3/31/2015

A Private Murder and a Public Genocide


A multi-millionaire, New York City real estate mogul's wife goes missing.  Friends and family suspect foul play, but the case gathers dust as a missing person mystery never to be solved.  Twenty years later, a stool pigeon reignites the authorities' interest in the disappearance, this time setting their eyes on the husband who just might have gotten away with murder.  The couple's former house is swept for clues, divers search the lake for a body, and just days before the primary person of interest can be interviewed for the first time - unbelievably - she is executed at point blank range in her home at the opposite end of the country.

Less than a year later, the man that was suspected but never charged with committing two murders is arrested for dismembering his elderly neighbor in Galveston, Texas.  He's caught red-handed, with knives and saws in the back seat of his car.  Without realizing the true identity of their suspect, the police grant him a $250,000 bail, which is promptly paid the next day.  He goes on the run, a nationwide man-hunt is issued, and he's busted for stealing a chicken salad sandwich with $500 cash in his pocket.

This is story of Robert Durst - so sensational, so bizarre, that it proves the idiom "truth is stranger than fiction".  Of course it became the subject of a major motion picture, and that's when things took another unexpected turn.  Apparently Durst was so moved by the film that he contacted the director, Andrew Jarecki, and asked him if he'd be interested in interviewing him and working together on another project.  That was the beginning of The Jinx, which was a word Durst used to describe himself when asked why he was adamant about not having children, and in retrospect of his perfectly timed arrest on the eve of the season finale, it's a fitting title for many of his inexplicable actions.

For countless viewers, The Jinx has set a new standard in the young genre of confronting suspected killers in the documentary form.  For many, there's nothing like it: a chronicle of 3 murders over 4 decades with the assistance of the suspect himself.  Key information is revealed throughout each episode, culminating in a shocking pseudo-admission when Durst forgets about his microphone while in the bathroom.  "What the hell did I do?  Killed them all, of course."  Jaws drop, ratings soar!  It's received coverage on every major publication, and undoubtedly, the trial will consume media attention for months to come.

While there are plenty of haters, kudos to director Andrew Jarecki and producer Marc Smerling.  They smelled their rat and followed it through, potentially bringing a murderer to justice while creating a truly engaging and unforgettable television experience in the process.  They couldn't have invented a more perfect villain: a guy that was born into millions of dollars and got away with admittedly chopping up his neighbor into little pieces.  In the era of the 99% and an unhealthy focus on income inequality, it's hard to say which is the bigger crime - but with Durst we get the perfect combination of both.

However, for all the press this event is receiving, and giving fair credit to The Jinx for a job well done, this reminds me of another documentary that exposed crimes far greater by orders of magnitude, and yet, got a fraction of the coverage.  Not only that, but while Mr. Durst was accidentally recorded while talking to himself in the privacy of a bathroom, which is hardly equivalent to a true confession, this other documentary is overflowing with footage of individuals bragging about killing hundreds of people.  In one case, a triple homicide suspect is swiftly brought to trial, but in the other, the criminals continue to not just roam, but rule the streets with impunity.  Why the double standard?  What's the lesson to be learned?  Perhaps Mr. Durst's real crime was murdering without a government uniform.

The Act of Killing

"In 1965, the Indonesian government was overthrown by the military.
Anybody opposed to the military dictatorship could be accused of being a communist: union members, landless farmers, intellectuals, and the ethnic Chinese.

In less than a year, and with the direct aid of western governments, over one million "communists" were murdered.
The army used paramilitaries and gangsters to carry out the killings.
These men have been in power - and have persecuted their opponents - ever since.

