Domestic mass murder on a large scale is always the work of the state, at the hands of its own soldiery, police and gangsters, and/or ideological mobilization of allied civilian groups. The worst cases in the post-World War 11 era – Guatemala, Sri Lanka, Cambodia,Sudan,Bosnia,Rwanda, Liberia, China, East Pakistan, East Timor, and Indonesia – show much the same bloody manipulations. It is equally the case that the killer regimes do not announce publicly the huge numbers killed, and rarely boast about themassacres, let alone the tortures that usually accompany them. They like to create a set of public euphemismsendlesslycirculated through state-controlled mass media. In the age of the UN, to which almost all nation-states belong,in the time of Amnesty International and its uncountable NGO children and grandchildren, in the epoch of globalization and the internet, there are naturally worries about ‘face,’ interventions, embargos, ostracism, and UN-ish investigations. No less important are domestic considerations. National militaries are supposed heroically to defend the nation against foreign enemies, not slaughter their fellow-citizens. Police are supposed to uphold the law. Above all, there is need for political ‘stability,’ one element ofwhich is that killing should not get out of control, and that amateur civilian killers should be quietly assured that ‘it’s over’ and that no one will be punished.
But every norm has its exceptions. In the article that follows below, readers are invited to reflect on Joshua Oppenheimer’s two recent sensational films about organized gangsters in and around the city of Medan (in northeastern Sumatra) who played a key, but only local, role in the vast anti-Communist murders in Indonesia in the last months of 1965. Almost fifty years later, they happily boast about their killings, with the grimmest details, and relish their complete immunity from any punishment. They are also happy to collaborate with Oppenheimer, contribute to his films, create bizarre reenactments of 1965,and do not hesitate to dress up their underlings to act as communists (male and female). The problem is to explain why Medan was the scene of the exception, within the larger framework of Indonesian politics from the late colonial period to the present.