Thursday, July 6, 2017

Otto Warmbier: In the wrong place at the wrong time

Otto Warmbier’s return to the United States prompted Professor Katherine Dettwyler to indicate that he got what he deserved.  She also said compared Mr. Warmbier to her own students: “These are the same kids who cry about their grades because they didn't think they'd really have to read and study the material to get a good grade ... His parents ultimately are to blame for his growing up thinking he could get away with whatever he wanted. Maybe in the US, where young, white, rich, clueless white males routinely get away with raping women. Not so much in North Korea. And of course, it's Ottos' parents who will pay the price for the rest of their lives.”  Although her remarks on Facebook are no longer public, she is reported to have made similar comments at a news story about the case.  The University of Delaware distanced itself from her comments, but whether it was this incident or others related to her politicization of her anthropology class led to her contract not being renewed is unclear, one of a number of terminations around the country recently.

Professor Dettwyler’s comments lack empathy and imagination; her extremely ill-judged comments are especially troubling in that they demean her own students, although they fall short of warranting her termination (Full disclosure: I attempted to contact her in an effort to convince her to modify her position on Mr. Warmbier).  Solely for the sake of argument, let us first take as a given that Mr. Warmbier removed the propaganda banner.  One might ask whether a police officer would waste his or her time on such a minor offense; that his death was a deserved outcome is indefensible. 

Professor Dettwyler’s comments take the existence of an epidemic of college sexual assault as something so obvious that it needed no support or further explanation.  However, Robbie Soave and KC Johnson among others have helped to demonstrate that statistics purporting to support the putative epidemic of assaults are highly dubious.  Even if widespread college sexual assault did exist, the linkage between this serious felony and the removal of a banner is nonexistent.  If confronted with a reasonable punishment, Mr. Warmbier had asked for additional leniency, one could argue that this had something to do with white, fratboy privilege.  Mr. Warmbier called it the worst mistake of his life and asked for the North Koreans to think of his family, not his skin color.  Nevertheless, he was sentenced to a Draconian 15 years at hard labor.  Professor Dettwyler’s attempt to connect Mr. Warmbier’s actions with white privilege fails on multiple grounds.

Moreover, the implied premise of her argument, that Warmbier’s confession represented an accurate account of his actions does not stand up to an hour’s research on the internet.  Mr. Warmbier’s confession indicated that the Friendship United Methodist Church, the Z society at the University of Virginia, and the United States Government were involved in some sort of conspiracy.  A deaconess at the Friendship United Methodist church was supposed to have offered a car worth $10,000 for the banner and $200,000 if he were detained.  Yet the pastor denied knowing the person claimed to be a deaconess, and the page listing the staff at the church’s website does not identify anyone as a deacon or a deaconess.  Mr. Warmbier’s alleged motivation was serious family financial distress, but his father denied that this was true.

A spokesperson for the semi-secret Z society, which focuses on philanthropy at UVa, has indicated that there was no contact between this organization and Mr. Warmbier.  Mr. Warmbier’s mother is Jewish, and the memorial service was led by Rabbi Jake Rubin, who had traveled to Israel with Mr. Warmbier, who seemed to identify as Jewish after this trip.  This prompts the question of why he would be keen to help someone at the Friendship United Methodist Church obtain a “trophy.”  How the removal of a banner in a hotel corridor would weaken the motivation and work ethic of the North Korean people remains unclear.  Mr. Warmbier’s confession, which was preposterous at the outset, under examination looks like a gumbo of highly improbable or outright false statements.  One could parse its syntax or put it into the context of forced confessions in North Korea for additional evidence, but it is more productive to move on to a different hypothesis, that Mr. Warmbier took down the banner for reason unrelated to this alleged conspiracy.

This alternative is less easy to falsify but is still highly problematic.  A Danish fellow traveler indicated that she and Mr. Warmbier shopped for propaganda posters, which are readily available in stores.  Were these posters not to Mr. Warmbier’s taste?  How did Mr. Warmbier obtain access to a staff-only (“restricted” in some accounts) area of the hotel?  How would he know that the banner’s characters conveyed propaganda and not a reminder that staff must always wash their hands after using the lavatory?  Why would he take down a banner that was, according to the North Korean account, too large to keep?  The video that purports to show Mr. Warmbier’s taking down the banner is too indistinct to be probative.  It is also curious to some that the corridor is well-lit.  Some have described Mr. Warmbier as being mature.  Indeed, Susan Svrluga’s detailed account of Mr. Warmbier’s memorial service indicates that he was a focused, exceptional student, a well-regarded friend, and an exemplary role model for his brother.  Although character evidence does not preclude his committing a reckless act, it is one more pebble on the scale.

If Mr. Warmbier did not take down the poster, then why was he detained?  Mr. Warmbier’s British roommate, Danny Gratton, said that they did not receive their customary wake-up call on the morning of 2 January, making them the last of their tour group to depart.  An anonymous source said that Mr. Warmbier’s roommate, Mr. Gratton, became separated from the rest of the tour group for several hours in the early morning of New Year’s day, 2016, roughly coinciding with the time of the banner’s allegedly being taken down (1:57 AM).  Mr. Warmbier’s whereabouts during this time have not been verified.  One possible scenario is that the intended detainee was not Mr. Warmbier but was Mr. Gratton instead.  Or perhaps even knowing of Mr. Gratton’s disappearance, the North Koreans detained Mr. Warmbier because he was an American citizen.  Time quoted Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch: “When North Korea gets into a diplomatic dispute with the U.S. government, they like to grab any American they can find and use them as bargaining chips.”  Along with what happened during his detention, one can only speculate.

Isaac Fish wrote that Mr. Warmbier was in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Despite the fact that roughly eight hundred Americans visit North Korea every year one can legitimately argue that he was foolish to go there.  Indeed, when Mr. Warmbier spoke of making the worst mistake of his life, he may have meant simply traveling to North Korea.  In a time when some academicians were less in the grip of narratives concerning race and privilege and when partisan politics stopped “at the water’s edge,” perhaps the whole country would have mourned the untimely and unexplained death of a highly promising young man who was improperly imprisoned.


Hilde Baert said...

Agree, especially with the last paragraph.
North Korea is NOT a safe place to visit.
The better alternative would have been South Korea: In South Korea, students won't get in serious trouble for typical student antics.

Blaming persons and organizations won't make matters better, in my opinion.
What remains for us, American citizens, is to learn one vital lesson: 'Don't go to North Korea!'

I want to end on a personal note: My Condolences to Otto's family and I feel very sorry for what he had to go through.

Jane Snipes said...

The roommate said they were together all the time and he never saw a time when Otto could have taken the poster and never saw the poster afterwards. So, if Otto did take the poster where did it go? Let's assume for argument's sake that Otto did take the poster. Should the punishment for this "crime" be what equates to the death penalty? I agree with Christopher that Otto was taken only because he was American.

Chris Halkides said...

My understanding is that even the North Koreans do not claim that he had the poster with him (they said that it was too big). It is not entirely clear to me at what point they say he abandoned it. Neither the video nor his coerced confession is evidence that he took it down. I think it is not beyond the realm of possibility that his roommate was the intended detainee and somehow signals got crossed.

Rose Montague said...

This blaming of the victim has to stop. What North Korea did is nothing short of manslaughter. Blaming Otto is an insult to his family.

Chris Halkides said...

Rose, I am glad that you brought up victim-blaming, which aptly describes what went on in this instance.

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