That Kaing Guek Eav, a man who admitted he was responsible for the deaths of at least 14,000 of his Cambodian countrymen during the “Killing Fields” genocide, used the “I was simply a cog in the machine” defense was as ghastly as it was predictable. The really sad news is that, unless a remarkably effective Original Sin Committee immediately kicks into high gear, we’ll certainly hear the same sad rationale in the future.
As in the case of bullying, the missing ingredient, the antidote if you will, has to do with courage. Years ago, back when I worked for a living, I used to give my English students an assignment: “Write about a time when you either demonstrated courage or felt a lack of it.” (Do I need to say that most scholars opted for the latter option?)
Students have told me, “It’s impossible for a school to teach courage. For us, it’s all about pleasing the teacher to get the grade to get the degree. There is no incentive to be courageous.” But deep down, I don’t buy the argument that we are trying to teach the un-teachable.
One thing we can do, for instance, is show examples of what contemporary courage looks like. In today’s paper, for example, there is the inspiring story of Aleksei Dymovsky, a Russian officer who was so sickened by the rampant corruption within his own police department that he spoke out against this, and then uploaded his speech to YouTube, where it has since been viewed over two million times.
Courage, of course, comes at a price, and in Mr. Dymovsky’s case, his daring gesture cost him more than just his job. His friends and family were been interrogated, and he was arrested and charged with fraud.
If we like to sing about “freedom’s never free,” then our chorus should be “courage is never easy.”