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A First Step in the Healing Process

July 27, 2010 2 comments

Victims of Comrade Duch and Tuol Sleng.

**A word on the subject matter: The themes of genocide and crimes against humanity are not simple or easily discussed topics. I will try to approach them with aplomb but if it does not come out that way, know that I am aware of the complexity of the themes and tragedies and am only trying to disseminate the information to facilitate understanding for all. Thank you.

The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, or Cambodia Tribunal, handed down its first verdict in relation to atrocities committed in the Democratic Kampuchea; the regime implemented by the Khmer Rouge from 1975-1979. Comrade Duch, otherwise known by his birth-name Kaing Guek Eav, was found guilty and sentenced to 35 years in prison for his time spent as the commandant of the Khmer Rouge prison S-21 (Tuol Sleng) where upwards of 17,000 men, women and children were tortured and murdered. It is a first step toward justice for the survivors of the genocide and a first step in the healing process of a society that is a long way from coming to terms with the horrors it experienced at the hands of its own citizens.

Very few societies on this earth have experienced genocide, overcome it and come to terms with it. In fact, you can probably only name one: Germany. Through a mixture of reconciliation (West and East German partition undoubtedly helped in that it allowed two separate societies to develop – not positively for the East – and gain a whole host of other issues that superseded the past.), rule of law (the Nuremberg Trials) and restriction, Germany has been able to, healthily, move on from the horrors of World War II and the Third Reich. On another hand you have Rwanda; a country working towards societal health but still in that process rather than at the end. Peaceful since its genocide in 1994, Rwanda has used a different tact in moving on. President Paul Kagame has established an essentially authoritarian state (depending on who you ask, actually) where ethnic tensions are buried rather than dealt with; there is evidence that this is not working 16 years on and that ethnic animosities continue to fester dangerously close to the surface.. These two cases lead us to Cambodia and its own, unique handling of a similar atrocity.

Last year, the New York Times published a story shedding light on the growing generational understanding and remembrance gap, concerning the Khmer Rouge and its reign of terror, in Cambodian society. As new children are born in Cambodia, parents speak less, teachers teach less and children inquire less about the horrors that seem like only distant memories to them. Why is this? Why is a society, still closely linked to its past, collectively forgetting – or rather, trying to – such a monstrous tragedy?

Victims of the Killing Fields. Photo by Stevemuhkween, Sept. 2007, WikimediaCommons

There are a myriad of points and theories to discuss here, but I will touch on three in particular. First, as simple as it seems, it is in human nature to forgive and forget rather than confront. It it not our natural predilection to have difficult conversations on subjects of death, sadness and betrayal with friend, family and neighbor; it is infinitely easier to bury those issues in the depths of our collective conscious. This is true when we have a tiff with our significant other so you can imagine how it is an easier way forward for a society struggling with reconciliation of past crimes.

Second, there has been – to the credit of the Cambodian government – an attempt at concerted reconciliation; memorialization, truth commissions, prosecution, etc. There are two truths hidden in this attempt, however. A government led reconciliation, without a base in the grassroots level, will continually come up short in its attempts to bring about change. No matter how tactful a government is, popular society deems when it will get on with life and deal with issues. If government and its populous are not on the same page, true reconciliation well be near impossible. Reconciliation also, inevitably, reintroduces some of the crimes’ perpetrators back into the affected society. This can have the effect of alienation – a sense of injustice – and can also led to the negation/hinderance of the reconciliation process. (Re: Rwanda & Iraq.) This has happened in Cambodia. Remember, yesterday’s verdict if the first for the Extraordinary Chambers that was established in 2006; 27 years after Pol Pot’s fall.

Third, as they say, time heals all wounds. A quarter century, while a quarter of most human’s lives, is a pittance in the grand scheme of coming to terms with events that destroyed a society. Cambodia may simply not be ready to confront its demons.

So with the conviction and sentencing (too light?) of the evil Comrade Duch, Cambodia takes a giant step forward toward justice and eradicating the lingering banality within its society. It is the first of many that it will have to be take. I hope that the journey continues and we can point to Cambodia as a case-study in how to overcome massive societal upheaval. Time will tell.

Condoms on Commercial Street?

July 9, 2010 1 comment

What would he say about the controversy?

Here we are, introducing our second guest blogger: Kelly. With a personal stake in dethroning the Fodder’s Captain Adam as our most popular fresh voice, Kelly’s first piece takes on a controversial microcosm of the US’s sentiments on sexual education. Condoms in schools? Hot button issue. So through the scope of a native Cape Codder, we bring you “Condoms on Commercial Street?” Enjoy!

Aah, summer on Cape Cod. The sun, the surf, the…six year olds walking along Commercial Street with condoms?

