Administrative evil is sinister—It lurks in the shadows and under the surface of organizational action. The Khmer Rouge genocide stands as one of the most terrible instances of human injustice in modern memory. The methods of Pol Pot and his contemporaries, and the outcomes of their approaches to make their control of the population absolute, are examined as a study in systematic imposition of evil on a society. The article is an assessment of the Khmer Rouge regime through the lens of administrative evil, drawing from literature on hatred, paranoia, and belief as organizing and motivating forces, the legitimation of bureaucratic malevolence, and the teleology of historical agency. The article proposes that bureaucracy, by virtue of its lack of discretion against political forces, is not merely a potential tool of good or evil, but a force of administrative evil in and of itself that we may be unable to control.
- administrative evil
- organizational behavior
- social sciences
- public administration and nonprofit management
- politics and humanities
- public policy
- political science
Bureaucracy in the modern sense may not see itself as the root of evil, but it is a key to the normalization of evil. It claims ignorance instead of admitting its instrumentality; it can betray the confidence of the public by claiming that public interest is an issue with which other groups must contend. However, bureaucracy is not simply a value-free, ambivalent tool devoid of good or evil; administration is not a separate matter from its outcomes, which may lack legitimacy (Dillard & Ruchala, 2005). By virtue of its usefulness to evil ends, bureaucracy itself may collude with evil to become the force by which freedoms are trampled, genocides are committed, and lives are destroyed.
The case of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in the 1970s provides a rare glimpse into the heart of administrative darkness. This case has been taken up by Adams and Balfour in discussing a movie that depicted Tuol Sleng, also known as S-21, a former high school that was used as a prison in which atrocities were committed (Hoffman, Pyne, & Gajewski, 2012). The cruel work of Pol Pot and his compatriots was extreme in its scope; a conservative estimate is that about 20% of the nation’s population was killed in purges (Goldhagen, 2009). The approach was also unapologetically and coldly methodical, with a strong emphasis on bureaucratic paperwork, adherence to orderly process to realize official policy, and the perpetuation of an instrumental hierarchy occupied first by revolutionaries, and then eventually by children. One definition of the ideal of public administration—a clear and rational bureaucracy operating in an orderly and efficient fashion—subverted striving for a fair and just society. The reference to the film seems limited to the giving of orders by revolutionary leadership and the culpability of the officers that ran the prison in committing evil. There is nevertheless an opportunity to further evaluate the broader case in light of administrative evil, beyond what is portrayed in the film. There is a need to extend theory in this area through thoughtful application. Administrative evil in Cambodian society was not unique to prison officers; it was a foundational element in the function and outcomes of the whole Khmer Rouge regime.
In this article, the idea of administrative evil is applied in the historical context of the Cambodian genocide. The case presents an opportunity to review the implications of belief made manifest through administrative action. A review of administrative evil leads us to a reconsideration of the bureaucracy of death under the Khmer Rouge. Such a review in light of the literature is warranted given the horrific nature of the acts in this instance and the tendency to overlook the common elements of administration that continue to make such events possible even in today’s world. Tools of administrative evil applied in the context of this case are then analyzed, and the specific case of the S-21 prison is reviewed. We find that in Cambodia, a universal sense of ethical action in the public service collapsed against the backdrop of a society driven by paranoia and fear; how belief is translated into an assumption of blamelessness for the public sector has great significance for applications of administrative evil beyond the historical interest of the case. Bureaucracy is itself capable of great malevolence in a way we ultimately become powerless to stop or to perhaps even fully understand. Recognizing that supposed value-free efficiencies can lead to evil ends may not be enough to prevent such behavior.
The Problem of Administrative Evil
The literature on administrative evil is considerable, and has wrestled with thoughts of blame and administration’s ability to enable great injustice. Adams and Balfour (1998/2009) are credited with beginning the broad discussion of administrative evil in the context of public management circles, providing a basic definition of evil—“knowingly and deliberately inflicting pain and suffering on other human beings” (p. xix)—and applying the concept as perpetrating evil through administrative structure—perhaps while thinking one is doing what is right and just, and lacking intent to commit evil. Administrative evil has subsequently been applied to topics from the relatively mundane, such as accounting hierarchies and the public interest (Dillard & Ruchala, 2005), and whether enterprise resource planning systems constitute a manifestation of administrative evil (Dillard, Ruchala, & Yuthas, 2005), to the horrific, such as the atrocities at Abu Ghraib (Adams, Balfour, & Reed, 2006; Eisenman, 2007).
Throughout human history, there have been instances of dehumanization, hatred against whole populations, and genocide (Jones, 2010). Aside from laying blame with those that lead such movements, administrative evil is responsible for empowering and enabling a regime to accomplish such ends (Adams & Balfour, 1998/2009; Zimbardo, 2008). Administrative evil is sinister—It lurks in the shadows and under the surface of organizational action, masquerading in various shades of banality. The administrator might think that he or she is doing the “right thing,” and unwittingly be aiding an overwhelmingly harmful, evil societal process. It is dangerous because it is relatively easy for even a well-intentioned public administrator to fall into this trap that underlies public administration’s dual nature. The fact that the actor does not recognize that he or she is doing anything wrong does not excuse or explain the thoughtlessness of the evil being committed. Through cover of organizations and chains of command, perhaps the administrator dissociates himself or herself from his or her real responsibilities to society.
There is a potential for administration to be utilized as a blunt instrument to bring about societal change. Ghere (2006) offered the connection between opportunity and agenda-setting, and the public policy process, drawing on Stone (1997), and March and Olsen (1986). This change could be for good or evil, but given that there is precious little agreement on what constitutes the public interest, let alone good and evil, such dialog on the value of a change agenda may be nothing more than a matter of perspective.
