If you write for a living, you will eventually publish something that does not age well. The death this week of Otto Warmbier, who was returned to the United States from 17 months of captivity in North Korea and revealed to have suffered severe brain damage, cast a number of old pieces in a bad light.
On HuffPost, La Sha had recalled her mother’s sense of vindication when Michael Fay was sentenced to be lashed for vandalism in Singapore. While decrying the severity of both Fay’s punishment and Warmbier’s, Sha wrote: “My mother’s callous reaction to Micahel Fay’s sentence is my reaction to another young white man who went to an Asian country and violated their laws, and learned that the shield his cis white male identity provides here in America is not teflon abroad.” A more measured piece from Bustle attempted to explain why some people think Warmbier was responsible for his harsh sentence. Salon published and has since removed a story about Warmbier that took a harsh tone on his misfortune, though the URL, which reveals the piece’s judgemental headline, remains live: “This might be America’s biggest idiot frat boy: Meet the UVA student who thought he could pull a prank in North Korea.”
And Larry Wilmore, hosting “The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore” in March 2016 on Comedy Central, did a segment in which he described Warmbier as “one of America’s most annoying exports: a frat bro.” Even then, the juxtaposition of Wilmore’s jokes about Warmbier’s name, privileged college students and Wilmore’s declaration “this isn’t like the time you stole SigEp’s goat — this is North Korea,” didn’t exactly play well juxtaposed with the clips of Warmbier’s anguished confession.
Though it’s easy to get hung up on how bad these pieces look in retrospect, as many have done, there’s a larger lesson to be learned from the impulse to condemn Warmbier because he was white and male, because of what school he went to or the fact that he was a member of a fraternity. It turns out we are quick to compromise our principles when they are tested on unfamiliar landscapes. And in the exhausting quest for justice, we risk defining our goals downward, settling for unfairness toward all rather than true liberation for everyone.
One thing these pieces have in common is an assumption that because Warmbier confessed to trying to steal a piece of North Korean propaganda, he was actually guilty. As The Post’s Fred Hiatt pointed out this week, that means taking as valid a plea that at best was the result of a wildly autocratic sham of a judicial system, and that, at the worst, was beaten out of him.
It’s awfully strange that ostensibly progressive publications or writers would accept the veracity of Warmbier’s confession, even by implication. And the result of that confession is horrifying. There is no world in which a 15-year sentence in a North Korean gulag represents some sort of meaningful reparations for racism and white privilege. And our ideals should not change based on the country or the identity of the person being sentenced: Draconian sentencing is terrible whether an autocratic regime is sentencing a tourist to hard labor for an alleged prank, or the attorney general of the United States is advocating for a return to the harsh sentences for drug offenders that have swelled America’s prison population without stopping our country’s drug problems. We can’t push for the kind of meaningful criminal justice reform the United States badly needs while treating the North Korean system as some kind of nightmarish Aesop’s fable for bad fraternity members everywhere. Or, I suppose we could, but what would that reveal about us?
The idea that it’s satisfying to see a white man who was a member of a fraternity suffer the consequences of a warped criminal justice system abroad, while people of color struggle against a different — but also harsh — system here at home, is more depressing than anything else.
I understand what La Sha meant when she wrote, “Living 15 years performing manual labor in North Korea is unimaginable, but so is going to a place I know I’m unwelcome and violating their laws. I’m a black woman though. The hopeless fear Warmbier is now experiencing is my daily reality living in a country where white men like him are willfully oblivious to my suffering even as they are complicit in maintaining the power structures which ensure their supremacy at my expense. He is now an outsider at the mercy of a government unfazed by his cries for help. I get it.”
Suffering can breed empathy, but it doesn’t always — and not because the person who suffers is cruel or callous. Otto Warmbier didn’t come back to the United States with a new understanding of the cruelties of mass incarceration, or what it means to be a black woman. He’s dead.
When it seems like true equality is receding further and further into the distance, it makes sense that our dispiritedness breeds lowered expectations.
If no laws or trainings can stop police officers from shooting unarmed black men, then equality begins to look like white criminals getting shot by the cops, too. If the courts continue to hand out very different sentences to black and white defendants, maybe we’ll come to cheer harsh verdicts or sentences handed down to white offenders because that seems like the only kind of equality that’s actually on offer. If the fear that governs our lives at home never seems to go away, maybe we’ll root for the Otto Warmbiers of the world to feel that same anxiety abroad.
Maybe feeling this way, just for a moment, is understandable, a flash of a dark impulse in a grim world. But the notion of condemning Otto Warmbier is a measurement of despair, not a step toward justice.