I have spent time with mass killers, warlords and death squad leaders as a reporter in Latin America, the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans. Some are psychopaths who relish acts of sadism, torture and murder. But others, maybe most, see killing as a job, a profession, good for their careers and status. They enjoy playing God. They revel in the hypermasculine world of force where theft and rape are perks. They proudly refine the techniques of murder to snuff out one life after another, largely numb to the terror and cruelty they inflict. And, when they are not killing, they can sometimes be disarmingly charming and gracious. Some are decent fathers and sentimental with their wives and mistresses. Some dote on their pets.
It is not the demonized, easily digestible caricature of a mass murderer that most disturbs us. It is the human being.
Joshua Oppenheimer's documentary "The Act of Killing," which took eight years to make, is an important exploration of the complex psychology of mass murderers. The film has the profundity of Gitta Sereny's book "Into That Darkness: An Examination of Conscience," for which she carried out extensive interviews with Franz Stangl, the commandant of Treblinka, one of the Nazi extermination camps. Oppenheimer, too, presents candid confessions, interviewing some of the most ruthless murderers in Indonesia. One of these is responsible for perhaps 1,000 killings, a man named Anwar Congo, who was a death squad leader in Medan, the capital of the Indonesian province North Sumatra.
The documentary also shows the killers performing bizarre re-enactments of murders.
Indonesia's military, with U.S. support, launched in 1965 a year-long campaign to ostensibly exterminate communist leaders, functionaries, party members and sympathizers in that country. By its end, the bloodbath -- much of it carried out by rogue death squads and paramilitary gangs -- had decimated the labor union movement along with the intellectual and artistic class, opposition parties, university student leaders, journalists, ethnic Chinese and many who just happened to be in the wrong spot at the wrong time. By some estimates, more than a million people were slaughtered. Many of the bodies were dumped into rivers, hastily buried or left on roadsides.
This campaign of mass murder is still mythologized in Indonesia as an epic battle against the forces of evil and barbarity, much as U.S. popular culture for many decades mythologized our genocide of Native Americans and held up our own killers, gunmen, outlaws and murderous cavalry units of the Old West as heroes. The onetime killers in the Indonesian war against communism are cheered at rallies today as having saved the country. They are interviewed on television about the "heroic" battles they fought five decades ago. The 3-million-strong Pancasila Youth -- Indonesia's equivalent of the Brown Shirts or the Hitler Youth -- in 1965 joined in the genocidal mayhem, and now its members, like the death squad leaders, are lionized as pillars of the nation. It is as if the Nazis had won World War II. It is as if Stangl, instead of dying in the Duesseldorf remand prison as a convicted war criminal, came to be a venerated elder statesman as has Henry Kissinger.
There is a scene in the Oppenheimer film where Congo -- who parades across the screen like a prima donna, his outsized vanity and love of fine clothing on display -- is interviewed on "Special Dialogue," a program of a state-owned television station with national coverage. I have substituted the word "Jew" for "communist" to put the moral bankruptcy of the Indonesian regime into a cultural context better understood by Americans.
"We had to kill them," Congo, wearing a black cowboy hat adorned with a gold sheriff's star, tells the female host.
"And was your method of killing inspired by gangster films?" she asks.
"Sometimes!" Congo says. "It's like. ... "
"Amazing!" she says. "He was inspired by films!"
The audience, mostly made up of members of the Pancasila Youth in their distinctive orange and black shirts, applauds. At the start of the show, Ibrahim Sinik, a leader of the paramilitary group, lauded the Pancasila Youth as having been "at the core of the extermination."
"Each genre had its own method," Congo says. "Like in Mafia movies, they strangle the guy in the car, and dump the body. So we did that too."
"Which means Anwar and his friends developed a new, more efficient system for exterminating Jews," the woman says enthusiastically, "a system more humane, less sadistic, and without excessive force."
"Young people must remember their history," Ali Usman, a Pancasila Youth leader, interjects. "The future musn't forget the past! What's more, God must be against Jews."
"Yes," the talk show host says. "God hates Jews!"