The movie was born of a fateful accident, director Rithy Panh told me over coffee in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, last year. That film is S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, Panh's harrowing documentary about the ultra-Maoist movement's main detention center, a Phnom Penh high school that was transformed into an interrogation, torture, and death camp, code-named S-21. Now making its way across the United States, S21sheds a harsh light on some of the issues raised on a smaller scale at Abu Ghraib -- about the documentation of prisoners' mistreatment, and on environments where the dehumanization of detainees has become routine.
The beginning of Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States breaks open with the force of a thunderclap. The historian sets the stage for the encounter between Christopher Columbus and the Arawak people of the Bahama Islands in one spare paragraph: Upon catching sight of the explorer and his crew, the natives “ran to greet them, brought them food, water, gifts.” Zinn then allows Columbus to take over the narrative. The Spaniard lingers a moment over the Arawaks' hospitality and physical beauty -- “They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features.” -- before concluding, “They would make fine servants … . With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”
Head north out of Phnom Penh, and within a few miles the cacophonous traffic of Cambodia's capital gives way to herds of oxen and water buffalo, their shoulder blades rolling underneath their hides. As you travel, the riverside restaurants -- frequented by well-off Khmers and thick with neon lights and the sound of karaoke -- grow fewer and farther. Soon there is nothing but rice fields, the great brown swath of the Mekong River; and then, rising out of the flat landscape with surprising suddenness, an onion-shaped dome.
My mother told me about drug mules when I was 6. It was her ingenious way of keeping me from running amok in Bangkok's Don Muang airport. “Someone will kidnap you!” she hissed, clamping her monstrous little bird claw on my wrist. “And make you swallow the drug! And then” -- the claw gripped tighter -- “you have to poo everything out for them.” I goggled at her, and then stapled myself to her side until we got to the States.
Legendary metal band Metallica has wreaked a lot of havoc over its 23 years. “Blistering,” “lacerating,” “gut-assaulting,” and “bone-crunching” are the terms most often used to describe the band's oeuvre -- words more frequently associated with bodily harm than with the experience of listening to a CD.
That seems like an awful lot of anger to sustain all the way from the angry '80s to our post–Dr. Phil era. If Metallica has unleashed that much mayhem upon its listeners over the years, what has been the toll on the musicians who produce it?