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Political Science and The Act of Killing

- August 12, 2013

The Act of Killing is a truly incredible movie that I strongly recommend to everyone. The movie portrays several Indonesian mass murderers who have tortured, executed, pillaged, and raped at large scales and now wish to re-enact their past behavior in a movie. Reviews are here, here, and here. I concur with Roger Ebert Steven Boone who calls it the “the smiliest atrocity documentary” he has ever seen and notes that:

There’s never been a shortage of dark, grim documentaries that catalog life’s cruelty, horrors and banality of evil. Thanks to the documentary genre, I have watched hundreds of hours of war crimes, genocides and miscarriages of justice carried out by unremarkable men with dimly lit souls. “The Act of Killing” bids to outdo them all.

The movie engages questions that have long occupied political scientists: why do people participate in systematic mass killings? And how can/should they be held accountable for it? I suspect it will become a staple in the classroom. Sometimes film is an incredibly effective medium to communicate ideas and stimulate the brain.

There are several ways the movie speaks to the political science literature. For example, the perpetrators are imminently aware of what Kathryn Sikkink has labeled the “justice cascade:” the idea that throughout the world perpetrators of war crimes and other human rights atrocities are increasingly being held accountable for their acts through trials. They know about Pinochet, the ICC, and so on.

Yet, they seem completely unfazed by this trend, presumably because many people affiliated with the paramilitary organization on whose behalf they acted are still in power. One of them even professed his eagerness to be sent to The Hague so he could become “famous” (of course the ICC has no jurisdiction over crimes committed in the 1960s). Still, at least based on the evidence portrayed here the deterrent effect of the cascade is not obviously present. The Indonesian vice-president is filmed giving a public speech to a paramilitary organization with 3 million members in which he argues that they will sometimes need to use their fists. The answer to the question why the children of murdered “Communists” are not seeking justice at a larger scale is invariably that they would be crushed.

The movie is quite consistent with the literature on mass killings: individuals do not usually participate in mass killings because they are intrinsically evil or because they are blinded by hatred of a group of others (in this case Communists).  Instead, these killings are usually part of some organized efforts by elites to strategically eliminate opponents. A good place to start may be Benjamin Valentino’s Final Solutions, which offers a comprehensive analysis of mass killing and genocide in the 20th century.

On the other hand, I was also struck by the organization of the mass killings through a loosely organized paramilitary organization. These were really gangsters who shifted back and forth between “regular economic crime” and politically motivated crimes. The link with the military government was there but it would be an exaggeration to say that the government had clear control over the proceedings (the precise links here are not investigated as thoroughly as I would have liked in the movie). The role of a (past and current) newspaper publisher is especially disheartening. This industrial organization of violence (as Robert Bates would call it) seems important and I am not sure if it is well covered in the literature. (Correct me if I am wrong though as I am not a specialist in this area.)

Anyway: don’t be deterred by the dark subject of this documentary and go see it.

ps. Several people have pointed out to me that the maker of the documentary, Joshua Oppenheimer, is the son of retired University of Maryland political science professor Joe Oppenheimer.