The Banality of Evil: Learning from the Horrors of the Past

Last week I watched The Look of Silence, a documentary film by Joshua Oppenheimer and a companion piece to his 2012 work The Act of Killing. Both films explore how the Indonesian military killed a million people – suspected communists and subversives – over the course of 1965-66 after it overthrew the government. The films bring this hidden history to life through the voices of both victim and perpetrator.

In this recent work, a family of survivors discovers how their son Ramli was murdered, as well as the identities of the killers, nearly half a century after the event unfolded. The documentary focuses on the youngest son, an optometrist named Adi, who decides to break the suffocating spell of submission and terror by doing something unimaginable in a society where the murderers remain in power: he confronts the men who killed his brother and, while testing their eyesight, asks them to accept responsibility for their actions. This film initiates and bears witness to the collapse of fifty years of silence.

First he meets Inong who, wearing the heavy optical frames Adi has placed over his eyes, speaks freely about his crimes, how he once cut off the breast of a communist woman who had been given up for execution by her own brother and how, like many of the killers, he drank the blood of his victims in the belief that it would stop him going mad amid the relentless slaughter.


Though Adi never engages in prolonged monologues to express his grievances, Oppenheimer implies the depth of the man’s frustration by capturing him seated in front of a television, watching footage of Oppenheimer’s interviews with two boastful torturers. The synthesis of this unsettling material and Adi’s solemn face says more than any dialogue could accomplish. (That would be the eponymous look of silence.)


Throughout the course of the film we learn more about Adi and his family. In one scene, filmed by Adi in 2010, his father, Rukun, wizened with age, blind and almost totally deaf, is shown trapped in his own yard, confused and agitated about where he is. According to Adi, that day was the pivotal moment in his decision to confront the perpetrators. It was the first day his father could no longer remember him, his brothers and sisters or his mother, leaving Adi to reflect:

I realised it was too late for him. He would die with the trauma from Ramli’s murder, and he would never heal, because he had forgotten the son whose murder destroyed our family. All he remembered was the fear, like a distant echo from a sound long forgotten. I realised I did not want my children to live their lives with this fear, and I felt the only way of preventing this was for me to meet the perpetrators of my brother’s murder.

This film illustrates many common themes that repeat in history, especially during and after genocide or other crimes against humanity. Although not comprehensive, below are some that I observed.

1. The Banality of Evil

Eichmann_in_Jerusalem_book_coverThe subtitle of Hannah Arendt’s book Eichmann in Jerusalem famously introduced the phrase “the banality of evil,” which also serves as the final words of the book. In part, at least, the phrase refers to Adolf Eichmann’s deportment at the trial over war crimes, displaying neither guilt nor hatred, claiming he bore no responsibility because he was simply “doing his job” (“He did his duty…; he not only obeyed orders, he also obeyed the law.” p. 135).

Arendt does not argue that the Holocaust and its unspeakable horrors are banal. Her thesis is that Eichmann was not a fanatic or sociopath, but an extremely average person who relied on clichéd defenses rather than thinking for himself and was motivated by professional promotion rather than ideology. Banality, in this sense, is not that Eichmann’s actions were ordinary, or that there is a potential Eichmann in all of us, but that his actions were motivated by a sort of stupidity which was wholly unexceptional.

Adolf Hitler. Joseph Stalin. Pol Pot. Mao Zedong. These are just some of the people who oversaw mass murder in the 20th century. Their political ambitions overruled any sense of compassion. But at their core, each one of them was still a human being.

Humans are neither devils nor angels.

These historical figures are not monsters or some sort of mythical embodiment of the devil. They are human beings. Granted they took their positions of power down an ugly road, making decisions and pushing ideologies that killed millions, but they are not some anomaly. Within each of us is the ability to do both good and bad. We are our experiences and nature. We change based on who we meet, what we learn (or don’t), what we believe (or don’t), where we are and where we go.

Each of these men influenced other people in high authority and the citizens of their respective nations to carry out the heinous acts that we now look back on with disdain. I think what Arendt reported and what many psychologists find is the conditions that led to Nazi rule repeat again and again, over time. Mass murder in various countries follow a similar trend of hatred, fear, manipulation and terror. In times of war, but also at peacetime, leaders use their power for political gain. Sometime with bloody results.

never_againFollowing the Holocaust, announcements of “Never Again” came from different groups. The United Nations was created to foster peace, even if the previous League of Nations had failed to achieve the same objective. Repeated instances since the Second World War have shown that action, not just words, is needed to stop genocide. We need to examine the true nature of evil actions and not exclude ourselves from a similar judgement.

In Indonesia, the killings were carried out by both military officers and civilians. In the film, we meet many men and women who stayed in their villages after the killings, living next to families they hurt. Many of these men have also gone into positions of power. The power they exert, even today, is related to the fear they continue to spread and accusations that their opponents may be “communists” even if they have no evidence.

One of the greatest tools to countering hate and misinformation is through formal education. Schools can be a place of learning about the past and questioning the present. Unfortunately, schools can also be a double-edged sword. In the wrong hands, they become indoctrination factories and spread messages of hate, lies and unfounded differences between peoples. In The Look of Silence, Oppenheimer shows us footage of Adi’s son receiving propagandistic lectures at school, where he’s taught that the genocidal antics were justified. Until the truth is spread freely through society, the George Santayana quote “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” will hold true.