Elsewhere, Formosa (2008) has staked out the difference between evil and wrong, with evil being an intensified version of wrong. Much discussion is placed in the context of motive, particularly in noting whether actions are unjustified. “An evildoer need not believe their acts to be evil,” for them to be so, although we “judge agents who believe their acts to be evil more harshly than agents who believe their acts to be justifiable” (Formosa, 2008, p. 225). This presents a slippery slope, in that humankind is apparently infinite in its ability to justify its actions, with purposeful implementations of evil, the domain of the wicked. This leaves open the door of “just doing one’s job,” through which administration continues to walk. Indeed, in the case of the S-21 prison discussed later, there is the belief on the part of guards that what they were doing was merely following orders, and that their acts, in and of themselves, were not evil (Hoffman et al., 2012, p. 127).
The most common preventative of administrative evil is the presence and use of a well-defined, personal code of ethics (Svara, 2007). The code of ethics being a personal issue, one’s “moral compass” is generally informed by universal notions of human dignity and the value of human life, and frequently more specific standards according to profession as well (Stetson, 1998). Adams and Balfour (1998/2009) claim that the presence of administrative evil, and the absence of a moral compass, has much to do with the postmodern condition, the rise of technical rationality, and the lessening of world religions in some instances on the affairs of the state. Zimbardo (2008) notes that system and context suggest behavior outcomes more than personal inclination toward evil-doing. The problem of administrative evil is compounded when one considers the impetus to iniquity provided by “political evil”—that is, the actions and mind-set of a political leadership that wishes to bring about certain ends generally thought to be unjust (Schaap, Celermajer, & Karalēs, 2010). When political evil and a tendency toward administrative evil are in place, evil can grow in a quick and efficient manner. An agenda of evil can be, it appears, easily set, and administration made a willing participant in blindly carrying out the necessary actions to bring evil into being.
In the case of the Cambodian Khmer Rouge regime of the late 1970s, a moral compass was not present in the minds of the nation’s revolutionary leadership, which sought to attain a Communist destiny by any means necessary. Rather than serving to elevate its society and civilization, this regime sought to divorce itself from its heritage and suspend ideas and beliefs that were internalized by the Cambodian people. Anyone maintaining a hold to this past in the red Year Zero was branded as an enemy of the state to be dealt with accordingly (Bergin, 2009). The methods the revolutionary elite used to accomplish their acts are a classic case study in the ideals of administrative efficiency gone wrong.
Historical Background of the Case
The Khmer genocide stands as one of the most grotesque instances of human injustice in modern memory (Jones, 2010). Volumes of histories and countless photographs of victims all bear now silent testimony to the hubris and shocking barbarity of a small circle of Communist revolutionaries who tried to remake their nation in the image of a utopian ideal (Pa & Mortland, 2008; Ung, 2006). No matter the destination they sought to reach, their actions were the methods of madness. The plans of Pol Pot and his contemporaries, and the outcomes of their systematic approaches to attainment of their elusive ideal to control the population through genocide, are the essence of evil (Kiernan, 2002).
Mass executions to destroy entire populations have occurred before; it is difficult to say that there was no way to know what was going to happen. Horrific or otherwise, the results should not be surprising to students of the extent of humankind’s inhumanity to itself. In Nazi Germany, Rwanda, and the former Soviet Union, and in numerous historical instances, we have seen analogous casts of characters embark on similar objectives to gain control through fear, intimidation, and murder of perceived enemies (Jones, 2010). In each instance, the mind-sets of fear, marginalization, and hatred are helped along by administrative efficiency and bureaucratic rationality; a wall forms between the now-insulated public officials, who are made “other” by their willingness to act as means to an end for the state, and outcomes of their actions.
The formation of a plan for self-serving or group-serving action and the identification of an enemy are the foundations of the process. There is a fostering of hatred and the use of terror to arrest the docility of the enemy people. The identification of one’s new cause with a destiny intended but as yet unrealized to create an atmosphere of rightness, followed by paranoia within one’s own ranks, naturally follows. In some instances, a catastrophe of tremendous proportions ensues; widespread dehumanization of one’s people and, occasionally, the horrors of genocide lie at the plot’s fruition (Chandler, 1999).
In the Cambodian case, the prerevolutionary culture was characterized by several unique factors. The first was material abundance—Khmer people had enough of their traditional staple foodstuffs to live comfortably, so there was little in the mind-set of the people for saving for future shortages (Martin, 1994). Second, the Khmer people valued education above much else. Students would go away to French universities for the best education and return as revered by townspeople as were community elders. Even farmers from the countryside revered education (Phim, 2007). Third, the Khmer people valued obedience (Knafo, 2004, p. 123) and revered their leaders. Criticism of one’s rulers, particularly the monarchy, was to be avoided, because such rulers had divine right (Sisowath, 2006). Frequently, rulers would take advantage of this automatic forgiveness and tended toward corruption and impropriety, so much so that it was expected.
Fourth, the Khmer had a strong footing in the principle of “saving face,” in that they were known to persist in a lie to avoid losing standing in the minds of others. They would rather be wrong and refuse to admit it than admit their fault and lose “personal dignity” (Brinkley, 2011). Finally, people were encouraged to remain stoic in their beliefs. One’s lot in life could not be changed, so one would do better to suffer than question it. This thinking may come from the nation’s Buddhist origins (Ayers, 2000). As in other societies that have suffered the fate of Cambodia, the nation’s leadership recognized these tendencies and took advantage of them for their own ends. In many cases, the Khmer Rouge leadership sought to excuse itself of any wrongdoing on the grounds that they were leaders and therefore divinely purposed, and that it was essentially un-Cambodian to criticize their efforts to bring about utopia in the country (Martin, 1994; Weitz, 2003).
