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The Look of Silence: Finding our Humanity in the Face of Genocide

When we use atrocity to inspire us to act, to ask the right questions, to reach across the globe and try to stop someone from being killed or suffering, our world will become a more livable one. Only then will we be able to hope to turn back the tide on genocide.
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Documentary filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer has released two courageous films in the last three years. They're courageous not only because they take on the genocide of more than one million Indonesians in 1965 and 1966, a grisly subject that has been swept under the rug for 50 years, but also because the filmmaker dares to believe that anyone would care about the death of a bunch of "communists" halfway around the world before many of us were even born.

Neither film is easy to watch. The first, "The Act of Killing," follows the leaders of the most powerful state-sponsored death squad in Sumatra as they re-enact, Hollywood style, torturing and butchering thousands of "suspected communists," including writers, intellectuals, union members and ethnic Chinese. The second film, "The Look of Silence," recently released in the US, follows Adi Rukun, whose brother was tortured and killed by the death squads, as he tracks down and attempts to confront the men responsible.

In both films the perpetrators speak of things that will haunt you long after the story has been told. The executioners openly brag of strangling, torturing, castrating, beheading and more with a chilling lack of remorse and without the slightest hint of apology.

Sadly it is a story that has repeated itself, Rwanda and Kosovo perhaps being the two that come most easily to mind. A slower version of the same story has been playing out in Sudan for decades, leaving more than two and a half million dead. Indonesia and Sudan are slightly different stories, in that the murderers have remained in power, both on a national level and in the affected villages. So those who survive suffer twice, once in the brutal loss of loved ones, and after, having to live with the perpetrators as powerful neighbors, knowing that if crossed they could come again, with impunity.

The artists and storytellers can skillfully put the facts of brutality in a palatable form. There is no way around the turning of one's stomach at hearing of a man slicing off another man's penis and leaving him to bleed to death, or listening to someone describe burning one of their fellow humans alive.

Thank God we are not numb. When we are filled with revulsion, we are also inspired and galvanized, to ask questions, to seek truth, to act where we can. And while the road to stopping such mass insanity in our world will be a long one, asking the questions will put our feet on that road. Hopefully our questions will include how deeply our own countries were involved in, supported, or benefited politically or financially from these vile acts.

Genocides and mass killings such as those we have seen in Democratic Republic of Congo, Sierra Leone, Liberia and East Timor do not spring from the ground. They are engineered. At the least someone is profiting from selling the weapons that are used to hack each other up. At the worst there are foreign governments behind the scenes, providing the arms, equipment and sometimes training, protecting the perpetrators from justice, and receiving political capital or access to natural resources in return.

Our revulsion should also serve as a needed reminder that while we have dazzled ourselves with technological advances, networked ourselves with instantaneous digital communication across the globe, we have no cause for arrogance. The fact that few in the West are even aware of what occurred in Indonesia so are unable to learn from it, and the fact that genocide is going on under our noses in Sudan, should be sobering reminders that our technological achievements have not been matched by an equal moral advance. Our technological intelligence may be towering. But our moral stature is dwarfish in comparison. We cannot preen too much over developing facial recognition technology or artificial intelligence when children are being raped and murdered under our noses while we stare into our computer screens.

Fortunately, while we may have an extraordinary capacity for evil, we also have an extraordinary capacity for good. In nearly all accounts of genocide we have found wonderful instances of good, and memorable examples of courage, magnanimity and caring. For every Hitler, there will be Schindlers. And there will be storytellers and filmmakers to remind us that we have a choice, to recognize and act on our shared humanity, or to look away.

Ultimately, those responsible for atrocities such as the Indonesia genocide come a cropper. If justice is not served in their lifetimes, it will be served by history. Hitler, Idi Amin, Pinochet and their like are remembered as butchers. In the end, the world honors the good.

Our challenge today is to harness the good in ourselves, to be more humane, more gentle, more caring, to treat each being in our world as someone of infinite worth. As technology gives us access to the far reaches of the globe, we must see that infinite worth in a man or woman in Sumatra who now has to live next to the man who tortured and killed their loved one, as we also strive to see it in our neighbor at home.

When we use atrocity to inspire us to act, to ask the right questions, to reach across the globe and try to stop someone from being killed or suffering, our world will become a more livable one. Only then will we be able to hope to turn back the tide on genocide.

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