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Baltimore Death Metal Band Catches Flak For Naming Itself After Cambodian Death Camp

A Baltimore death metal band debuted on April 12th, 2021 and received intense criticism for their controversial/insensitive name and thematic choices.

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The band, Tuol Sleng, is named after the death camp in which tens of thousands of innocent Cambodians were killed at the behest of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge. Their imagery, such as this now-deleted Instagram post, includes the face of Pol Pot as one of the band’s members. 

An estimated 1.5 to 2 million people were murdered by the Khmer Rouge, which constituted roughly a quarter of the Southeast Asian country’s population at the time. To a Cambodian, or anyone familiar with 1970’s world history, to name a band after Tuol Sleng would be akin to naming a band after Auschwitz-Birkenau. It is therefore quite easy to see why Tuol Sleng has received such a backlash over their name. 

In response, the band has locked all comments on their Facebook page and posted the following statement:

In this statement, the drummer Bill wrote that the band members were simply trying to “operate exclusively outside the boundaries of good taste,” and didn’t actually sympathize with Pol Pot or the Khmer Rouge in general. He claimed that the intention of selling records and merchandise featuring a graphic painting of the mass killings was to “educate” people on what happened.

It may be true that one or more people might have looked up the Tuol Sleng death camps on Wikipedia after finding this band. But it is also true that Tuol Sleng (the band) had commercial interests in selling such items, whether for the money itself or for publicity purposes. Some might argue that the band was explicitly seeking to profit from the suffering of those millions of Cambodians. It is worth noting that the band changed the cover art for that release and stopped selling merchandise using that specific painting, but they still decided to keep their name and related imagery.

Given the existence of National Socialist Black Metal (NSBM), I would not be surprised if there was already a band named after Auschwitz-Birkenau. If I had to guess, this hypothetical band would still be active today, and would be continuing to operate as normal in almost every location except for Germany. Free speech is, after all, valued by all decent countries. However, there is a valid reason why this hypothetical NSBM band would be banned from Germany, which touches upon the ongoing debate surrounding the scope and application of Free Speech laws. 

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While I am not a German lawyer, I suspect a large part of why Germany bans Nazi speech/iconography is because of the same reasons why some social media companies ban users that espouse explicit support for Hitler and his ideology, whether ironically or seriously. Spreading Nazi, or Khmer Rouge ideologies in a way that even appears to be supportive of it is a good way to embolden the racists and would-be murderers who genuinely believe in them. This has been demonstrated in the US multiple times, when domestic terrorists were found to have been influenced and motivated by similar speech in online or physical spaces. This is a phenomenon that some refer to as “stochastic terrorism.”

If a person is prohibited from screaming “Fire!” in a non-burning movie theater, then it follows that spreading murderous ideologies that could spark real-world violence is equally as unethical, even if the person spreading such ideologies doesn’t believe in them themselves. Bands who wish to write music about such topics should make it abundantly clear that they despise the people they’re writing these songs about. This should be made clear everywhere, and not just in a single statement on social media. Take a listen to "Holiday In Cambodia" by the Dead Kennedys for a slightly better example of what I'm talking about here (although their song is by no means perfect):

This is another important distinction: while the name of the Dead Kennedys evokes memories of the assassinations of various US politicians named Kennedy, that band did not choose to name themselves after the murderers. 

The US Government in all likelihood will not do anything to violate the First Amendment rights of Tuol Sleng, so the band need not worry. However, I strongly suggest that they re-evaluate their name, their imagery, and their lyrics. There are better ways to educate people about history.

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