Windows on Morality

What makes good people do bad things? That is the topic of a New York Times article about trials of former officials of the savage Cambodian regime, the Khmer Rouge.

“We were victims, too,” said Him Huy, the head of the guard detail at the Tuol Sleng torture house, who took part in the executions of thousands of people at a Khmer Rouge killing field.

As the prisoners knelt at the edges of mass graves with their hands tied behind them, executioners swung iron bars at the backs of their heads, twice if necessary, before they toppled forward into the pits.

“I had no choice,” Mr. Him Huy, 53, said. “If I hadn’t killed them, I would have been killed myself.”

The subject of our complicity in evil is a timeless one. From a young age, I was influenced by Seven Beauties, the film by the Italian director Lina Wertmuller, in which a prisoner of war is forced to authorize the deaths of others to save himself, and in order to avoid being killed, must even shoot his best friend in the head.

Most of us compromise our values when the stakes are much lower—sometimes doing reprehensible things to others for something as comparatively minor and elective as preserving an opportunity for career advancement, not even to protect one’s job. It is in times like the current collapse and despair that windows on morality open, and that we can begin to candidly discuss our values and choices. This would be a great time for journalism to regularly explore the decisions we make on a daily basis, large and small, and what they say about ourselves, and about our civilization.


  • Russ Baker

    Russ Baker is Editor-in-Chief of WhoWhatWhy. He is an award-winning investigative journalist who specializes in exploring power dynamics behind major events.