From the Comments: Why did Cambodians trade foreign terror for domestic horror?

John Cyberome pitches the question to Chhay Lin on his post about the terrorist attacks in Paris. Chhay Lin’s response (which I have broken up into smaller paragraphs) deserves a closer look:

I don’t understand why Cambodians traded foreign terror for native horror. It’s something I’ve always wanted to understand. I don’t remember a time when I did not have such questions as: how can people be so cruel to each other or would they (the friends I had) be able to commit such horrendous acts to me if they would live during the Khmer Rouge period? It seems like there is a terrible part of human nature that is called upon in certain circumstances. I think the Milgram Experiment and the Stanford Prison Experiment have been examples of how peaceful people can move to extremely horrifying acts. I also think that the Khmer Rouge had good intentions. In their eyes, they were saving the nation from corruption, from immorality, from foreign invaders and from domestic traitors.

Cambodia by the way, is a country that is quite paranoid. Until this day, they still fear that the Thai or the Vietnamese will one day take over the country. Some already believe that the country only exists by name, but that it’s actually under Vietnamese rule. According to them, after the Vietnamese occupation from 1979-1989, they have installed a pro-Vietnamese ‘puppet’. This paranoia feeds nationalism – a sentiment, I believe, that can be easily manipulated into hatred towards foreign Khmer like Sino-khmer or Vietnamese-khmer.

Besides that, I also think that the poorer people were envious of the wealthy class. When the Khmer Rouge came into power and turned the social hierarchy upside down by installing the poor people into higher social positions, they may have been especially cruel to those fellow Cambodians who they believed were better off.

I also think that we can partly blame it on the Cambodian culture. The culture is very hierarchical. People of status look down on poorer people and treat them like crap. The poor don’t even dare to look the better-off in their eyes. It’s a culture that breeds envy and discontents between classes. I think these are a few reasons why the Cambodians had traded foreign terror for native horror. In all honesty, I find the culture quite backward 😛.

This is a whole lotta insight packed into one short ‘comment’.

For starters, I would be comfortable in suggesting that land is the crucial factor of production in Cambodia, rather than capital. (I am not as confident as Rick in arguing that land, labor, and capital are basically obsolete tools, in large part because there are big swathes of the world that don’t share the institutions that have created the West.) Land-based societies that I have read about all share the same general cultural characteristics as those mentioned by Chhay Lin (though none would dare call these characteristics ‘backward’!).

Trade has, in my reading of history, been the traditional arbiter of destruction for land-based interests. Does anybody have any good information on international trade and Cambodia? I’ve looked in to a few sources (World Bank, OECD, Heritage) and it looks like the volume of trade has been increasing since at least 2010, but that there are institutional problems which have yet to be addressed.

‘Creative destruction’ is such a strange concept, especially to a libertarian like me.

From the Comments: Intervention, Blowback, and Bad Faith

I find the debate they’re having somewhat confused. Your response to Kling is on the right track, but I would question the terms of the debate from the outset.

The relevant question is whether US intervention produces armed resistance, and whether that resistance counts as blowback. It does, on both counts. Whether that resistance/blowback counts as “terrorism” by some narrow definition is really beside the point. And whether the resistance is morally justified is yet another issue altogether.

Kling mentions US intervention in Latin America and claims that there’s been no “terrorism” in response. How would he characterize the Cuban-Soviet precipitation of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which was a response to the Bay of Pigs invasion? Soviet positioning of nuclear weapons system was meant to strike fear in us (and did). “Fear” is a synonym for “terror.” The Cuban-Soviet policy was a response to our intervention. That’s blowback.

Re Asia, you’re right to adduce the Saigon counterexample you come up with, but that understates the relevant point. The relevant point is that the whole Tet Offensive was blowback for our intervention! The NVA and Vietcong may not have attacked the mainland of the US, but they killed more Americans than Al Qaida did, so again, I don’t see the point of a narrow fixation on a particular tactic, terrorism.

While we’re at it, why not try US intervention in…the US? Think Wounded Knee 1973 and generally, the armed confrontations between the American Indian Movement and the FBI in the mid 1970s (which most Americans regarded as terrorism on the part of the Indians). AIM regarded Indian reservations as occupied land and acted in kind. That was blowback for our Indian policy.

This is not to deny that terrorism can arise from causes unrelated to blowback or perceived blowback. Nor is it to deny that Islamist terrorism may have distinctive features. But it’s very misleading to suggest that Middle Eastern terrorism is sui generis, and confusing to distinguish “Middle East” and “Asia,” as you correctly point out in your post.

This is from Dr Khawaja (of Policy of Truth infamy). I found the dialogue somewhat confusing, too. I think the fact that economists, who are used to thinking in terms of costs and benefits, were stepping outside of their comfort zones (something I wish more of them would do, by the way) goes a long way towards explaining why there is so much confusion.

Yet I also think that there is much to learn from narrowing the terms of the debate. Kling wants to talk about “terror” rather than “armed resistance,” and I think it’s good to meet him on his own terms. This way it is easier to knock down ignorant arguments for all to see. Dr Khawaja broke down a complex misunderstanding (or simply Kling’s bad faith) in a straightforward manner, but sometimes I find that arguing on Mr Bad Faith’s own terms  – knowing full well that his argument is being made in bad faith – leads to useful outcomes. Jacques, for example, has become noticeably less hawkish since he first tried to pick on me. He has not necessarily become more dovish mind you, but he has become much more cautious about promoting US militarism abroad.