Does the Pope Shit in the Woods?

Chiang Mai, THAILAND

Former prison chief and executioner Comrade Duch of the Khmer Rouge was convicted nearly a month ago, found guilty of crimes against humanity by the joint UN-Cambodian war crimes tribunal. Journalist Nic Dunlop tracked him down in 1999 by word of mouth, with a pocket photo of Duch, in rural Cambodia, finally recognizing incognito and bringing him in to face justice.

To the surprise of some, Comrade Duch appeared to show genuine remorse, apologizing to family members of the deceased, and he was perfectly cooperative during the trial. Dunlop described him not as a monster, but as a human:

The great lesson for me…is really that at the end of the trial, really there isn’t a cardboard cut-out image of a monster; rather there was a wizened, old man…And for me, as long as he remains a human being—and that’s what I found—that there is hope that we can begin to understand something of what enables a movement like the Khmer Rouge to kill in the way that they did.¹

Is the inhumanity that allowed him to torture and kill thousands of innocent Cambodians forgivable? No. Hardly understandable. And yet we try to find explanations. Throughout the history of philosophy, political science, and even in song, we have wondered what leads some to unspeakably heinous violence. We have also tried to reiterate, again and again, that we are only human. Nietzche lamented and praised this fault aptly: “human, all to human.” And perhaps that is what best explains our eminent weakness, or our susceptibility to powerful ideologues.

The pro-Stalinist, Western journalists and intellectuals, who came from all over the world to visit the Soviet Union during the height of its gulags and famine and returned home to glorify Stalin or at the very least ignore the tragic famine, are now labeled by history as “useful idiots.” Many now admit in interviews that they can’t believe how they were duped by the powerful machine of the Soviet Union, blinded to the cruel human failings of the entire project.²

Bob Dylan said, “But even the president of the United States sometimes must have to stand naked” (“It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”).

Johnny Cash derided money, fame, and power, and sang of the treasure of a mind at ease: “The wealthiest person is a pauper at times compared to the man with a satisfied mind” (“Satisfied Mind”). Surely Duch would trade in all of his evil deeds and the power he once held for a simple life without regret, as he was trying to do by retiring under a fake name.

Neil Young said, “Even Richard Nixon has got soul” (“Campaigner”).

But my personal favorite comes from the classic movie, The Big Lebowski (1998), when “The Dude” asks rhetorically, “Does the Pope shit in the woods?” It’s obviously a confused mash-up between the two expressions, “Is the Pope Catholic?” and “Does a bear shit in the woods?” But I like to think it shows that even the leader of the Holy See is ultimately human. Duch might just be one of the most monstrous men in history, but he was only capable of such inexplicably horrific crimes because he was, in the end, human, all too human.

¹ Nic Dunlop, in an interview with BBC Asia Correspondent Alastair Leithead, July 26, 2010. Found at <>.

² See John Sweeney’s fantastic, two-part BBC World Service documentary here: <>.

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