Without delving too much into the history of their rise to power, it suffices to say that the Khmer Rouge sought to give their government the veneer of legitimacy. In the minds of the Cambodian people, that meant returning Norodom Sihanouk to power as a figurehead (Addington, 2000; Martin, 1994). An intriguing point is that Sihanouk was drawn into supporting the Khmer Rouge by his hatred of the west, which had caused him so much frustration during his time in power as he tried to keep his country intact while confronting Vietnamese and American infiltration on his eastern frontier. Sihanouk notes,
I can say, with the perspective of hindsight, that these attacks [from Western media] contributed mightily to turning me against the West and throwing me, during a rather long period, into the arms of the Communist world, the hypocrisy of which I have never ignored, but which, by calculation, refrained from criticizing me and sometimes showered me with compliments that struck a responsive chord. (Martin, 1994, p. 137)
Sihanouk joined the Khmer Rouge out of hatred for what the West had said about him, rather than consideration of any similar beliefs with the Khmer Rouge leadership. Eventually Sihanouk, having served his purpose, was deposed by Prime Minister Lon Nol, although he continued to exert significant influence in exile.
In 1975, the Red Khmer leveled their decisive blow, and the republican regime fell from power (Martin, 1994). The Khmer Rouge, largely through underhanded tactics and threats of violence against those who would either not join their fight or who fought against them, had swelled greatly in number. Consequently, the civil war against the Republican forces cost Cambodia between 600,000 and 700,000 lives, many of them civilians killed by Khmer Rouge forces along the border with Vietnam (Power, 2003). By then, many people in Cambodia had recognized that the Khmer Rouge had an agenda that might be achieved at great cost to the population. However, the revolution had gained too much momentum to be stopped by a few isolated people aware of what might happen should the Cambodian case follow historical trends.
An End to Civil Society
On taking Phnom Penh and control of Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge rolled victoriously into the capital to cheering crowds. The crowds had no idea what was in store for them. The Khmer Rouge’s first move was to “evacuate” the city of all its citizens, “for three days” (Chandler, 1996). Everybody was forced to take what little they can and leave the city, including the gravely ill, those who had just given birth, and the elderly. Some trusted the Khmer Rouge and left quietly; others were more suspicious of the strange behavior of the new leadership and tried to take more with them. Once out of the city, it was apparent to the city dwellers that they had very little control of the situation, as more and more negative signs begin to appear (Ung, 2006).
After a few days, the Khmer Rouge soldiers leading the city people on their trek out of the cities began to ask people questions about their background. People who were in the government service, intellectuals, and others responded to these questions and were led away by the soldiers, never to be seen again. As time passes, the soldiers became more and more violent—the city people who remained were settled at various places in the countryside to work on farms. Many of these people, schooled in other disciplines, had no knowledge of farming, but learned on the job under the watchful eye of armed soldiers (Ung, 2006). In a few short days, the lives of these people had been turned completely upside-down, throwing them into feelings of increasing dependence on the soldiers. City people were resettled in areas of the country in groups, roughly corresponding to groupings based on their former location in the city. About two million people were evacuated (Kiernan, 2002).
The city people were classified as “new people,” considered enemies of the state, and treated especially poorly (Goldhagen, 2009, p. 373). People who were in “liberated” areas prior to April 17, 1975, were considered “base” or “old people.” The distinction is an important one; base people, most of them country dwellers, were allowed to continue to live on their farms and in general ate more and lived better than the new people. They were not seen as westernized, intellectual, or potentially dangerous to the Khmer Rouge ideology. This class structuring had the popular support of those in the country areas, because they were poor and stood in their minds to gain from such an arrangement, with the city dwellers bearing the brunt of this harsh new system. The system, with all the extra labor in agriculture, did not in fact increase agricultural production overall. There were too many problems with poorly designed irrigation systems; in general, production outcomes were poor. Disease, starvation, and utter exhaustion did run rampant among the new people “out of their element” and not accustomed to such work (Ledgerwood, 2011). A more important aim was successful—the Khmer Rouge had begun to terrify those who had survived the evacuation (Chandler, 1996). Consolidation of power under the Khmer Rouge had begun.
For the vast majority of the country, there was little knowledge of the true nature of the Communist Party of Kampuchea, or the secretive senior leadership of the organization that called itself Angkar (the Organization). It does not appear that it was necessary for the public to know of the nation’s leadership—certain questions were not to be asked and could be seen as compromising the security of the organization.
The Use of Hatred, Paranoia, and Terror
In Hoffer’s (2002)
The True Believer, written long before this period but no less relevant, we gain a sense of the forces behind mass movement. While communism is intent on the larger rewards of a perfect utopian society, Hoffer suggests that in practice most of the people who join such movements do not do so to support such ends. They join because they desire
refuge . . . from the anxieties, barrenness, and meaninglessness of an individual existence . . . by freeing them from their ineffectual selves—and it does this by enfolding and absorbing them into a closely knit and exultant corporate whole. (Hoffer, 2002, p. 41)
The soldiers who carried out the work of Angkar differentiated themselves from their countrymen by the belief system and by the participation in the revolutionary group. By joining the Khmer Rouge, they had an opportunity to belong. Some may have even felt that they were achieving self-actualization by joining; certainly they had a better chance of taking care of their simpler, baser needs by joining the group (Maslow, 1970).