When we met the killers, they proudly told us stories about what they did.
To understand why, we asked them to create scenes about the killings in whatever ways they wished.
This film follows that process, and documents its consequences."
These are the opening words to The Act of Killing, the only historical background we are given to a genocide that claimed 500,000 to 3 million lives in a single year.  With the most widely accepted estimate at half a million deaths, it didn't pass the threshold to be included in Rummel's catalog of democides, Death By Government.  With the United States merely supporting the Indonesian government with money and weapons as part of its overall anti-communist policy, but not actively orchestrating the overthrow of their government, the military counter-coup did not make Stephen Kinzer's Overthrow.  Not only has this event gone down the memory hole in the western world, but the events of 1965-1966 are a forgotten page in the Indonesian history books as well.  This is the reason Joshua Oppenheimer went to Indonesia - to meet with the survivors and document the genocide so that it can be rightly included with the other great sins of the 21st century.  However, there was one problem with this approach: the people that committed the genocide are still in power, ruling their victims by fear and terrorizing them from speaking out.  When it seemed that the government would be successful in preventing their story from being told, the survivors gave Oppenheimer one last request: go interview the killers and the executioners, see if they will talk to you.  He did so, and it resulted in arguably the most unique, powerful, and universally important documentary… ever.


Ever?  A case could be made, not because of the importance of the genocide itself, but because Oppenheimer has done something totally unprecedented and amazing in the history of film.  He was able to capture government murderers bragging about their horrendous crimes while still in power.  It's like a real-life House of Cards; like footage from a Man in the High Castle parallel-world with Nazi's bragging about carrying out the holocaust with the smug assurance that nothing will ever be done about it because they won the war.

These people are free, heroes in their country, totally sanctioned by their government, media, and history books - and yet they brutally killed hundreds of people by their own hands.  It can't be overstated enough - they were complicit in the murders of thousands, tens of thousands, likely over 2 million collectively, and they brag about it!  With the innocence and naivet√© of a child, the leading subject of the film, executioner Anwar Congo, will demonstrate how he was inspired by American gangster movies to pioneer a cleaner and more efficient way of killing people by strangling them with wire, and in the next moment he'll show off his dancing ability with the cha-cha-cha.  It's absolutely surreal, and Anwar's Jekyll / Hyde persona is perfectly contrasted with fellow executioner Adi Zulkadry, who, rather than being a strange and inexplicable figure, is someone we know all too well.


Anwar and Adi: Reflections of the Statist Mind

As Oppenheimer has explained in several interviews, The Act of Killing is made possible by Anwar Congo's willingness to explore the crimes of his past to satisfy his conscience.  Anwar suffers from nightmares; he sees the open eyes of the people he killed, their ghosts haunting his dreams.  If Anwar can create a "beautiful family film", then maybe he can finally justify his actions and bring closure to his guilt and suffering.  It's a logical goal, as there are dozens of films that try to paint the ugly truths of war and violence as beautiful and heroic every year, some of them winning prestigious awards.

Anwar ultimately expresses guilt and takes some responsibility for his actions while simultaneously maintaining that "he did what he had to do", but fellow executioner Adi Zulkadry holds no such incompatible delusions.  If Anwar represents the American vet suffering from PTSD, ashamed and conflicted with the crimes he committed while "serving his country", then Adi is the stalwart officer of the law, 100% committed to his justifications and convinced that he was "only doing his job".  Combined, they represent the range of the statist mindset.  Neither of them can ever truly face the reality of their crimes: the fact that a government uniform did not alter the morality of their acts by one iota.  But on one extreme, Anwar is at least conflicted and suffers guilt, even although he does not understand it.  On the other end, Adi is a Javert like character that has accepted every statist lie and has nowhere else to go in this life.

The interplay between Anwar and Adi makes for some of the most memorable moments in the film.  When Anwar discusses his nightmares, suggesting that they are caused by the people he strangled, Adi will hear none of it.  "You feel haunted because your mind is weak", he tells Anwar.  According to Adi, they have nothing to feel sorry about, so all he needs to do is meet with a neurologist, get a prescription for "nerve vitamins", and he'll be a true believer once again.  Adi explains his ability to accept his acts without remorse or regret in a chillingly straightforward way:
"Killing is the worst crime you can do.  So the key is to find a way not to feel guilty.  It's all about finding the right excuse.

