“I beg you to save my life, my family needs me…I have made the worst mistake of my life”.
For the family of Otto Warmbier, these words, delivered during his confession in March 2016 to a press room of stone-faced DPRK officials, would be the last they ever heard him say. When he was returned to them last week, seventeen months after his detention began, he was unable to speak, see or respond. He was missing brain tissue and lay in a state of ‘unresponsive wakefulness’ until he died less than a week later on June 19th.
It’s hard to imagine how anybody could watch the footage of Warmbier’s tearful confession and gain smug pleasure from watching a man go limp as he is handed fifteen years of whatever is considered ‘hard labour’ under a brutal totalitarian regime, but this was the surprising reaction of several liberal media outlets to the 21-year-old student’s ordeal when the story emerged last year, and a number of them published articles which seemed to conclude that Warmbier was getting a justice he ‘richly deserved’, not so much because they believed stealing a poster warranted such a harsh sentence but because Warmbier’s failure to take laws seriously was as a result of his ‘white privilege’ – his ingrained, subconscious presumption that the rules didn’t really apply to him account of his ethnicity, and it is this ‘whiteness’ that they delighted in seeing on trial, despite the fact it is unlikely he even touched the poster.
Without worrying too much about the details, Salon magazine branded Warmbier ‘America’s biggest idiot frat-boy’ who “thought he could pull a prank on North Korea” though they have since deleted the story. American Comedian Larry Wilmore also mocked the footage of the crying Warmbier “It’s just tough for me to have much sympathy for this guy and his crocodile tears.” He said, and went on to mock him as ‘Otto van crybaby’.
The most disturbing response I found, was a Huffington Post article titled “North Korea Proves Your White Male Privilege Is Not Universal”
La Sha, the self-described radical who wrote the piece, openly celebrates what she perceives to be white male privilege getting its comeuppance.
She writes: “That kind of reckless gall is an unfortunate side effect of being socialised first as a white boy, and then as a white man in this country…”
There is no questioning the dubious nature of the arrest, nor is Warmbier’s individual suffering taken into consideration.
She goes on to say:“15 years performing manual labour 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.”
While it may be true that Warmbier’ trip to enemy territory was built on an ingrained feeling of ‘couldn’t happen to me’, this diminished fear of putting himself under the jurisdiction of a totalitarian regime is a result of being raised in a free society; not by being raised white, and La Sha’s own callous assessment of the situation equally stems from a life of secular comfort which she takes for granted, as she proves herself unable to conceive of brutality far surpassing anything she has experienced herself in her daily life
It’s hard to decide which is more disturbing about these responses – the lack of human sympathy or the willingness to accept such an obviously coerced confession in the first place. It only makes sense when you consider that to both communist dystopias and western progressives share a proclivity to view people not as individuals, but as representatives of collective identities, and as such, the truth is of little relevance to either. Individual guilt matters less than collective guilt for ideologues who always believe themselves to be acting in service of the greater good. Such relegation of the importance of individual human suffering is what allowed North Korea to publicly cast Warmbier as the embodiment of America’s subversive intentions, and for the progressive left to cast Warmbier in the symbolic role ‘white privilege’ getting its comeuppance at the hands of superior non-whites. As for the truth of happened to Warmbier between his show-trial and his death, we shall never know. But whatever happened, it was not deserved.