Hoffer (2002) continues by describing the source of hatred: “[These feelings] are an expression of a desperate effort to suppress and awareness of our inadequacy, worthlessness, guilt, and other shortcomings . . . self-contempt is here transmuted into hatred of others” (p. 94). Eventually, hatred and paranoia become all consuming, as evidenced by the Khmer Rouge’s pitiless approach to its own ranks later. Another motivator was the satisfaction of watching people suffer: “They see in a general downfall an approach to the brotherhood of all. Chaos, like the grave, is a haven of equality” (Hoffer, 2002, p. 98). Ultimately, the importance of this to the Khmer Rouge mind-set is simple—that fanatical supporters of an ideology are exceptionally dangerous when they have nothing to lose and everything to gain.
The danger of the fanatic to the development of a movement is that he cannot settle down . . . Hatred has become a habit . . . with no more enemies to destroy, the fanatics make enemies of one another. (Hoffer, 2002, p. 146)
The result of hatred and paranoia was, in the case of the Khmer Rouge, a hellish terror on everyone it touched.
The Khmer Rouge relied heavily on hatred as an organizational tool for its power structure. Specifically, the new rulers wanted to do away with any potential source of dissent for their revolution and any latent hostility or recalcitrance from former government workers, intellectuals, or other parties who might want to offer an alternative to the model for the new Cambodia.
The hatred nurtured by the Khmer Rouge went beyond antagonism to fundamental ideology; specifically, the Khmer Rouge wanted their nation cleaned and rid of un-Khmer elements, which the party leadership went as far as referring to as “microbes” capable of “rotting” the nation from within (Weitz, 2003). Robert Sternberg sees such an ideology of hate as “carefully nurtured and shaped in order to accomplish ends that are mindfully, planfully, and systematically conceived” (Waller, 2007, p. 187).
Speaking on the nature of hatred as an organizing force, Wood identifies intragroup and extragroup origins for hatred. In the intragroup type, group leaders control the flow of information in and out of the group, and decide between “us and them . . . the chosen and the damned” (Wood, 2011). “This knowledge is the basis for the group’s collective and individual relationships with outsiders . . . the philosophical foundation for . . . genocide” (Wood, 2011). The damned, of course, are unaware of why they have been named as such. They are judged against “an absolute standard of moral purity” and dealt with harshly for failing to recognize their depravities.
In the extragroup context, “as the group gains power, it begins to flex its social and political muscles . . . and carries out a program of revolution.” Wood (2011) sums this as follows: “Having an opponent or enemy becomes proof that you are one of God’s minions [and] that you are standing in the vanguard of history.” Hatred, then, is an internal motivating force that is valuable for exacting external change. Pol Pot obviously saw hatred as a great motivator—a means to open Cambodia to a revolution of his circle’s choosing.
Another component of control in the Khmer Rouge arsenal was paranoia. The population was terrified with disappearances of close friends and loved ones, separated from those they knew, and from their way of life (Pran & DePaul, 1999, p. 115). Among other things, the Khmer separated people by age and sex, forcing people to live with work units rather than families (Weitz, 2003). Most disconcerting was the regime’s move to break down the family unit entirely, putting young children through brainwashing courses (Martin, 1994), and then putting them in official positions (Chandler, 1999). Children were then used to spy on adults (Ledgerwood, 2011). Some child-officials even beat or killed their parents because of the elders’ transgressions against the revolutionary state; this is very much akin to the context-based evil suggested by Zimbardo (2008).
The Cham, a heavily Muslim ethnic group along Cambodia’s eastern border, were especially targeted for eradication (Gellately & Kiernan, 2003), as were the Vietnamese later in the Khmer Rouge’s reign. Anything not purely Khmer, as defined by the Khmer Rouge, was tantamount to treason. There was distinct effort toward defining very clearly the line between “us” and “them,” and taking action to rid society of the identified other, as in the eight stages previously identified by Stanton: classification, symbolization, dehumanization, organization, polarization, preparation, extermination, and later, denial that any of it ever occurred (Staub, 2010, p. 177).
Ledgerwood (2011) wrote, “People were constantly lied to, to get them to march to their deaths. People lived with the constant fear of being taken away, and with not knowing if people who had been taken away were alive or dead.”
Systematization of the Unthinkable
Pol Pot knew that he would need to control the press and reduce the presence of outside people and contacts with the outside world if he was to institute his vision of revolution for Cambodia, and to large measure, this control was absolute. Western reporters were evacuated, for the most part, with the fall of Saigon in 1975, from not only Vietnam but also Cambodia and Laos. When the American military left, coverage of and interest in the area from the West were largely concluded. The media access necessary to stir the kind of public reaction necessary to stop the Khmer Rouge during their reign of terror did not exist. The evacuation of Phnom Pehn at the outset of the Khmer Rouge regime was one of the last images the West had of Cambodia before the genocide. Cambodia’s is not a culture that supported a free and responsible press, historically (Mehta, 1997), so local sources could not be depended on.
The second step was to systematically take away the ability of the population to resist the imposition of the revolutionary government. To this end, the Khmer Rouge abolished “all literary schooling above the lowest primary grades” (Vickery, 1984, p. 171). Martin (1994) notes that the traditional education of reading, writing, and arithmetic was replaced with the teaching of revolutionary songs. Children were expected to agree with whatever the Khmer Rouge told them—“If the Khmer say rains falls from the earth to the sky, you have to say it; otherwise, it means you think and thus you are an intellectual” (Martin, 1994, p. 179).
