When I knew that I, too, am capable of evil

It was 11:45 P.M. I was watching human-rights activist and author Loung Ung’s talk for LEAD (Leadership Excellence and Development) back in 2015. Ung is a survivor of The Killing Fields, one of the horrific atrocities in the 20th century that happened under The Communist Party of Kampuchea, also known as the Khmer Rouge. The CPK operated under Pol Pot.

That night, I wasn’t feeling well emotionally and I was thinking deeply about my life, my family, especially my dad. I did not know how long I was sitting there daydreaming while Ung was on my computer screen but I kind of snapped out of it when she mentioned the date of January 7th, 1979 – the day that Vietnamese troops seized the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, overthrowing Pol Pot.

I looked at the calendar above my desk and it was January 7th, 2019, 40 years after the Cambodian people were liberated from their oppressive chains.

All of a sudden I became filled with anger and it started to worry me. Usually, I am able to control it and put it in its place. However, it was a problem that night, so I sat and thought of the root cause of it.

It originated from learning the truth, a decade ago, about my father’s actions during the Cambodian Civil War.


“Dad, how could you do this to your own people?”

As a little kid, I did not know why certain people did not like my dad, why we had enemies within the apartment complex that we lived in. A couple of doors down, there was a woman who always cursed at us when we walked by. Once, while my brothers and sisters were playing near her door, her husband threw water at us and said, “F*** the bastard’s children.”

I ran back home to tell mom and dad what happened, and my mother, wiping the water which was mixed with sugar off from her hair, told me to not run near their apartment anymore.

We even had neighbors urinating near our car almost every day, and my parents, as usual, kept their anger under control for the sake of peace.

My dad made sure we knew what happened under the Khmer Rouge by showing us the movie The Killing Fields. I heard them talk about Cambodia a lot during late hours as I lay near my mom on the couch. I grew up thinking that my dad was among those working the fields in harsh conditions, but that changed in 2009.

My parents were debating politics; my dad was already drunk and my mother said, “You’re just a typical Khmer Rouge.”

It felt like bricks hitting my chest; I didn’t want to hear it any longer and left the room. I mean, it couldn’t be. My dad? He isn’t capable of such things! I told myself that technically, everyone was a Khmer Rouge under the CPK, even the ones working the fields. I put it in the back of my mind. My dad was not the bad one.

The monster within me wanted out

Fast forward to December 2018 and my mother finally had the courage to provide more information about my father’s involvement with the Khmer Rouge. I will not go into details out of respect for my family’s privacy.

He was a soldier in the jungles in Battambang. He was young and probably joined for the reasons that other Marxists did: to fight for the liberation of the people from the hands of the evil Americans and not fall into the hands of imperialists again, to fight for equality, thinking it would lead to a better life.

I did everything in my power to understand, to empathize, but I couldn’t because I had seen documentaries of the brutal prison called S-21. The faces of innocent men, women and even children haunt me; Cambodians executed by machetes, hoes and bullets for petty crimes, bodies left on the side of the road to rot in the sun, or thrown into rivers, polluting the waters.

These images made me very angry to the point where I wanted revenge. It felt like a hidden part of me wanted to emerge, tearing its way through my psyche, erupting viciously to control who I thought I was. Carl Jung wrote “There is no coming to consciousness without pain. People will do anything, no matter how absurd, in order to avoid facing their own soul. One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.”

I knew that feeling, what Carl Jung called our “Shadow.” That part of me wanted blood.

It is very common for Cambodians to live among their perpetrators, not only in our homeland but also here in The United States. Former Khmer Rouge still hold government positions in Cambodia, and I wanted to get into politics to free the Cambodian people from the former CPK. My mom and dad know that getting into politics doesn’t end well for anyone since the Khmer government will kill you if you dare say anything bad about them. Political opponents get thrown in jail, assassinated or exile into another country. If you’re Cambodian, they will come after you.

