How to Recognize a Tragedy

“Our capacity for evil depends on our ability to lie to ourselves,” said Joshua Oppenheimer after a screening of his Oscar-nominated documentary, The Look of Silence (2015). The film is the second in a series that addresses the almost unfathomable violence that took place in Indonesia between 1965 and 1966, when an estimated 1 million ‘communists’ — union members, political dissidents, intellectuals, and farm workers — were killed. Oppenheimer’s observation, made in 2016, echoes one made by Hannah Arendt in the aftermath of another mass atrocity that challenged the world’s understanding of the human capacity for violence, cruelty, and self-deception.

The Trial of Adolf Eichmann (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Adolf Eichmann on trial in 1961 | Source: Israel National Photo Collection/Wikimedia Commons

In 1960, fifteen years after WWII, the State of Israel brought Adolf Eichmann, a Lieutenant Colonel in the National Socialist German Worker’s Party, to Jerusalem to stand trial for crimes against humanity. Eichmann, who coordinated the deportation of millions of prisoners to concentration camps, did not consider himself guilty of anything except doing his job. While covering the trial for The New Yorker, Arendt marveled that criminals could accept and systematically carry out mass murder as a matter of bureaucratic routine, without widespread moral revulsion, indignation, or resistance from the wider population. She coined the now-famous phrase “the banality of evil” to refer to the ways in which individuals and institutions can shield themselves from the violence of their actions, and from taking responsibility for their decisions.

In Indonesia today, the perpetrators of mass murders not only deny responsibility, but deny that those killings constitute a crime at all.

Oppenheimer’s first documentary on the subject, The Act of Killing (2012), focuses on a group of officials and paramilitary leaders who imprisoned, tortured, and murdered hundreds of people after Sukarno’s left-leaning government was overthrown by the military. The self-proclaimed gangsters are proud of their pasts, and re-enact the murders for the camera with unnerving enthusiasm. The killers’ almost delusional frankness and camp appropriation of western aesthetic — one scene featured death-squad leader Anwar Congo gleefully donning a hot pink ten-gallon-hat before demonstrating how he used to crush his victims under a wooden bench — drew sharp criticism. Among other critics, Robert Cribb argued that the film perpetuated an Orientalist understanding of the massacres as the product of psychopathic Indonesians slaughtering each other, rather than what it was: a highly organized military coup and genocide carried out with the backing of the anti-communist U.S. and U.K. governments.

General Suharto (Source: Associated Press/Al-Jazeera)

The leader of the coup against Sukarno, Suharto (second from left, in sunglasses) | Source: © Associated Press/Al Jazeera

In The Look of Silence, the killers show the same sort of matter-of-factness in regards to their actions. One of the men has made a comic book about his role in the slaughter; two men walk down to the Snake River and discuss effective methods of decapitation; others laugh and remember how people refused to eat fish caught in the river for because there were so many bodies. “What happened?” asked Amir Siahaan, Commander of the Snake River death squads, before unapologetically answering his own question: “We exterminated communists for three months, day and night.”

Rather than merely showcasing the violent narratives of individual killers, The Look of Silence digs into the heart of the paradox that allows such men to murder their neighbors and call it justice.

The Look of Silence (Source: Lars Skree/Danish Film Institute)

Poster for The Look of Silence, featuring one of Rukun’s clients | Source: © Lars Skree/Danish Film Institute

The film’s success is in no small part due to the presence of Adi Rukun, an optometrist whose brother was brutally murdered in the Snake River massacres. It is Rukun, rather than Oppenheimer, who interrogates the killers who still live as his neighbors in Aceh. He listens while the men recount and justify their roles in the killings, and then asks questions: “How do you feel,” or, “How do you see these events?” His interrogation arrests the narrative and lays bare — for a moment — the elaborate intellectual acrobatics and rationalizations that sustain it. After Inong, the former leader of a death squad, describes how he used to drink the blood of his victims, Rukun points out that Islam does not condone murder. Inong lashes out, “Your questions are too deep. I don’t like deep questions.” Despite his earlier willingness to discuss the gory details of the killings, he is unable to respond when forced to see his story as something wrong or as something that he should not have done. He ends the interview, saying, “I don’t like talking about politics.”

The questions Rukun asks are different than those asked in criminal trials. They are not a part of the normal play of prosecution and defense that enable a legal judgment. They are the sorts of questions that might provide answers to those “questions of greater import” that Arendt felt were absent from Eichmann’s trial: “How could it happen?” and “Why did it happen?” They are the sorts of questions that disrupt the narratives they are aimed at so profoundly that they can no longer be repeated. Where The Act of Killing ironically display the killers’ violent narratives to an aghast audience, Rukun’s questions in The Look of Silence attempt the more difficult work of showing the killers the tragedy of their own narratives.

The work of tragic recognition has a long history — not in politics, alas — but on the stage.

According to Aristotle, in a tragedy things are never what they seem. Who the characters are does not matter as much as what it is they do, and how those actions are re-interpreted and ultimately understood. In Sophocles’ tragedy Oedipus Rex, the title character recognizes that an action he performed, killing a hostile stranger, was in fact patricide: he killed his own father. Though the action was always a murder, the sufferings did not constitute a tragedy until Oedipus understood the truth of what he had done, and saw the intended outcome of his actions reversed: what was self-defense was an act of self-destruction. On a stage, these components of an Aristotelian tragedy allow the characters to recognize their participation in a tragic rather than heroic narrative. In Oppenheimer’s film, Rukun’s questions begin the work of allowing a country to recognize its heroic liberation from communism as a program of genocide.