The next step was toward dehumanization of the people, particularly the intellectual classes, but all Cambodians, to some extent. Black uniforms replaced the normal clothing of prerevolutionary times. Scarves were used as identifiers—the Khmer had red-checkered scarves, Cham and Vietnamese along the eastern border had blue scarves, and other groups were similarly identified. In the case of the blue scarves, the intent was to make identification for rounding up and eradicating entire groups quick and easy (Stanton, 1987). Chhun Vun, a resident of an eastern village, notes, “They could tell who was an Eastern zone person. No one else wore blue scarves. The blue scarves were distributed to us directly by Pol Pot’s standing group, the Permanent Committee of the Party” (Stanton, 1987). Everybody dressed the same, then, except for the scarves, which potentially marked the wearer for death.
This classification work is a major component of the Angkar bureaucracy. Stanton notes,
classification and combination are the two fundamental operations of the human mind. The problem is not that we classify; it is that we treat the classifications and we treat our abstractions as concrete. Classifications and symbolizations that define groups’ boundaries and that exclude people who are enemies are by nature depersonalizing. (Stanton, 1987, p. 4)
Chandler (1992) remarks that even the leaders of the Khmer Rouge referred to themselves in a depersonalized way in their orders to subordinates—as Brother Number 1 and Brother Number 2, for example.
In recent years, the extent of the killing in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge has become clearer. Through projects like Yale University’s Cambodian Genocide Program (www.yale.edu/cgp), and funded projects to delve into the nature of the regime and its actions, scholars have begun to examine the Khmer Rouge’s handiwork and document the tragedy that occurred.
As McSwite (2002) offers, it is in the nature of the public servant to concentrate on efficiency, systematization, and bureaucratic hierarchy. These factors are not, in and of themselves, good or evil. They are merely the practical points of acting as agents and carrying out the wishes of the political will in an effective manner. Adams and Balfour (1998/2009) claim that “because administrative evil wears a mask, no one has to accept an overt invitation to commit an evil act, because such overt invitations are very rarely issued” (p. 9). Thus, those under political evil can carry out their work without ascribing an ethical substance to their activities.
McSwite (2002) comments on the ability of public administrators in Nazi Germany, suggesting that they were efficient and effective in executing their tasks. But they made several mistakes that made them bad public administrators: They saw “the mundane, the devices of efficiency, as something to be bent to their conscious will instead of as a means of finding enlightenment for their social order” (McSwite, 2002, p. 62). They placed technique above the importance of human life, “constituting people as things to be watched, things whose purpose or role was to live up to the expectations set by others” (McSwite, 2002, p. 64).
The governments of Cambodia and Germany murdered millions of people—Why then do relatively few people recognize and know about the holocaust caused by the Khmer Rouge? Why is it not studied through the lens of public administration, given the uniqueness of the case, in the same manner that other cases have been examined? The Cambodian case is similar on a number of levels to Germany but unique enough that it stands on its own. First, one can clearly see the hatred and paranoia—the objectification of an enemy in one’s own countrymen—that strangled the collective political mind of Germany and Cambodia. In Cambodia, at first, the issue was more one of class than ethnic or racial heritage, although minority groups were targeted as well. In terms of race, the Khmer Rouge even denied the 20% ethnic minority of the nation administratively, defining it early in their reign down to 1%, thus calling people of all ethnic groups Khmer for the sake of administrative ease (Weitz, 2003). Later, the Khmer Rouge leadership undertook purges to destroy large segments of the nation’s ethnic minority population, when the confusion of defining its enemies made class differentiation impossible. Unlike Germany, the Cambodian case does not rely on charismatic leadership from the top of the organization; it might even be suggested that it is a truer example of what horrors may be committed by bureaucratic instrumentality alone in support of terror, without the additional energy that might be set in motion by charismatic leaders.
In both cases, those who were well to do and those living in the cities were deemed enemies and were stripped of property and position. Beyond that, both governments put into place programs to dispense with unwanted or unnecessary people in an effective manner. Both were later plagued by paranoia within the upper echelons of their leadership groups, and top-ranked officials themselves were frequently seen as traitors to the cause. Both regimes eventually fell, due to rot from within and attack by adversaries. Each case utilized prisons as institutions of genocide, run systematically and with great efficiency.
The Prison as a Bureaucracy of Death
As Adams and Balfour (1998/2009) noted in their film review, we see classification work and depersonalization as especially relevant in the case of the Khmer Rouge, in “total institutions” like the S-21 Camp. Lower-level bureaucrats, like the prison camp workers who interrogated, tortured, and killed their fellow citizens, wanted to please their leaders and provide them the information that they were expecting. Pleasing the leadership replaced love of family (Maguire, 2005). They provided the desired information even if they had to fabricate it. They would torture people until they would admit to practically anything, often concocting elaborate tales of treason to the revolutionary cause to satisfy the Khmer Rouge headship. On many occasions, interrogators would force victims to admit to the most heinous of crimes, incest among them, in an attempt to discredit these people so much that killing them was no longer an improper act in their own minds. The approach ensured vilification adequate to clearing their consciences (Chandler, 1999). Hawk called it a “bureaucracy of death,” where inmates and their imagined transgressions were documented voluminously and in lurid detail (Chandler, 1999, p. 49; Hawk, 1989, pp. 209-210). Emphasis was placed on keeping prisoners alive just long enough to extract all possible available information (Hawk, 1989, p. 210).
