A film about Cambodia's killing fields portrays mass murderers as ordinary citizens, embedded in vlllages and families.  I disagree with a psychologist who argues that such killers are in the same universe as the Tucson killer.


The Stanton Peele Addiction Website, January 12, 2011. This blog post also appeared on Stanton's Addiction in Society blog at PsychologyToday.com.

Mass Murderers, Psychotic and Ordinary

This post is a response to Can We Profile Killers Like Jared Loughner, Nidal Malik Hasan, and the VA Tech Shooter? by Stanton Peele


"Anyone can be made into a mass murderer" - Rob Lemkin, co-director of "Enemies of the People," when asked what he learned from his film about Cambodia's killing fields.

When I referred in my blog to the notorious recent mass murderers Jared Loughner, Nidal Malik Hasan, and the Virginia Tech shooter (Seung-Hui Cho) as socially isolated psychotics, researcher Steven Reiss responded:

I think there are as many gregarious people who are mass killers as there are loners. If I recall this correctly, Heinrich Himmler, for example, was a real charmer. As head of the Nazi SS, he killed more people than all the loners in America in your lifetime.

I answered:

I'd be inclined to take your observations more seriously if your counter-example - Heinrich Himmler - weren't so fey. You don't make the distinction between state-supported murderers - like Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot - and individual mass killers? It seems perhaps the most elementary categorization to be drawn. Does your research or that which you summarize fail to make such distinctions throughout? If so, that might account for the equal numbers of gregarious and isolated mass killers found.

Dr. Reiss came back:

I used the example of Himmler because he is well known. I disagree with you that his working for a government in some way contributed to his being a killer.

Really!?! Being a Nazi has nothing to do with his being a mass murderer?

I'm flabbergasted that intelligent psychologists can fail to differentiate between statist mass killers and loners who shoot into crowds - and to think that generalizations from one group should apply to the other.

Since I mentioned Pol Pot in my counterargument, I went to see the film "Enemies of the People" last night, a viewing at which co-director Rob Lemkin spoke. The film depicts the personal investigation over a decade by Cambodian journalist Thet Sambath of the killing fields of his country which, from 1975-79, entombed close to two million of his countrymen, including his parents and brother.

Sambath traced the story through two sources: two rural farmers responsible for thousands of hands-on killings, and Pol Pot's second-in-command in the Khmer Rouge, a man named Nuon Chea. Chea is currently being detained for crimes against humanity, for which he is expected to be tried by the UN this June. Around the same time, "Enemies" will be shown on PBS.

The two farmers detailed their murders. One said, "I slit so many throats that my hand ached, so I switched to stabbing in the neck." He also acquired a taste for drinking human gall bladders. The two pointed out the fields where the bodies were dumped.

These two men - pictured in their village context - were friendly and cooperative. They were deeply ashamed of their actions - which were sanctioned and ordered by a local woman higher-up with whom they were interviewed. She in turn took her orders from the Communist central party. In other words, they were part of a social network, doing as they were commanded, embedded in their local community.

Chea defended his actions, for which he might be labeled a psychopath. He feels the killings (which he calls "solutions") were necessary to protect the nation from the Vietnamese, who in fact did invade and rule the country for a decade, ending the killing fields. He is shown with his wife in constant attendance, and playing with a small child (his great grand kid - he is over 80). Sambath, who never loses his equanimity, and who has his own wife and kids, envies family scenes like these that he missed in his own life.

After the film, I asked Lemkin from the audience, "What did you learn about mass murder?"

He answered (and I paraphrase), "Anyone can be made into a mass murderer. The two farmers were ordinary people - after the killings ended, they never did anything remotely like that on their own."

Another questioner asked, "Who should be blamed for the mass killings?"

Lemkin (again, I paraphrase): "I don't think you can blame one person - or group of people.  Although Chea justifies the killings in terms of communism, it was mainly ethnic violence. The farmers killed masses of ethnic minorities, because people were afraid they would cooperate with the Vietnamese. I know it seems shocking, but the current government worries that when Chea goes on trial, many Cambodians will agree with his position that he was protecting the ethnic integrity of the country.

"The other reason I wouldn't blame Chea specifically is that he himself was a victim of the cleansing. All sorts of people were eliminated, many simply through mistakes.  Forty of his own relatives were killed. When Chea heard during a central party meeting that one of his uncles was assassinated, even he was afraid to voice any objection."

So can Chea, an originator and at the same time a captive of the mass killings, and the two farmers, lowly pawns in this massive killing machinery, really be looked at in identical ways to recent American mass murderers like Loughner et al.?

I don't think so.