My first reaction to the recent death of Khmer Rouge leader Nuon Chea was to recall the phrase about “the banality of evil.” I can remember listening to Nuon Chea nearly a decade ago as he testified during the trial of Khmer Rouge leaders at the international tribunal near Phnom Penh.
The genocidal regime’s Brother No. 2 sounded calm — and indeed banal — refusing to show any regret for playing a key role in the deaths of an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians. They died in the late 1970s through torture, execution, starvation and forced labor. He was serving a life sentence when he died earlier this month at the age of 93.
The term “banality of evil” was first coined by the author Hannah Arendt when she covered the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolph Eichmann in an Israeli court. The Israelis had captured Eichmann in Argentina in 1960 and subsequently tried him in Jerusalem for war crimes. He was convicted and hanged.