These interrogators often looked much like the people they were terrorizing in terms of race and class (Chandler, 1999), and they were just as prone to error as the general population when it came to filling out forms. Later in the Khmer Rouge regime, the documentation workers and interrogators were themselves put to death, for everything from being lazy to using unsharpened pencils to write reports, to creating confused documents (Hawk, 1989). That said, for the most part, the documentation of the killing events in Cambodia’s S-21 prison, over one hundred thousand pages of it, is meticulous. It is classic behavior for a genocidal regime: “the need for orderly determination of who will be included in the groups to be killed…the Khmer Rouge tortured their victims to reveal names of others in the network of class enemies. They photographed each victim, even the children” (Stanton, 1987, pp. 4-5).
Weitz (2003) suggests that the tool of choice for documentation was the autobiography—Victims were forced to write their autobiographies many times, adding lengthy admissions of treason and actions against the government that were most always spurred by torture of the most severe kind. When complete, the autobiography of a victim served a twofold purpose: First, it made clear that whatever action taken by the Khmer Rouge against the individual was justified given the person’s actions, and second, the act of writing the autobiography itself dehumanized the person writing it, rendered worthless his or her whole existence, and prevented the person’s real story from rallying the population against the Khmer Rouge government (Weitz, 2003).
The obsession with technique is very much in evidence here. In the case of the early murders under the Khmer Rouge, the soldiers had victims dig their own graves, at which point they would be beaten to death and kicked into their waiting tombs. The Khmer Rouge were said to avoid “wasting bullets” on people (Martin, 1994). Later, when efficiency became more of a concern, planning became an issue—Mass graves, waiting for bodies, were found when the Vietnamese entered Cambodia in 1979 (Stanton, 1987). American investigator Craig Etcheson notes that “virtually all of these mass graves are located at, or near, Khmer Rouge security centers. This seems to me to be very indicative of a centralized state policy implemented nationwide” (Ehrlich, 1998, p. A1). The documentation of the bureaucracy found by investigators is impressive—well over one million documents in total—with orders and correspondence from revolutionary leaders to rank and file officials involved directly with the murders (Chandler, 1999; Weitz, 2003).
The Khmer Rouge were expert in the use of motivational factors in forcing people to do the regime’s bidding. The principal motivating factor for most of the Cambodian people was the threat of death—The need for self-preservation was generally sufficient to make citizens obey the commands they were given. After people were of the mind-set that they should obey commands, when the previous reward/punishment model for their work had passed away, the soldiers overseeing them were in a position to use punishment and torture of various sorts as a means of further controlling their behavior and breaking their will (Chandler, 1992; Keo, 2002; Martin, 1994). Because options were severely limited, people reacted to these dreadful conditions in a much more predictable fashion than they would in a typical organizational context (Maslow, 1970). The reactions were generally not the aggressive types of actions one might expect from people with a strong will to live (Mook, 1987), with a few notable exceptions. The only variance from this was when people would disobey orders for the purpose of making the Khmer Rouge kill them—For these people, death was an acceptable way out of the organization (Martin, 1994). The whole operation depended on the most orderly of methods to achieve the most irrational of ends; Weber’s wertrational ideal type seems eerily applicable (Bauman, 2010).
The Khmer Rouge went far worse than simply threatening to kill people and then killing them. Weitz (2003) recounts a story where three Khmer Rouge executioners tied their still-living victim to a tree, sliced him open, retrieved his liver, fried it, and ate it. The citizen who conveyed the story noted the terrible sense of fear he felt in witnessing the event (Weitz, 2003). This action, and others like it, terrorized the population into complacency. Because most murders were committed in private, the terror of not knowing exactly what happened to a victim was worse than the terror of knowing exactly one’s fate.
As stated previously, most of the previously employed government officials had been killed soon after the Khmer Rouge attained power. The potential employee pool the Khmer Rouge was left with was mostly peasants. While age, wisdom, and intellect are valued in the public sectors of most countries in the modern world, the Khmer Rouge plan to exterminate any potential threat required that they murder most of the people who would have made ideal public servants elsewhere. As it turns out, given the revolutionary mind-set seen here, this was no real problem on its face, as children were available to serve the functional needs of the hierarchy.
The regime was of the strong conviction that young people, children in particular, were ideal candidates for being molded into ideal government officials in a revolutionary society. Psychologist Richard Mollica, speaking about Rwandan warriors of similar age and background to the Khmer prison workers, said
the psychology of young people is not that complicated…most of the people who commit most of the atrocities in these situations are young males. Young males are really the most dangerous people on the planet, because they easily respond to authority and they want approval. Young people are very idealistic and the powers prey on them. (Chandler, 1999, pp. 33-34)
The Khmer Rouge sought initially to make the best use of this new method of “growing” administrators, but as it turns out, the young people were very difficult to manipulate. Ieng Sary, a senior Khmer Rouge official, remarked that they had “chosen their public servants poorly” (Chandler, 1999, p. 34).
The S-21 prison did have many applicants for its positions, which were grouped by functional area: interrogation, documentation, and guarding of prisoners. They were led by a group of “older brothers,” consistent with the organization acting as replacements for family members. They were Khmer Rouge intelligentsia with connections at the upper levels of power (Chandler, 1999). Beyond that, most of the workforce were of about the same age and had the same prerevolutionary backgrounds in the peasantry.
The prison population rose and fell with the level of purging activity in the country. When purges were going on in Cambodia’s Eastern frontier, the prison population skyrocketed. Interestingly, the people who were held prisoner by these young government officials had roughly the same background—poor and rural (Chandler, 1999).
