Otto Warmbier and American Exceptionalism

On state violence, injustice, and double standards.

Time for some whataboutism.

Otto Warmbier, an American college student, traveled with friends to North Korea where he was arrested, charged with stealing a propaganda poster in his hotel, convicted, and sentenced to over a decade of hard labor.

He didn’t make it two years. Some time after his sentencing, he fell into a coma, was recently released and flown back to the United States, and died. The exact cause of his condition isn’t known, but he’d suffered extensive brain damage, almost certainly the result of abuse by the North Koreans.

It’s a horrifying story. But why? Why does it provoke us to rage, to a desire for violent revenge against the country that would commit such an atrocity? There’s a bad answer to this and a better one. Both are true, in that both are reasons why actual people find Warmbier’s story actually enraging. But both are troubling, as well. The bad answer is vacuous. The better answer, however, exposes in us, in our inconsistency of its application, a damaging hypocrisy that gets to the core of what’s wrong with so much of our politics.

Here’s the bad answer: We get mad when we hear about Otto Warmbier because it’s a story of them harming one of us. A foreign power had the gall to savage an American, and we can’t let that sort of thing stand. But that’s not an interesting answer because it’s just dumb nationalism and tribalism.

Here’s the better answer: We get mad when we hear about Otto Warmbier because his treatment was monstrously unjust. He was arrested for violating an at best trivial law. (This assumes he stole the poster in the first place.) He was then forced into an unfair trial with no opportunity to defend himself. That trial led to a sentence dramatically out of line with the minimal nature of his “crime.” Finally, while serving that excessive sentence, he was brutalized. And carrying all this out was a government cartoonishly unjust. These facts add up, rightly, to outrage.

But here’s where we get to whataboutism and what’s so troubling about the second reason. Because Americans like Otto Warmbier are, every day, arrest for violating trivial laws, forced into trials where they have no meaningful way to defend themselves, sentenced to punishments far out of line with their crimes, brutalized while serving them, and all by a government with a history of such injustices. Eric Garner had the life choked out of him by agents of the state for the high crime of selling packs of cigarettes. Terrill Thomas died of dehydration in a Milwaukee jail cell when agents of the state turned off his water. The list goes on–and the perpetrators, like those in North Korea, go unpunished.

Yet few call for the overthrow of the regime that brutalized Garner. Few demand bloody revenge against Milwaukee’s tyrant sheriff, David Clarke. Because these things happened in America, by the actions of Americans, and so nationalism and tribalism demand we view them differently from similar horrors perpetrated by foreign powers.

Is America as bad as North Korea? Of course not. Not even close. But does America commit acts as unjust and evil as what North Korea did to Otto Warmbier? Of course. And more often than you’d like to think.

If we care about Otto Warmbier because of nationalism, then none of this matters, because all that matters is who did what, to whom. If, on the other hand, we care about Otto Warmbier because we care about justice and goodness and humanity, then our own justice and goodness and humanity demand that we react just as strongly and with just as much of a desire to see something done and to hold the perpetrators responsible when those perpetrators aren’t North Koreans an ocean away, but fellow citizens much closer to home.