For example, if I'm asked to kill someone, if the compensation is right, then of course I'll do it, and from one perspective it's not wrong.  That's the perspective we must make ourselves believe.  After all, morality is relative."
Throughout the film, Anwar demonstrates that he does not agree with Adi's belief in relative morality.  When visiting the site where he tortured and killed hundreds of people, he is overcome with emotion, saying, "I know it was wrong - but I had to do it." He has a physical reaction, throwing up a little, and continues, "Why did I have to kill them?  I had to kill… My conscience told me they had to be killed."  In this instance he confuses his conscience with his friends in government and the Pancasila Youth - they were the ones that painted the "communists" as savages and sub-humans that deserved torture and death.  However, it is his recognition of the inherent immorality of his acts that allow him to identify the defining characteristic of government on par with the great Lysander Spooner:
"...Parliament should be the most noble place in society, but if we see what they do there, they're really just robbers with ties."
Yet again, Adi has a different perspective that reflects an attitude that is all too common in the west.  In one of Oppenheimer's most confrontational moments in the film, he asks Adi what he'd do if he was sent to the Hague and charged with war crimes.  The executioner responds indignantly:
"I don't necessarily agree with those international laws.  When Bush was in power, Guantanamo was right.  Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.  That was right according to Bush, but now it's wrong.

The Geneva Convention may be today's morality, but tomorrow - we'll have the Jakarta Conventions and dump the Geneva Conventions.

'War Crimes' are defined by the winners.  I'm a winner.  So I can make my own definitions.  I needn't follow the international definitions."
When John Oliver interviewed Oppenheimer on the Daily Show, he specifically referred to this scene, saying, "You can't argue with him".  Well of course you can!  But if you did, you'd be forced to confront Adi's ugly truth.  A more honest statement from Oliver would be that you can't logically denounce the mass killings in Indonesia while justifying the crimes of other nations like the United States, such as dropping atomic bombs on civilian cities, killing 500,000 children through sanctions, or torturing sheepherders in Guantanmo Bay.  In both instances, actions that would be deemed as wrong by an objective moral code are dressed in the cloak of "authority" and magically change their moral status.  The only difference is that we can't accept the authority of the Indonesian government when viewed through Oppenheimer's lens.  Lucky for the libertarian viewer, there are several other learning opportunities in The Act of Killing that demonstrate the true nature of government.

A Look Behind the Curtain: The Nature of Government

One of the most eccentric characters in The Act of Killing is Herman Koto, a gangster who spent his entire life in the ranks of the Pancasila Youth paramilitary organization.  A large man with a simple mind and a penchant for cross-dressing, Herman is as brutal of a killer as any and takes his directorial duties very seriously, second only to Anwar.  So it seemed too good to be true when Herman Koto decided to run for parliament because he's "well known".  Three cheers to Oppenheimer, the few minutes of the film covering Herman's campaign didn't move the story of the 1965 genocide, but it does offer the clearest and most honest insight into the mind of a politician outside of the fictional series House of Cards.


Once Herman dresses up for campaign photos and plasters his image all over his campaign car, he's ready to shake hands and kiss babies.  After practicing his best Obama impression, he rides down the street, yelling "Long live the Businessmen and Workers Party!  I am Herman - ready to fight for worker's rights!"  But in the next scene he reveals his real ambitions for elected office.  Herman explains:
"If I get elected and get on the Building Commission - I can get money from everyone.  For example, if a building is 10 cm too small, I can demand "Tear down the building!"

They'll say, "Please don't report us, Here's your money"

Even if nothing's wrong with the building, if I threaten them they'll give me money anyway.