The Provincetown (MA) School Committee approved a policy in late May, proposed by high school students, to make free condoms available in the school nurse’s office. But if you’ve been reading the headlines from media outlets across the country, you might expect that the longtime artist colony at the tip of the Cape is also home to a population of unusually sexually active elementary schoolers who will soon be offered contraception as part of their curriculum.

As a native Cape Codder now living “over the bridge,” and an avid reader of the Fodder, I was quite excited to explore this real-life nugget of conversation and hopefully provide some insight on the media debacle of what should have been a non-issue. I mean, let’s face it – tossing first graders and condoms into a headline is bound to garner attention and foster gossip, if not discussion; but how many people actually know what Provincetown’s new contraception distribution policy says?

“Condoms will be available, upon request, to Provincetown students.”

Whoa. Scandalous.

Or is it? According to the Cape Cod Times,

“The [Massachusetts] state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education first passed a policy on condom availability in August 1991, as an addendum to its 1990 policy on AIDS/HIV prevention education. Among its recommendations was that “every school committee, in consultation with superintendents, administrators, faculty, parents and students consider making condoms available in their secondary schools.”

Sounds to me like P-town is on the right track.

On a recent trip “down the Cape,” I was curious to hear local reactions to P-town’s decision. I can’t imagine Provincetown Superintendant Beth Singer thought a policy change affecting roughly 150 students would soon be a headline across the country: the Boston Globe, USA Today and the New York Times were all quick to stick Provincetown, condoms and elementary school children into their headlines.

And believe me, the Cape is not often home to front-page news. Sure we’ve had our fair share of murder mysteries and serial killers – what quaint cluster of fishing villages hasn’t? But our usual stories are more comparable to Rupert, the goat from Wellfleet who needed surgery after eating too many Cheerios. Seriously.

I noticed immediately that I was far more interested in this than anyone else in town. Perhaps because I was the one reading the over-hyped headlines, not the smaller pieces closer to the source. (Even now as I write, this topic is still front-page news on Boston.com, while CapeCodOnline.com is all atwitter over the upcoming lavender harvest.) Responses ranged from “Well, it’s P-town” to my 87 year-old neighbor, who didn’t appreciate that her tax dollars would be providing Provincetown students with an endless supply of water balloons. Bless you, Nan.*

Over drinks one night in Wellfleet, I asked my friend Liam what he thought:

“Considering the absurd amount of press this story has received, I can’t help but wonder if there’s an underlying homophobia and sex-negative bias fueling this fire. I have an inkling that if this were Orleans or another less infamous town on the Cape – or anywhere, for that matter – this story wouldn’t have ignited in the way it did. But this is happening in Provincetown, a frivolous, dangerously progressive town filled with gays and hippies who are pushing their hyper-sexualized homosexual agenda onto six year olds.”

Well said, Liam. Now you may have been able to pick up on the sarcasm in that last bit – just maybe – but many conservative voices feared exactly that. The New American claims this new policy “in many respects reflects the permissive gay culture that permeates the town.” And here I thought it reflected the proactive student body that brought the issue before the school committee after weighing the concerns of their peers.

It angers me that Provincetown’s progressive reputation ultimately led to such a negative spin on this story. Were we to assume that, because no specific age limit was set, and because it’s P-town, that the nurse would really, as Liam put it, be doling out condoms like free lollypops at the bank? Many public high schools in New York City already have similar policies to what Provincetown is proposing. Washington D.C. has had a publicly funded program to distribute free condoms since 2006, making condoms available in high schools, colleges, pediatrician’s offices and adolescent health groups. (Liquor stores and barber shops are also among the most popular distributors – is that a guy thing?) According to the Washington Post, D.C.’s health department distributed 3.2 million free condoms last year, including about 15,000 in schools. I don’t know, Ben Gibbard – you might not be getting any, but it doesn’t look like the rest of the District will be sleeping alone tonight.

I’ve felt a growing disconnect from my Cape Cod roots since moving to Boston. But as the provincialisms of my small-town beginnings peter out, I find that in my heart, the liberal sun-drenched philosophies of earlier days prevail. I know what it’s like to grow up in a town that sheds a few thousand residents after Labor Day; and for a town with a senior class of just 16 students – a town so small it may not even have its own high school next year – to recognize a growing need for safe and practical sex education practices for future generations, and successfully appeal for change through the proper administrative channels, is a tremendous accomplishment. These students should be praised for their mature and proactive approach to safe sex, and it is a shame that their efforts have been overshadowed, and quite possibly overturned, by media sensationalism.

I’m proud of the Provincetown students who brought forth these changes – and I’m sure their gay hippie parents are as well.

*Names changed to protect the locals.

For a full list of condom distribution centers in the DC area, please visit DCHealth.gov.