Spot the odd one out: a) Orcs; b) Communists; c) Griffins; d) Velociraptors; e) Gorgons.

The answer is d) Velociraptors. Although all five are terrifying monsters, velociraptors are the only one that actually existed on the Earth at one point, many millions of years ago. The others are all wholly products of the imagination. Communists, Gorgons, and the rest are apparently mythical bugbears invented to terrify children. This lesson about the mythical nature of communism is brought home to you if you belong to any kind of professional organization in academe or education.

Regularly, one will read the obituary of some venerable hack who, circa 1950, faced terrible difficulties for his courageous stands on behalf of civil rights or labor unions. This was all part of the “Red Scare,” when Inquisitors sought out such brave freethinkers under the guise of pursuing those illusory “Communists.” Very rarely is it mentioned that, yes indeed, said hack was in fact a prominent and highly active member of the Communist Party, or a knowing sympathizer of several of its front organizations. And all this at a time when anyone with basic literacy skills knew exactly the nature of Stalinist rule in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

But you see, it was all a “Scare” and all Americans under 40 have been brought up to see the phenomenon in those terms. “Witch Hunt” is another common term, and what sane person accepts the reality of witches?

You can get a good sense of this rhetorical trick if you watch the 2012 film “The Act of Killing,” one of the most acclaimed documentaries of recent decades. The film examines the Indonesian massacres of 1965-66 by focusing on some of the surviving perpetrators, a bunch of elderly gangsters who in their day led lethal death squads. According to the film, these purges killed a million victims, which is roughly double the figure that most historians accept, but let that pass. So triumphantly successful was “The Act of Killing” that in the past year it has spawned a sequel,The Look of Silence. Expect multiple prizes and awards to once again follow. 

“The Act of Killing” is a multiply fascinating film, and essential viewing for anyone interested in official repression. Particularly fascinating are the close linkages portrayed between the venerable gangsters and ultra-right patriotic parties, with their paramilitary youth wing, and with media magnates. The film looks like a case-study of the Marxist theory of organized crime. And none of those depicted come off at all favorably, not gangsters, not magnates, not politicos. Let’s not argue: they are all very bad people.

But what about their victims? It’s a reasonable assumption that very few Westerners watching the film will have any great sense of Indonesian history or politics, and will thus accept the brief sketch offered in the introductory titles. In 1965, we are told, the Indonesian generals overthrew the nation’s government, before launching a deadly purge aimed against so-called Communists. “Anyone opposed to the military dictatorship could be accused of being a Communist: union members, landless farmers, intellectuals, and the ethnic Chinese.” So, we think, there was a coup, and the new regime unleashed its gangsters and paramilitaries against the innocent and idealistic, all as part of a mindless, paranoid, Red Scare. Any suggestion that actual Communists might have been targeted is scarcely considered, nor the possibility that such mythical creatures might have been genuinely dangerous. What decent person could fail to oppose a military dictatorship?

From multiple perspectives, that sketch is baloney. Let me explain.

A new nation born in the aftermath of the Second World War, Indonesia’s politics were tumultuous from their beginning. The country had a very active and militant Communist Party, the PKI, which prior to 1965 was three-million strong. That made it, in fact, the world’s largest nonruling Communist Party. It also had a potent tradition of ruthless revolutionary violence and putschism. Notoriously, a PKI rising at Madiun in 1948 resulted in the murder of tens of thousands of rivals. The organization was, in short, terrifying, and parallels to the Khmer Rouge are quite plausible.

In 1965, Indonesia’s ruler was Sukarno, a classic Third World dictator. In order to counter political rivals, he decided to lurch to the radical left and to seek the support of the PKI. Internationally, Sukarno aligned with Mao’s China, the most homicidal regime on the planet, which was then on the verge of launching its horrendous Cultural Revolution. Fearing a repetition of Madiun on a national scale, Indonesia’s armed forces intervened, overthrowing Sukarno and beginning a national purge of the PKI. Although “The Act of Killing” looks exclusively at the role of gangsters and paramilitaries, the reaction was in fact a national affair, with Islamic and even Catholic movements coming to the fore.

The repression killed around half a million people, the vast majority of whom were certainly PKI leaders and cadres. So yes indeed, they were Communists, and not just harmless labor organizers, landless farmers, or dissident intellectuals. Many were Party organizers and fighters, who were the mirror image of the gangsters we see in that documentary. If circumstances had been slightly different, they would have committed identical acts of repression and murder against the political right. Instead of random massacres, it is better to see the 1965 slaughter as an ideological civil war, which was fought with savage ferocity. Fanatics slew fanatics.

Beyond doubt, the repression was a brutal affair, which claimed far too many lives. Was it in any way justified? Legally, certainly not. But looking at history, I wonder how critics might feel if, in 1932, the German government had decided to massacre thousands of leaders and paramilitaries of the surging Nazi Party. Could such a pre-emptive mass repression ever have been tolerable to Western opinion? I do wonder.

The problem at hand, however, is that we have become so accustomed to the “Red Scare” mythology that it leads us to ignore the existence of truly dangerous extremists, and the lethal peril they pose.

Philip Jenkins is the author of The Many Faces of Christ: The Thousand Year Story of the Survival and Influence of the Lost Gospels (Basic Books, forthcoming Fall 2015). He is distinguished professor of history at Baylor University and serves as co-director for the Program on Historical Studies of Religion in the Institute for Studies of Religion.