. A little -- what do you call it? -- Ecstasy. Once I'd get drunk, I'd "fly' and feel happy. Cha cha."

He begins to dance on the rooftop in his white pants and white shoes.

"He's a happy man," his friend says.

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Chris Hedges spent nearly two decades as a foreign correspondent in Central America, the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans. He has reported from more than 50 countries and has worked for The Christian Science Monitor, National Public Radio, The Dallas Morning News and The New York Times, for which he was a foreign correspondent for 15 years.

Hedges was part of the team of (more...)

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Reminds me of the self-righteous young Marines run... by Jill Herendeen on Tuesday, Sep 24, 2013 at 12:08:07 PM
Chris Hedges makes me wonder if there's any hope f... by judith lawson on Tuesday, Sep 24, 2013 at 2:51:40 PM
Thank you for the excellent article and for puttin... by Daniel Vasey on Thursday, Sep 26, 2013 at 7:30:20 PM