It seems to be true that we humans seek pleasure (and dopamine) while avoiding pain and discomfort. Left to our own devices, we’ll choose idleness and/or enjoyment over unpleasant activities that take us out of our comfort zone. If so, that probably explains why I drag my feet when we arrive in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and my friend Cenzo suggests we visit the Killing Fields. I mean, where’s the “pleasure” in that! Still, our parents weren’t wrong when they forced us to eat our vegetables when we were kids. Sometimes, you just have to do things that aren’t fun – simply because they’re good for you.
The “Killings Fields” are a number of sites outside of the city center where more than 1,000,000 people were killed and buried by the Khmer Rouge regime after the Cambodian Civil War, during the late 70s. I won’t go into the details of the genocide; needless to say, it was cruel, brutal and unnecessary. If you appeared, in any way, to be an educated person, the Khmer Rouge exterminated you. Like Yad Veshem, the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, or the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, a visit to Choeung Ek in Cambodia is necessary, if not in any way pleasant. Here you see some of the mass grave sites. You read about the killings. And you encounter a LOT of bones and skulls. It is a supremely sobering place, not for the faint hearted. As I wander around the site, I can’t help asking myself how events like this can happen. How can people be so brainwashed as to view entire groups of humans as “the other” or “less-than-human,” and thus expendable? How does that happen? My mind time travels to the 70s and I wonder how I would bear up if I had been here, in these people’s shoes? As much as I would prefer to put my head in the sand and simply not know about places and incidents like this, I’m glad I came. For how can we avoid such atrocities in the present and future if we don’t remember the past?
As we leave the Killing Fields, I notice a sign advertising a nearby shooting range where, apparently, you can shoot AK 47s and a large variety of other weapons of destruction. If your mood suits you, you can even throw hand grenades into a pond. With dismay, I’m reminded that horrific incidents like the Cambodian genocide do not necessarily diminish the human taste for violence. What a strange world we live in.
(No lessons for this post. Hug your loved ones and maybe perform an act of kindness today.)