Terra Incognita: We could all be Otto Warmbier

If we all imagined ourselves lacking rights the way these people are denied them, we would fight against these regimes with vigor, because we have the voice and privilege to do so.

FILE PHOTO - Otto Frederick Warmbier attends a news conference in Pyongyang, North Korea, in this photo released by Kyodo February 29, 2016.  (photo credit: KYODO/VIA REUTERS)
FILE PHOTO - Otto Frederick Warmbier attends a news conference in Pyongyang, North Korea, in this photo released by Kyodo February 29, 2016.
(photo credit: KYODO/VIA REUTERS)
Otto Warmbier’s tearful confession still haunts me. There is something awful in it. The crying out of a young man who knows he faces a ruined life based on accusations of a regrettable act that he cannot undo. Warmbier faced injustice after injustice in North Korea. A sham trial, a coerced confession, a life-destroying 15-year prison sentence of hard labor, sickness and then death. He was 22 years old.
His last few days were spent back in the US after he was released on “humanitarian” grounds by the very regime responsible for his incarceration and the illness that led to his death. His supposed crime? He was accused of trying to take a government sign as a souvenir. The North Korean government claimed this act undermined the foundations of the state.
He is not the first or last to receive an unspeakable punishment while being innocent of any real infraction. Men, women and children have been executed throughout history for minor infractions. Le Miserables is based on the story of a man sentenced to harsh labor for stealing bread. Nor is the North Korean regime unique in handing down these kinds of punishments in our time. In Thailand people are sentenced for insulting the monarch. In other places they are caned or beheaded, as happens in Saudi Arabia. Women are stoned to death or murdered by their families for looking at a man the wrong way or dressing “immodestly” in countries such as Pakistan.
Albinos are lynched in east Africa. Tourists are sentenced to death, accused of smuggling drugs, in countries like Indonesia.
In discussions about the murder of Warmbier, many excuses have been made and some writers have gone so far as to blame the victim. Time magazine callously titled their story “How Otto Warmbier Made It Out Of North Korea,” and pretended his treatment was due to “the latest grim chapter” in US-North Korea relations, as if bad relations between countries excuses the arrest and death of a young man.
Other hate-mongers claim Warmbier is an example of “white privilege” and his death was deserved because of his skin color. But the only privilege he asked for was not be sentenced to decades in prison and then killed by maltreatment over accusations of stealing a small sign. That’s not privilege, that’s a basic human right.
The same people who oppose the death penalty and long prison terms in the US are the ones who lack empathy for Warmbier. The only real privilege involved is the privilege of the regime that sentenced Warmbier and the privilege of those who excuse his death in the West. Those who excuse his killing have the ultimate privilege because they have likely committed the same offense Warmbier was accused of, taking some towels from a hotel once, or getting drunk in college and breaking something.
In their own Western societies where they pen screeds exculpating North Korea, they enjoy the privilege to critique their government and system that is not granted to those sentenced to live in the North Korean prison state. So what is the real privilege? The privilege to disregard Warmbier and excuse his death because of his skin color.
We could all be Otto Warmbier. First, because many of us have committed the same infraction he was accused of. In our younger years, or perhaps in the years ahead of us, we have destroyed property, taken a street sign, stolen something we thought no one would miss. Many of us happen to live in places where some youthful indiscretions went unpunished.
For those who live under totalitarian regimes, such as Iran, where women are sent to prison for trying to attend a volleyball game or singing in a Youtube video, they are already Warmbier.
The real story of Otto isn’t that he is unique and privileged, it is that he represents hundreds of millions, perhaps billions, who live under tyrannical regimes and under arbitrary and capricious systems of governance or even local cultures that mete out human rights abuses as a daily rhythm. Hundreds of millions of women who live in countries where honor killings are normal and go unpunished live their entire lives under the threat of murder or acid in the face for the “crime” of doing what the controlling male privileged society doesn’t want them to do.
When we talk about privilege let’s talk about the privilege of those who condemn Ayaan Hirsi Ali for speaking out about abuses, but who never condemn the male-dominated cultures that carve up women’s vaginas lest they become “too sexual.” How about the Islamist cultures of places like Saudi Arabia, Somalia or Pakistan where women are whipped for the “crime” of being raped? The ultimate male privilege is to have a culture and religion in which men rape a woman and the state punishes the woman.
In the democratic states with stronger rule of law and more liberal values, we all could be Otto Warmbier because we could all do what he did. In the rest of the world people are already Otto because they live under the kind of cruel injustice he suffered.
In some American media writers excused his death, arguing that black Americans suffer this type of injustice on a daily basis. One writer titled her piece “North Korea proves your white male privilege is not universal.” But do two wrongs make a right? When African-Americans have been shot unjustly by US police there is often an outcry and investigation. Justice may be flawed and innocent lives lost, but they are not lost in a void of justice. A black American has 10,000 more rights and privileges than people in North Korea. If someone opposes the flawed justice of the American system, why do they excuse the murder of an American abroad? Why not encourage more justice, not less for others, as if punishing Otto somehow makes up for US failures? Others have attacked Otto by saying he should not have gone to North Korea in the first place. That is blaming the victim. It is incumbent on North Korea not to abuse human rights, not the fault of the abused for having been caught in the North Korean net. North Koreans who face abuse at the hands of their own government can’t leave their country, is that also their fault? Otto made a choice many would not make, going on a tour to a tyrannical regime and putting himself at its mercy. But so do CNN news crews and other journalists. If they are accused of a minor crime while in North Korea, do they deserve less rights because they went there? Many people travel to countries that lack human rights, such as Iran, they even go on tours sponsored and advertised by venerable companies in the West, such as The New York Times. Are they all to blame if they are kidnapped by the regime, like the three Americans hiking in northern Iraq who spent years in solitary confinement in Iran? We have become so used to human rights abuses and the evils people like Otto are subjected to that we have forgotten about the basic human right to life.
We talk about “privilege,” but the only real privilege is the privilege of all the regimes out there who abuse human rights. The terrorists who murder people have more rights while in prison than their victims receive. Terrorists are privileged. Islamists in Sudan and Somalia and all over the world who commit genocide and run gender apartheid are privileged.
They are all far more privileged than what we call “white privilege.” Robert Mugabe and his tyranny are more privileged than most any white American or the fictional Jean Valjean. These tyrannies enjoy the ultimate privilege of murdering their own people and enslaving them in states that resemble large prisons.
Instead of reducing these prisons, we allow them to remain and grow. We excuse their treatments.
We even let them profit through us, enabling their leaders to travel, allowing them to bank in our countries and tour in our countries. The chief beheader of Saudi Arabia can vacation in southern France. Men who beat their maids, who they treat as slaves, enjoy the privilege of a vacation in New York. The main abusers are allowed to fly to the US to attend the UN, and take in a Broadway show. Why? In that sense we should all think ourselves Otto Warmbier. We could all be victims of these regimes just like the average North Korean or Iranian, or foreign maid being denied her passport in Kuwait, or workers subjected to terrible conditions in Qatar.
If we all imagined ourselves lacking rights the way these people are denied them, we would fight against these regimes with vigor, because we have the voice and privilege to do so that their prisoners do not. Yet we remain silent. Worse than that, we have members of our own community who side with the regimes, the torturers and murderers, the Saddam Husseins and Assads of the world.
Tomorrow you could be Otto Warmbier. Isn’t it time to wake up from the slumber of complacency and say that not one more person will suffer such a fate?
Follow the author @Sfrantzman.