The methods that were used to break prisoners and induce them to confess to whatever real or imagined crime are vintage types of behavioral control. Inadequate food, isolation, silence, and refusal of medical attention were all hallmarks of the prison (Chandler, 1999). Some prisoners were kept in 80 cm by 2 m cubicles prior to “special interrogations,” which were generally long and involved. Chandler calls the prison “an anteroom to death,” because no matter how long one remained there, one could be assured that they would only leave dead (Chandler, 1999, p. 40). The “work environment,” if it can be called that, was exhausting and exceedingly depressing to the officials as well as the victims. Medical experiments, not unlike those conducted by the Nazis in Germany, were also conducted in Cambodia (Rejali, 1994); the emphasis was always on maximizing the suffering of victims.
Why would peasants willingly take positions to serve in a prison environment like this? The most convenient explanation is insulation, self-preservation, and taking care of one’s basic physiological and security needs (Maslow, 1970). If one works in the prison, one will have better/more food to eat and will be an “official,” meaning that one’s personal security would be increased (if only slightly—after taking the positions, many found that failure to perform as instructed resulted in fates no better than what they were dispensing to the prisoners). The regime recognized that most of its employees were interested in physiological and security needs. To this end, they punished innovative behavior and risk-taking of any sort. Employees were to do only what they were asked to do, under the iron leadership of a strong commandant with much punitive power (Chandler, 1999).
In addition, it should be noted that the Khmer Rouge broke society down to such an extent that it much more closely approximated a base “state of nature” in the Hobbesian sense, with a war of “all against all,” because the regime in power did not uphold basic human rights as sovereign, defining principles of their rule (Hampton, 1986, p. 73). To this end, and without a social contract of any sort in place, the nation’s people inevitably turned against one another in a fight to save themselves by whatever means necessary. Absent the potential for peace, they turned to a doctrine of self-preservation alone, putting peers to death in the Khmer Rouge prison system (Chandler, 1999).
Beyond the physiological and security aspects of working in S-21 and similar facilities, there was little to be harvested in the way of affiliation, esteem, and self-actualization. Affiliation seemed to be more the domain of the original revolutionaries, at least up to the point when paranoia overrode loyalty. Esteem was nonsensical under the Khmer Regime. And self-actualization would have been written off as a reason why the country needed a Communist revolution in the first place—the city people were far too self-actualized, did not deserve such luxury, and were to be punished (Ung, 2006).
What of the conventional wisdom of organizational theory that suggests that negative reinforcement and punishment are not the best way to attain maximum levels of productivity? The result of the variable schedule of consistently negative reinforcement and punishment adhered to by the Pol Pot regime provides a textbook example of the downfall of an organizational structure operating with such an approach (Tosi, Rizzo, & Carroll, 1994). While the Khmer Rouge were able to operate efficiently under the power of terror and fear alone, the negative mind-set that resulted from these emotional stressors bled through the organization’s ranks from its lowest levels through its uppermost ranks in the form of a grotesque paranoia. At that point, killing became an end in itself rather than a supporting activity for the dawn of a new utopian society, and turned into genocide.
Subversion of the Universal Ethical
One way of explaining this bizarre behavioral structure, where transformative belief appears to override all else but ends up ultimately lost in the bureaucratic technique, is to draw on Kierkegaard’s (2000) work Fear and Trembling. Because the Communist revolutionary tendency supplants religion in the lives of citizens who accept it as a new framework for belief, Kierkegaard’s work, while of a philosophical nature, is instructive. Specifically, belief in religion is the highest essence of mankind. He brings to mind the story of Abraham in the Bible, who is tested by God as to his faith through an exhortation that Abraham murder his own son. Abraham is pulled by his ethical sensibilities and by his faith in God. In the end, he prepares and is ready to kill his child, but God stops him and rewards him for his obedience (Kierkegaard, 2000).
Communist systems have a teleology based on the notion of the regime as an agent of historical change. Those claiming this historical agency generally have the benefit of being able to selectively draw from the past to lend credence to their own political agendas. Stathis Gourgouris (2011) writes,
the often raised charge against the teleology of communist thinking is largely based on communism’s professed understanding of the nature of historical agency: the motor force of history is the class struggle and the logic that makes history perfectly comprehensible―and thus enables an agency in history as well as an agency of history―is historical materialism with its well known progressive and stagist determinations.
There is license in the work of revolution, but suspending the ethical to achieve the ends of revolution is a hallmark of administrative evil. The universal ethical to be protected is present in society and service to its citizens—not in an agency of history.
In the case of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge, the belief systems of the people who led the revolution and supported its works became a calling that supplanted the universal ethical; it was a calling that they had to respond to—for their own sake and for the sake of their god (the Communist revolution). Children killed parents and vice versa as the entire fabric of the country was torn apart by fanatical belief. This is, in the minds of the people who participate in such revolution, a teleological suspension of the ethical taken to extreme. A first approach to explanation is that, once social morality is divorced from and torn asunder by individual belief, there are two potential results. The first is that one proves his or her worth to his or her god or belief system. The second is that one becomes a murderer justified only to his or her god, and an object of scorn for the universal ethical.
A second approach draws on McSwite (2002), who puts the blame more squarely on the notion of bureaucracy itself. The McSwite tactic finds the individual culpable, and firmly places the responsibility of serving as a moral compass behind bureaucracy on the individual bureaucrat. However, we may be reminded of Wilson’s thesis—that “administration lies outside the proper sphere of politics,” and that bureaucratic administration can bring about effective and efficient government in a democracy. Wilson’s (1887) “corps of civil servants prepared by a special schooling and drilled, after appointment, into a perfected organization, with appropriate hierarchy and characteristic discipline” (p. 216), with “steady, hearty allegiance to the policy of the government they serve,” does not as an ideal allow much room for administrators to lead with a moral compass. While Wilson advises that “the administrator should have and does have a will of his own in the choice of means for accomplishing his work. He is not and ought not to be a mere passive instrument” (p. 212), the question we must take up is what constitutes the work, not simply what means are used. Administration is not a passive instrument, it is an active instrument—but it is an instrument all the same.