In Indonesia today, the government-mandated narrative of ‘victory over the communists’, and the silencing of survivors, serves to prevent the history of the killings from becoming a true tragedy. It is unsurprising that the government in Jakarta publicly banned these two films, when its politicians maintain such an elaborate bureaucratic and rhetorical machinery to suppress dissent. The Indonesian government’s control over the narrative effectively denies the population the two elements of reflective thought that allow tragedy: recognition and reversal.

The slaughter of almost one million people cannot be recognized as genocide if the victims are enemy communists, not innocent people.

As long as the dominant narrative maintains that “Bali has become more beautiful without communists,” as ABC News reported in 1967 (quoted in The Look of Silence), it is possible that the outcome of widespread murder would not be understood as an injustice.

Hannah Arendt (Source: WPClipArt/DecodedPast)

Hannah Arendt | Source: WPClipArt/Decoded Past

Arendt observed that a similarly widespread practice of self-deception and belief in propaganda, no matter how contradictory, became a “moral prerequisite for survival” in Germany. The most effective rhetoric was the slogan that called the war a “battle of destiny for the German people.” It suggested, she observed, “first, that the war was no war; second, that it was started by destiny and not by Germany; and, third, that it was a matter of life and death for the Germans, who must annihilate their enemies or be annihilated.” In Indonesia, the extermination of the communists was called “the people’s struggle,” which invoked language from Indonesia’s earlier fight for independence to cast any violence as part of a spontaneous movement for liberation.

The rhetoric persists. The Look of Silence takes its viewers inside of an elementary school where children repeat a lesson about the cruelty and godlessness of the communists. The teacher prompts the students to be grateful for the work of the military in suppressing the bloodthirsty communists: “Let’s thank the heroes who struggled to make our country a…” the teacher trails off, waiting for the class to respond: “Democracy!” After class, Rukun takes his son aside. “It’s all lies,” he says grimly.

Adi Rukun (Source: Lars Skree/Danish Film Institute)

Adi Rukun | Source: © Lars Skree/Danish Film Institute

Throughout the film Rukun continues his work, asking questions, pointing out contradictions. It feels almost unnervingly appropriate that he is an optometrist. We watch him lean over mass murderers and carefully measure the refractive error of his patient’s eyes, and ask them what they can see, and how well. When M. Y. Basrun, Speaker of the Regional Legislature, dismissed Rukun’s concern over the killings, Rukun objected: “But a million people were killed.” Basrun replied, “That’s politics. Politics is the process of achieving one’s ideals in various ways.”

The Act of Killing revealed the rhetoric that allowed astonishing violence and injustice. It still serves as a powerful call for practical and immediate measures for legal accountability. Participant Media, as well as Amnesty International, the East Timor and Indonesia Action Network, and other human rights groups are using both films as a springboard to call for the U.S. and U.K. governments to acknowledge their role in the military coup and the genocide, and to declassify all documents and correspondence related to the mass killings. They hope to eventually push the current Indonesian government to begin the truth and reconciliation process by taking responsibility for its campaign of murder, incarceration, torture, rape, and other serious human rights violations.

There has been some progress: on April 18 and 19, 2016, a two-day government-supported symposium entitled “Dissecting the 1965 Tragedy” was convened. It marked a shift from the previous trend of wholesale repression, enforced last year when Indonesia’s largest writers’ festival was forced to cancel a series of events marking the 1965 massacres, after authorities threatened to revoke its operating permit. Despite nominally sponsoring a critical discussion — or, ‘dissection,’ rather, as of something long-dead — officials refused to issue an apology and admitted only a small portion of the atrocities. Luhut Pandjaitan, the Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security of Indonesia, for example, left off more than a few zeroes from his statistics, saying: “I don’t believe the number was more than 1,000; probably fewer.”

April 18, 2016 National Symposium on the 1965-66 Massacre (Source:

Luhut Pandjaitan (seventh from left) attending the symposium on the 1965 massacres | Source: © Tribunnews/Kompas

Even if Pandjaitan had provided a more accurate accounting of those killed between 1965-66, it would have been far from an admission that those killings were wrong. The Look of Silence does more than just ask for the apology that the Indonesian government refuses to give year after year. It performs the reflective work of a truth and reconciliation process by directly confronting those involved.

If we are to seek an answer to the question of how we can prevent something like this from happening again, we need to learn how to engage the critical reflective work of asking these questions earlier, before the violence starts.

Unlike its counterpart, The Act of Killing, The Look of Silence addresses the more troubling fact that everyday people — not just individual psychopaths in a particular country — are capable of convincing themselves that committing injustice is not a tragedy. It admits, as Arendt wrote, “that an average, ‘normal’ person, neither feeble-minded nor indoctrinated nor cynical, could be perfectly incapable of telling right from wrong.” The film also takes its actors — the men who repeat their actions joyfully and shamelessly — a step further into recognizing themselves as guilty. If we are to seek an answer to the question of how we can prevent something like this from happening again, we need to learn how to engage the critical reflective work of asking these questions earlier, before the violence starts. We need to learn how to ask the ‘political’ questions that can allow the leader of a death squad, or an entire country, to recognize a tragedy.


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