Encountering Humanity's Dark Side
Antonius C.G.M. Robben and Alexander Laban Hinton


Contents and Abstracts
Introduction: Approaching Perpetrator Research
chapter abstract

Perpetrators of mass violence are active participants in states, organizations, and informal associations that carry out violent acts for the presumed good of the state, a people, or an ideology. They are categorized into architects, organizers, and facilitators according to their function and social position. This introduction contextualizes the ethnographic interviewing, dreaming, and writing about perpetrators of mass violence in anthropological theory, and it discusses the ethical obligations to research participants. It addresses the challenges of meeting with perpetrators and dealing with the denial or justification of mass violence. Ethnographic encounters may evoke strong emotional reactions that may reach into the fieldworkers' dreams and affect their writing. This introduction shows that a combination of different genres of ethnographic writing is the best way to describe the complexities and contradictions of perpetrators.

1 Spectacular Perpetrators
chapter abstract

Chapter 1 provides historical background on the Cambodian genocide and uses the metaphor of spectacle to address the intersubjective tensions of ethnographic interviews with perpetrators. The spectacular perpetrator is a chimera of ethnographic and popular imagination that confronts a spectacular anthropologist about whom informants and perpetrators make certain assumptions. By being aware of these assumptions at the intersubjective encounter, researchers and interviewees may speak with more openness and recognition of one another's humanity. Alex Hinton describes how these meetings were fraught with logistical and methodological problems when he conducted fieldwork in rural Cambodia during the mid-1990s.

2 Seductive Perpetrators
chapter abstract

Chapter 2 shows how the actions, emotions, and lived experiences of perpetrators can be examined from their perspective. This understanding is achieved through cognitive and affective empathy, and an analysis of the conscious and unconscious dynamics of ethnographic encounters. Empathy enables ethnographers to put themselves in the place of others without losing their sense of self. They adopt the perpetrator's mental representations of the world through cognitive empathy and thus succeed in delineating the repressive organization and underlying political ideology. Ethnographers must also employ affective empathy to imagine how perpetrators experienced that world, the violent acts, and the suffering of their victims. These general observations are illustrated with examples from fieldwork experiences of Antonius Robben in Argentina.

Interlude: The Perpetrator and the Witness
chapter abstract

This interlude describes Alex Hinton's journey to find the Cambodian perpetrator Khan who was accused of killing hundreds of inmates in a prison camp under his command but was never prosecuted. Hinton relates the uncomfortable meeting with Khan who denied any wrongdoing, even after an eyewitness confronted Khan with his atrocious acts.

Interlude: "They Were No More. None of Them. They Had Become Disappeared."
chapter abstract

This interlude presents an imaginary monologue by the Argentine mother Matilde Herrera, whose three children, their partners, and their children were disappeared by the Argentine military in 1976 and 1977. Two grandchildren were returned to the grandparents, but two babies delivered in captivity were stolen. This piece, in the voice of Matilde Herrera, conveys the political militancy of her children, their disappearance, and her perpetual anguish. The text has been composed from Antonius Robben's interviews with Matilde Herrera, and her truth commission declarations, court testimonies, and publications.

3 The Night Stalkers
chapter abstract

Chapter 3 describes the value of dream analysis during fieldwork. Antonius Robben had many research-related dreams that were interpreted by a professional analyst during two years of psychoanalysis in Argentina. The analytic interventions addressed the appearance of research problems in dream accounts and uncovered personal ambivalences, anxieties, and obstacles. One foundational force in the unconscious consists of authority models internalized early in life when children identify with their parents. The identification with his father shaped the author's interest in enforced disappearances, and the adopted paternal authority model served as a template for the male perpetrators he interviewed in Argentina. The awareness of these unconscious dynamics through dream analysis helped improve the ethnographic fieldwork.

4 Ruin
chapter abstract

Chapter 4 interprets the dream Alex Hinton had in Cambodia the day after attending the final judgement in the trial of Duch. Duch was the commandant of the S-21 Tuol Sleng prison and first defendant at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal. The dream involved a menacing presence in the bleak ruins of a Cambodian fortress and appeared at the crucial transition from research to writing. This dream and the metaphor of ruin give rise to a reflection about the personal impact of conducting research on mass violence and perpetrators. Such research may "ruin" the researcher by creating a sense of disorder, abjection, and dirtiness that field-workers struggle to contain as they excavate these metaphorical ruins and begin their narration.

Interlude: For the Sake of the Fatherland
chapter abstract

This interlude presents an imaginary monologue by the Argentine general Ramón Genaro Díaz Bessone, to explain the political circumstances that led to the military coup d'état of March 1976. He justifies the counterinsurgency war and state terrorism against revolutionary insurgents and a heterogeneous political opposition movement between 1976 and 1983. This piece of creative nonfiction is based on extensive interviews with General Díaz Bessone and his publications.

Interlude: Interrogation: Comrade Duch's Abecedarian
chapter abstract

This interlude consists of an experimental poem by Alex Hinton about perpetrators who worked at the S-21 Tuol Sleng prison that was commanded by Duch. The poems are inspired by the term abecedarian, which is a poetic form structured by sequential use of the letters of the alphabet but is also etymologically linked to pedagogy. The term and poetic form convey Duch's multiple roles in life as a teacher, revolutionary, commandant, subordinate, zealot, scapegoat, and accused.

5 Nearing the Paradox
chapter abstract

Chapter 5 discusses the ethnographic difficulty of writing about perpetrators. It draws inspiration from the novel The Stranger by Albert Camus to demonstrate how perpetrators can be represented as contradictory figures rather than one-dimensional evildoers. The chapter addresses the intention, agency, context, and accountability of perpetrators through a polyphonic rendition of the massacre of sixteen Argentine guerrillas in 1972. Forty years later, navy officers were convicted in court for the mass killing, but their political sympathizers have not accepted the verdict as historical truth. The discursive contestation shows the importance of describing the different accounts of everyone involved in mass violence and delineating the contradictions of perpetratorhood.

6 Curation
chapter abstract

Chapter 6 extends the metaphors of spectacle and excavation to that of curation, which connotes healing (cure) as well as guardianship. Alex Hinton uses curation as a metaphorical springboard for describing how forms of experimental writing are more suitable than straight narrative to represent perpetrators like Duch, the commandant of the S-21 Tuol Sleng prison. Hinton draws on narrative techniques that contain the ambiguities and contradictions of perpetrators to create a more evocative prose than the turgid expository style common to many anthropological texts. He shows how the metaphor of a Medusa in the room can serve as a guide to grapple with the complexity of perpetrators.

Conclusion: Six Guideposts for Perpetrator Research
chapter abstract

The conclusion presents six methodological guideposts, or lessons, that reflect the practical wisdom that Alex Hinton and Antonius Robben gained during decades of fieldwork with perpetrators in Cambodia and Argentina. This phronesis may help researchers make better choices as they move forward with their explorations of perpetrators and perpetration. These six observations pay attention to the subjectivity of fieldworkers and perpetrators; the abjection experienced by ethnographers through their association with perpetrators; different writing strategies and narrative styles; a critical engagement with and self-reflection about interpretations of perpetratorhood; the craft of researching and engaging with perpetrators; and an awareness of the epistemic limitations of knowing and understanding perpetrators.