A third theory may be valid for approaching more clearly the idea of administrative evil, given history’s lessons on the use of bureaucratic instruments to commit genocides and otherwise “produce” evil. As an extension of Wilson’s argument, evil precedes administration just as a use for a tool precedes its invention, but bureaucracy’s presence throughout modern society as a virtually unaccountable tool of the political elite, beholden more to the push and pull of interests than to any pretension of a service to the broader public interest, makes real the potential the implementation of policy for administrative evil in every society. The notion that bureaucracy is potentially a tool for good or evil may well have had its day, given that a conclusion for many bureaucratic structures is abuse of power and the perpetration of evil, and whether that intent results in evils on a grand societal scale or mere maliciousness in the day-to-day operation of governments.
This is not to say that all bureaucratic structures end in abuse of power, but rather that there is no inherent structure within bureaucracy, no opportunity for the logical application of the moral compass, to resist the imposition of evil. It may not even be necessary for people to be “true believers,” suspending their ethical compass, if bureaucracy itself leads to evil. The nature of institutions to hide abuse may make more of a difference than the character of a bureaucrat or official actor; there are too many instances now, from historic times, to Cambodia, to Abu Ghraib (Zimbardo, 2008), to play dumb.
Wilson (1887) wrote, “If I see a murderous fellow sharpening a knife cleverly, I can borrow his way of sharpening the knife without borrowing his probable intention to commit murder with it” (p. 220). The problem is that bureaucracy can be a knife with a sharp blade, no matter whether it is doing good or evil. Bureaucracy has shown time and again that it may be led to serve as either witting or unwitting participant in the cause of evil. The bureaucracy will defend itself; its participants hide in officialism, and distance themselves from fault for their actions, because there is little in organizations to hold them accountable. Beyond that, bureaucracies fail to forestall administrative evil when they lack the discretion to inject humanity and a sense of the public interest into their work. When bureaucracies are forced to meet the reality defined for them by political leaders who seek ends of paranoia, hate, terror, and consolidation of power, administrative evil can be a natural and not unexpected result.
There can be malignancy in the following of orders without an accompanying moral and ethical compass and the results can be irreparable. The aspiration to achieve a public administration ideal, while noble at its outset, can sometimes become distorted; public administration’s sense of itself depends much on the definition and application of this ideal and what is rewarded by society and institutions. Distortions can lead to a society mad with methods, obsessed with processes, and devoid of humanity.
Public leadership, through systems and procedures, can be an effective tool in either bringing good public service to communities and nations, or bringing about evil when process and procedures are removed from outcomes and a sense of a universal ethical and personal responsibility. The manner in which administration goes about achieving goals can determine the success not only of programs but of societies, in that administration is instituted to serve the common good. Even where there is agreement on intended outcomes of policy, and this is rare, there may be even less agreement on the methods used to achieve desired ends. Administration is often left to fill in the blanks with regard to implementation; when policy goes awry, the fault lies not only with legislators who make law, but often with the administrators who implement it.
If we set aside the faith that is the reason for Khmer Rouge’s actions in Cambodia, they are simply butchers, and we have another example where bureaucracy was far from simply a neutral tool. When taking their faith and belief system into consideration, they become a philosophical and historical cautionary tale. The teleological suspension of the ethical must not become a blinding agent that allows a bureaucracy to collapse in on itself with murderousness and hatred. These aspects are worthy of our consideration and vigilance. Perhaps the duty to do good in public administration is not as inherent as we might like to believe—Doing right requires effort, and perhaps even bravery under some circumstances. It is also easier to think that the stories of adverse outcomes and administrative evil happen to other societies—those far away—and that they would not touch our own mundane, ordinary institutions.
The methods used to shape organizational behavior under the Khmer Rouge are shocking even to present observers at a safe distance. They are all the more shocking because, as Stanton (1987) eloquently states,
in the name of creating a perfect new world, all morality is suspended, all persons are merely means to an end. . . . Genocide is the pattern of human history, not its aberration. More people have died from genocides in this century than from all the wars combined. (p. 5)
Without the universal moral compass of the ethical, the Khmer Rouge were left to the creation of gods of dogma and propaganda—that led them to hate and distrust all people, including eventually themselves. Bureaucracy provided the means to bring the desired outcome, just as it could have built roads or regulated industry, or resisted the political forces around it at an individual level. Are we naively asking too much of the public sector? The ideal, perhaps, is a fiction. Systems function, machine-like, thoughtlessly and blamelessly oblivious to consequence, with humanity crushed underneath, and society powerless to stop them. Then as now, do we blame our systems, or ourselves?
Declaration of Conflicting Interests The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.
Funding The author(s) received no financial support for the research and/or authorship of this article.
- © The Author(s) 2013
Christopher L. Atkinson teaches courses in the School of Public Administration at Florida Atlantic University, Boca Raton, Florida. His doctoral research, completed at Florida Atlantic University in 2011, considered the impacts of local government institutions on business resilience in disaster. He received his BA and MPA degrees from George Washington University. His current research interests include public management and policy studies, neo-institutionalism, regulation, and emergency management.