2. The Harm of Silence

The skulls and bones of some of those who were slaughtered as they sought refuge inside the church, are laid out on shelves in an underground vault as a memorial to the thousands who were killed in and around the Catholic church during the 1994 genocide in Nyamata, Rwanda, Friday, April 4, 2014. The country will commemorate on April 7, 2014 the 20th anniversary of the genocide when ethnic Hutu extremists killed neighbors, friends and family during a three-month rampage of violence aimed at ethnic Tutsis and some moderate Hutus, leaving a death toll that Rwanda puts at 1,000,050. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)
The skulls and bones of some of those who were slaughtered during the 1994 genocide in Nyamata, Rwanda. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)

While watching The Look of Silence, I was reminded of another travesty that occurred 30 years later – the Rwandan Genocide of 1994. Ethnic Hutu extremists killed neighbors, friends and family during a three-month rampage of violence aimed at ethnic Tutsis and some moderate Hutus, leaving a death toll between 800,000 and one million, eerily similar to the level in Indonesia. (Here is a Human Rights Watch article that events during and after.)

Two lessons can be learned if a country remains silent. The first is the inability to learn from the past. The second is that wounds do not heal if they remain open.

By keeping the truth hidden, citizens and outsiders are unable to learn from the past, allowing for more of the same to occur. If ordinary Indonesians had been given the opportunity to learn from these horrible actions, they might have been able to inform the international bodies and media of similar activities, like those that took place in Rwanda.

Additionally, by not examining the events in more detail, families, like the one profiled in the film, hold on to their pain and suffering for years. They are unable to discuss what happened because the perpetrators remain at-large and society wants to leave the past untouched. Repeatedly in The Look of Silence, many of the torturers interviewed felt is was best to leave these crimes under the rug of history. No doubt, this would continue to prevent justice from occurring.

From the director:

The result, The Look of Silence, is, I hope, a poem about a silence borne of terror – a poem about the necessity of breaking that silence, but also about the trauma that comes when silence is broken. Maybe the film is a monument to silence – a reminder that although we want to move on, look away and think of other things, nothing will make whole what has been broken. Nothing will wake the dead. We must stop, acknowledge the lives destroyed, strain to listen to the silence that follows.

3. The Power of Fear

Rather than fighting a traditional war between two sides (such as the Allied powers versus the Axis powers of WWII), Indonesia was fighting an ideological war – a far more dangerous concept. Following the Second World War, the Allied victors continued into the Cold War – waging capitalist ideology against communist ideology – using other nations.

Coup d’état in Latin America. Civil wars in Africa. Supplanting democracy in the Middle East. The Cold War was not as passive as most people in the West would believe.

Indonesia followed a similar script with the involvement of USA and UK governments in the mass killings. The Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) was eliminated as a political force, and the upheavals led to the downfall of president Sukarno and the commencement of Suharto’s thirty-year presidency.

The Look of Killing shows that the past still remains. As Adi questions many torturers about why they so easily killed their neighbors, how they could believe the lies of the state, they begin to question him, labeling him a “communist” and a possible “spy”. The fear in his eyes is real, as we can see when he speaks with his wife after these altercations.
After revealing that his brother was murdered, Adi is questioned on where he lives.

The credits also prove the power that the murderers of 1965 still retain; dozens of Indonesian names, from cameramen to drivers, are replaced with one damning word: “anonymous.”

One of the mechanisms to counter fear and bring about peace are Truth and Reconciliation Commissions (TRC). First used in South Africa, following apartheid, it helped transition to a full and free democracy. Witnesses who were identified as victims of gross human rights violations were invited to give statements about their experiences, and some were selected for public hearings. Perpetrators of violence could also give testimony and request amnesty from both civil and criminal prosecution.

TRC were also used in Rwanda, following their genocide, through gacaca courts to a lesser degree of success than South Africa. Other nations can use TRC to help come to terms with past violence, war crimes and human rights abuses. Long standing democracies, like my homeland Canada, can also benefit from TRC. Recently, Canada initiated a country-wide TRC to discuss the history of mistreatment towards aboriginal peoples, especially in our residential schools.

Although these commissions will not undo the pain of the past, by admitting our faults and working together we can build a more just, verdant and peaceful world. I hope one day Indonesia will be able to heal its wounds.

Concluding Thoughts

Genocide Watch lists current crises in Iraq, Somalia, and Nigeria, among others, as some of the potential places where genocide could break out. Protracted issues in Sudan and Palestine are also of worrying concern. Until we truly learn from the past, shouts of “Never Again” will be meaningless. Luckily, we have the tools for change. Following the Holocaust and later genocides, Gregory H. Stanton created the following eight stage of genocide as a simple illustration of how mass murder can manifest. If even a singly one of these stages appears in a country, we should be concerned of the consequences.


My biggest take-away from this chart, the movie and other reflections on history is the need for greater humanity and compassion in our world. Not only do we need to end hatred within societies, we also need to feel compassion for our neighbors, far and wide. We need to question people in power and the actions they take. We need to feel empowered to say “No” or to say “Stop” when we see injustice. We need to fight for injustice each and every day.

As Howard Zinn beautifully quipped, “You can’t be neutral on a moving train.”

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