Not just a little money, in a block of 10 buildings if each pays $10,000, just do the math - that's already $100,000.  That's only one neighborhood!"
The Act of Killing doesn't just show the true motivation behind code enforcement, it also tackles eminent domain.  Haji Anif, a paramilitary leaders and businessmen, looks across his vast acreage of land and explains that he gave it to the birds because it makes him happy.  To show what a clever and powerful man he is, he explains how he got the land:
"Everybody's terrified of the paramilitaries… When a businessman wants land where people are living , if he just pays for it, it's expensive.  But we can solve his problem.  Because people are terrified of us, when we show up - they say, 'just take the land.  Pay what you like.'"
What refreshing honesty!  Who needs libertarian class analysis with such candid political elites?  For all the horror and the trauma that the Indonesian people have been through, at least they can clearly identify their enemies.  In these moments, The Act of Killing highlights many of Hoppe's arguments in Democracy: The God that Failed, as a government this openly corrupt doesn't suffer from the army of useful idiots parroting "we are the government".  That said, there is at least one moment in the film when a government official thinks he may have gone too far and considers his public image.  Before filming the attack on Kampung Kolam, Deputy Minister of Youth and Sport Sakhyan Asmara makes a special appearance to give the actors a pep talk, and before long he's in the middle of a foaming-at-the-mouth blood rage.  "Crush the comments!  Wipe them out!  Slaughter them!  Kill them all!  Don't let any escape!  Take no prisoners!  Destroy them all!  Burn down their houses!  Kill the communists!  Chop them up!  Burn them!  Kill them all!"  It's pretty intense, so Sakhyan Asmara decides to give a disclaimer:
"Now I'm speaking as a leader of Pancasila Youth.  What we've just shown is not characteristic of our organization.  We shouldn't look brutal, like we want to drink people's blood.  That's dangerous for our organization's image.  But we must exterminate the communists.  We must totally wipe them out - but in a more humane way."
So there we have it.  When it comes to official government policy, it's important to be humane when you kill a million or so people.  This is the primary reason why the Indonesian government requires paramilitaries like Pancasila Youth.  By all objective accounts they certainly meet the criteria of the state; they are an integral part of the "monopoly of violence".  They kill, rob, shake-down, and commit all sorts of other crimes with total impunity.  Not only do they receive privileges usually reserved for government enforcers, but top members of the government are also members of Pancasila Youth!  But just in case any "uncharacteristic" event spins out of control they always have plausible deniability.  Vice President of Indonesia, Jusuf Kalla, explains the importance of Pancasila Youth this way:
"The spirit of Pancasila Youth, which people accuse of being gangsters...  Gangsters are people who work outside the system - not for the government.

The word 'gangster' comes from 'free men'.  This nation needs 'free men'!

If everyone worked for the government - we'd be a nation of bureaucrats, we'd get nothing done.  We need gangsters to get things done."
If there was ever a reason to take a step back and consider the pros and cons of Obama's call for a civilian security force, this would probably be it.


Conclusion

The Act of Killing brings about such a sense of unease in the viewer because it goes to the heart of a commonly promoted superstition: that the human species is going ever onward and upwards - righting wrongs, learning from mistakes, and making progress.  Footage of Nazi's bragging about their crimes wouldn't elicit the same reaction, the take away would be that they lost the war because they were evil and got what they deserved in Nuremburg.  But here you have to contend with an unjust world, one where a group of mass-murdering gangsters won control over their government, put down their opposition, controls the masses through fear and propaganda, and are still in charge today.  It is a film that shows that crime pays - only if the crime is big enough.

Inevitably, having to contend with this reality begs the question - if the Indonesians still live in a country ruled by mass-murderers and brainwashed with a corrupt media that portrays villains as heroes - what can I say for sure about my own government?  Is it possible my "duly elected leaders" have the same contempt for me?  In this way Oppenheimer is able to open a window into the true nature of government for anyone watching it - regardless of what country they come from.  A Stockholm Syndrome defense mechanism would kick in if you showed someone a film attacking his own government; all the years of childhood indoctrination ensures that one can always double-think out of any unpatriotic thought.  But the Act of Killing lowers those defenses, it captures the imagination by showing a world far removed from our day to day life, and the anxiety we feel when watching it is a long-dormant moral compass awakening and challenging the inherent illogic of living in a modern state.

The Jinx may be a ratings success for HBO, and undoubtedly the trial of Robert Durst will receive significant airplay for months to come, but in the end, Durst is a sloppy piker compared to the likes of Anwar Congo.  Sure he's got millions of dollars, but what is that compared to the power of government?  What are 3 murders compared to a genocide of 3 million?  If the answer is "a million times worse", then shouldn't Oppenheimer's masterpiece still be receiving the attention it deserves?  Unfortunately, The Act of Killing's temporary rise and fall just goes to show that when it comes to judging the importance of a murder, the most important criteria is whether or not it was done with the authority of the state.

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