Growing up under a military dictatorship in 1990s Lagos, I quickly learned the meaning of Nigeria’s unofficial motto “Obey before Complaint” as the Nigerian Army saw fit to manifest it in our daily life.
It means in a country ruled by a dictatorship, anything, and I mean anything at all, can and will happen to you, and nothing and no one will save you.
We are, you see, very familiar with being punished above and beyond the severity of the infraction committed, moreso even for things we did not do.
In February this year, eighteen years into democratic rule – you’d think this bullshit would have stopped by now, a disabled, wheelchair bound man was beaten savagely, dragged by his paralysed legs in the mud, and almost killed by the Nigerian Army for the fashion crime of wearing a camouflage print t-shirt.
And this is just on our home turf, where we are supposed to be respected and treated with dignity, much less abroad.
So, to my view, sauntering into a foreign country, and misbehaving, especially one that actively despises your home country and it’s nationals, constantly makes violent threats against you, and is well known for disregarding human rights, and engaging in egregious war crimes and torture, is the delusional height of confidence in your status as a white American male, to protect you from being treated in the way that MILLIONS of other people in that same country have been.
Anybody that is surprised that what happened to Otto happened is neck deep in denial about the way the world works.
Any non-white person could have told Otto for free what the consequences would be for getting caught playing pranks in North Korea.
That he was beaten, that he was tortured, that he ultimately died for a ridiculously petty crime is not an exceptional, isolated event.
It is the norm.
…in banana republics with volatile, unhinged despots
…all of which North Korea is.
While thanks to the shit quality of the video released of his alleged crime, there’s doubt about whether Otto actually stole the poster, assuming he did do it, the very fact that he took the risk of getting caught doing something like that implies that he prejudged the potential consequences of his actions to be bearably light.
In other words, he felt reasonably confident he would not be subjected to the same treatment that North Koreans would for doing the same thing, which begs the question: Why?
The simple answer is, per the general experience in the USA, as a white American, that automatically made him better and his life more valuable than other lesser people like North Koreans, and in fact, any other similarly accused non-white people. Or so the story is usually supposed to go.
I’m loathe to speak ill of the dead, but the ugly truth is that by taking that action, Otto was counting, depending on white privilege to kick in and downplay the seriousness of any consequences he might have to face for stealing the poster, and not surprisingly, in North Korea, it failed him.
Every reaction I’ve read from a white person (whether as a commenter or while authoring a post of their own on this awful event) has so far failed to acknowledge, or even tried to debunk or dismiss outright the role white privilege played in getting Otto into the mess from which he was tragically unable to extricate himself.
I’ve even seen reactions to a post by a black woman (written long before news of his death) highlighting his recklessness, being dragged as “reverse racism” and “hate speech”.
In college, I met so many young, white men and women like Otto; full of themselves, convinced they were special, brimming with confidence to dismiss petty (and sometimes fairly serious) crimes as “pranks”, and demand precedence over others, anchored in their privilege to be trusted, believed, consulted, and above all, when things went awry, avoid the negative consequences of their actions while non-white students otherwise involved bore the brunt of the punishment. Obviously, with the number of smart alarms and monitored alarms of this day and age, it is less likely that we see this, although unfortunately, it still does happen. And it is just not on!
And the disparities in experience young white boys and girls encounter when committing crimes at home and abroad when compared with those of non-whites paints a picture that quite honestly, is glaringly clear.
Just look at Brock Turner, a young white college swim star, whose rape of an unconscious woman behind a dumpster was downplayed into “20 minutes of action” and served only six months for ruining someone’s life.
Just look at Ethan Couch, a young white high school boy who KILLED 4 people yet never spent a day in jail because “Affluenza”
Just look at Amanda Knox, who went on holiday to Italy, and killed someone, yet was treated like a hero on her eventual return home.
It’s unfortunately, ridiculously predictable.
Because this happened in North Korea, and ended in the death of a promising young man, Americans all over the Internet are at one another’s throats over white privilege, yet these same debates (and consensus reached) have been had before in countries like France, Sweden, Greece, and the United Kingdom under another name: The Ugly American.
A well behaved person would never dream of going to another person’s house and breaking their rules.
It’s disrespectful and rude.
It reflects badly on you.
And it can even be dangerous.
Yet, white frat bro that he was, Otto Warmbier evidently thought nothing of (1) going to North Korea to begin with, and (2) while there, stealing for shits and giggles.
Never mind that this is the SAME country where people are eating grass to survive because their enfant terrible of a Supreme Leader doesn’t give a shit whether they live or die.
Never mind that this is the SAME country where numerous foreigners are currently detained indefinitely in horrific conditions, and many other people have died under similarly nebulous circumstances at the hands of the North Korean regime.
Never mind that in Asia, “face” is everything, and there was no way in hell North Korea would allow itself to lose face over an American college boy.
No matter where in the world, the punishment for stealing should not be death, but am I surprised that one careless action ultimately resulted in Otto’s death? No. Not when in so many places, however unjustly, it often is.
What happened to Otto in North Korea was an enormous tragedy, but it’s also a stark lesson for young white men everywhere to learn from: You are not invincible, you are not omnipotent, you are not special, you are not more important than others, and as millions of non-white people worldwide already know, in this world, there are no sacred cows.
North Korea is a terrible place, and like Otto, everyone who has suffered at their hands is a victim of their cruelty and disdain for human rights, and I sorely hope a day comes soon for their justice.
That said, today is not that day, and until that day comes, you do yourself, as did Otto Warmbier, a disservice to not know the nature of the beast you are dealing with, and beware it accordingly.