John Gfroerer: Moving to Year Zero

  • Cambodians flee Khmer Rouge insurgents during artillery shelling of Phnom Penh on Jan. 28, 1974. AP

For the Monitor
Sunday, December 03, 2017

‘Year Zero” is a term that has origins in the French Revolution. Forty years ago, however, it was adopted by the Khmer Rouge during its reign in Cambodia.

The ideology was simple; you could even call it black-and-white simple. Hopefully it is not in our future again. But with each new action from the White House and Congress my concern has been growing.

When the Khmer Rouge seized power in 1974, Year Zero was its declaration. In today’s language we might call it a “reboot.” In the perverted minds of Pol Pot and his followers, Cambodia needed to turn inward and start all over. Perhaps they were thinking it was time to make Cambodia great again. Upon seizing power, Year Zero was decreed.

Everything that existed before Year Zero was to be eradicated. This was going to be a complete and thorough reset of Cambodian society, a cleansing right to the very core. Cambodia would become an agrarian society where everybody would be self-sufficient. Then came the implementation and things got messy, and murderous. Knowledge of anything pre-Year Zero was prohibited. And there was only one punishment for violations – death.

Doctors, teachers, lawyers, legislators, reporters, clergy, anyone who was in anyway educated was suspect and targeted. Even wearing glasses was a crime, as it indicated that you might read books. For added measure, books were burned so there would be no recorded memory of before Year Zero. Education, money, technology, nearly every reflection of a modern world was eliminated. Centuries of Cambodian culture and institutions ceased to exist, as well as anyone who showed any interest in their preservation. The aim was to turn Cambodia into a classless society of poor farmers.

In the four years that followed over a million people were systematically killed in one of the worst genocides since World War II. Those who weren’t murdered died of starvation or disease as cities were emptied out and medicine was among the items banned.

Progress is a horrible thing to see destroyed.

As I watch the daily destruction of our country under the current president and his cadre of followers, I have found myself thinking of Year Zero.

Now I’ll concede it may be a bit of an overstatement. You can call me a citizen watching hard-gained progress being dismantled and abandoned. Still, I can’t deny, the concept of Year Zero has come to mind more than once. An unshakable fear that may be more a reflection of my anger than reality. But then, the reality is the reality. How far back can the country go and still have a future?

The list grows daily, pieces fall into place creating an unmistakable pattern. I worry just how far they will go before declaring enough. Back before the Affordable Care Act? Back to the time abortions were against the law? Back when you couldn’t swim in the Merrimack and acid rain was eroding the White Mountains? Back before the Voting Rights Act and Brown v. Board of Education? Maybe go back to a time before Social Security, or child labor laws? Back to the time of robber barons ruling their monopolies with no Teddy Roosevelt waiting to take them on?

Before you know it, Count Rumford will be invited back to Concord and we will give the country back to England. The possibilities seem to be limitless. They go on and on, and all I seem able to do is keep score of the losses as they happen. When do we start emptying the cities?

Destruction is always easiest for the people doing the destroying. More importantly, there is something terribly wrong with thinking progress is achieved by going backward.

My thoughts ride with the 22 million who stand to lose health insurance. And when I have some extra room, my thoughts are with the children whose educational opportunities will be eliminated, the DACA kids who risk losing their dreams, the immigrants thrust into worlds of fear, the black lives that won’t matter, the climate that is going to have to go its own way, the Europe that is going to have to go its own way, the everyone who struggles for that extra dollar that will have to go their own way.

Progress is a painful thing to see destroyed. This is especially true when you were part of the struggle and sweat and energy in making that progress possible. For solace, you can retreat to the old adage, two steps forward one step back. But what can you do when it is 30 steps back and no steps forward? What then?

Is Year Zero a possibility waiting to be checked off on some white board in the West Wing?

Somewhere, I believe, hope waits in an opening from which to pounce. While I wait for that moment, I will do what small things I can and take whatever opportunities come my way to make the path ready. A future with hope will come again. I just hope there is enough left in the ashes of the fires now burning to again move us forward when it does.

(John Gfroerer of Concord owns a video production company based at the Capitol Center for the Arts.)