I knew it would be suicide if I got into politics and went up against the former CPK, but I didn’t care. I was ready to lose everything in the process, to give voice to the Cambodians ruthlessly murdered under the CPK.

I felt in my heart that I was approaching this the wrong way. I didn’t feel like getting up in the morning anymore. I was so angry, I was starting to lose control of my life, and so I asked for help from renowned clinical psychologist Dr. Jordan B. Peterson.

Yes, evil can possess you, even if you think you’re a good person

In his April Q and A, I got the chance to ask him: “Dr. Peterson, I recently found out that my father was a former Khmer Rouge. I feel hurt that he was part of the horror in Cambodia. How do I deal with this?” You can press play and it will begin immediately at the part where Dr. Peterson answers my question.

He recommended I read a book called Ordinary Men to help understand the situation that my father, along with my aunts and uncles, were in during the civil war.

I did a meditative experiment one night and put myself in the position of the Khmer Rouge soldiers and I can tell you, it scared the living crap out of me. I always thought I was incapable of such things, that there was a barrier between people like that and I. I was wrong. Dead wrong.

It took me less than 7 days to realize that I, in Nietzsche’s words, am also human, all too human, that I was no better than the Communists, that I had the capability to do the same harm they did.

The same harm my father did.

It struck me that I was being judgmental and I was immediately pushed back.

A rough journey ahead of me with the help of my shadow

I don’t want anyone to dislike me for what I’ve written above. We all want to be good people, but to think that we’re good all the time is just another way to avoid the shadow that is within our consciousnesses. You don’t see it or feel it, but I can tell you it’s there waiting for that chance to come out if you allow it.

Whether it is during political arguments or religious debates, we all defend positions that make us feel morally superior.

However, don’t forget that even your loved ones, and even you, are capable of evil.

I made a video in response to Dr. Peterson’s answer to my question if you’re interested to hear my story. You can connect with me through Ideapod and make sure to comment under this article. Hope to hear from you guys soon.

Notable replies

  1. Thanks for sharing this story, @boonnhem.

    For me, it seems pretty obvious that we are all capable of evil. I have no doubt that your father was doing the best he could at that time.

    When we look back in 50 years from now at many of our actions today, we’ll probably judge many of those actions in terms similar to “evil”.

    Having said this, it must have been really confronting to find out your father was involved with such atrocities.

    It’s fantastic to be able to connect with Jordan Peterson in this way. His response showed a lot of empathy.

  2. Avatar for ACD ACD says:

    Let the one who is without sin throw the first stone. Not only are we all vulnerable to possession by evil but we are all also complicit in the evil of the world.

  3. Does evil exist where there are no humans? What is evil? Is evil subjective? Is evil dependent on a religion? Is there an other word for evil? Is evil obvious? Is evil only manifest by an action?

  4. Avatar for ACD ACD says:

    Evil is part of what makes us human. So is sainthoid, evil"s opposite. Evil is disobediance. Saithood is devotion. Religion is recognition of these things. Another word for evil is devil. Evil is obvious to those who want to see. Evil is in the heart and in so being becomes manifest.

  5. Avatar for ACD ACD says:

    Any species capable of choosing between evil and good has the potential for evil, AI and aliens included.

  6. My dad was really rough on all of us and I was (still a little till this day) angry at him for the things that he said to us. Yet, it turns out that maybe I was the one that should be more empathetic. I mean, both of my parents survived a civil war and seen Cambodians killing other Cambodians. That is enough for anyone to suffer from PTSD.

    It was my fault that I didn’t think about this. I mean, when you’re a child, you want to blame everything on evevryone else instead of yourself and so I felt that it was easier for me to put my blame on my pain and suffering to my parents.

  7. I just thought it was funny.
    I think about all kinds of stuff, I like to mentally feel around what I think are hard questions.

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Boonn Hem

Boonn Hem

Although I may feel alienated from society and have a pessimistic view on modern civilization, I do support humanism and our ability to adapt to changes and differences.



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