For Otto Warmbier

Jul. 7, 2017
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Every now and then I feel compelled to break away from The Beaten Path format and write about something that stirs deep inside my soul. I have always been troubled by stories of innocent people being imprisoned for crimes they did not commit. Particularly, the young and pure. I watched all of the "Paradise Lost" HBO documentary series with a sort of sick horror, but was unable to stop viewing until I witnessed their final release. For the West Memphis Three, their lives temporarily became a horror movie – a nightmare from which they could not awake. I can never forget the earnest answer from then slight and nervous 16-year-old Jason Baldwin, answering his defense attorney as to what he wished to do "when he got out of here," awaiting sentencing. He said, "I dunno. Go to Disneyland?" He shyly smiled, totally unaware of the fate awaiting him.

Some 18 years later, he did take that trip to Disneyland, when he was set free and became interested in pursuing a law career. He is co-founder of the Proclaim Justice organization, "dedicated to winning freedom for inmates who are factually innocent of the the crimes for which they were convicted." ( I also followed with great interest the case of Amanda Knox and quickly read her autobiography, "Waiting to be Heard: A Memoir," following her nearly four year ordeal in an Italian prison for a murder I do not believe she committed. Ultimately, the Italian courts concurred. 

The motive never made a lot of sense, concocted by the overzealous prosecuting attorneys. Knox was an American abroad, a good student, hard worker, no violent past and no real trouble with the law.  She suddenly decides to practice a "Black Mass" with her new Italian boyfriend on Halloween, in a strange country after getting high. She supposedly tries to entice her roommate Meredith Kercher into a kinky sex game, and when Kercher doesn't comply, the two stab her multiple times? I don't think so. For one thing, pot doesn't tend to make one behave in that aggressive fashion. Like The West Memphis Three trial, Knox prosecutors decided to drag in the tired  idea of a "Black Mass," to scare people and sway jurors. I highly doubt any of these prosecuting attorneys would know what a real one was if it jumped up and bit  them in their respective butts. The fanciful prosecutors in both of these cases were also utterly unable to differentiate healthy Pagan/Wiccan belief systems with worshipping of "the devil." The fact that many people in West Memphis, Arkansas believed that others who wore black and read a lot of Stephen King were to be feared, spoke volumes.

I also read accused West Memphis native Damien Echols' memoir, "Life After Death," about those harrowing 18 years he wrongly spent on death row. I found him thoughtful, sympathetic, and an incredibly resilient young man, in the sharing of his story. It is Ms Knox who leads me to the heart of my story here, though: adventures of young Americans traveling abroad. I was strongly moved and upset to only recently find out for the first time of the torment of Mr. Otto Warmbier. I found myself asking several times aloud – as many have – how could this happen? 

By all accounts, Warmbier was a sunny-faced, smart young man, with everything in front of him. It seems his biggest infraction was that he had an adventurous side. He decided on a fatal impromptu trip to North Korea, before starting his study abroad program in China. His English roommate described him as, "polite and mature." Roommate Danny Gratton also found it impossible to believe that Otto committed the purportedly heinous act of stealing a propaganda poster from the hotel of which he was a guest. Gratton believes that Otto was targeted and used as a sort of bargaining chip between North Korea and the U.S., as tensions have increased alongside the timeline in which Warmbier was detained from his plane in December of 2015. I tend to agree. His press conference "confession" is most certainly coerced and under extreme distress. He is reading from a prepared statement in broken translated English that often makes no logical sense. The story goes the poster was planned to be stolen for "a friend's mother" to hang in her Mormon church. The mother in question has never come forward. Most likely there never was one, and certainly not one who would ask Warmbier to risk so much for a bizarre favor as the one described here. Why would a bright, high school salutatorian, double UVA major risk everything for that? The explanation stinks.

It stinks as much as the North Koreans' excuse that Otto contacted botulism, they gave him a sleeping pill, and he wound up in a coma for 17 months. Why was he detained so long under those circumstances? He definitely could not perform the hard labor sentence required of him. Nor could he get the proper medical care he needed to get better, so that he could even begin to finish his sentence. Doctors on our side of the pond have ruled out botulism, but noted severe brain deterioration, most likely caused by loss of oxygen via stress to the heart, or even from strangulation. No autopsy was performed at the request of his parents. But that wouldn't have produced further insight to that likely scenario, according to the same Ohio doctors. 

I only shudder to think of what poor Warmbier must have endured. They kept him hidden for two months before his mock "trial." he appeared terrified and beaten in spirit on all the public video footage and photos. Like the unfortunate James Foley before him – he was forced to publicly denounce the U.S. government for the obvious benefit of his captors. The one truth in his statement was that "he was used." But who he was used by as a patsy, and less than a fragile, promising, human life, was without a doubt his sadistic, merciless captors. Warmbier begged and pleaded, but he may as well have been reasoning with blocks of cold granite stone, for all the emotion they showed at his plight. He was aware that his life was in danger, and perhaps more than the over-the-top 15-year sentence looming in wait for him, before he was led away. That is when we are told, he fell into a coma within weeks.

Did he try to fight back? That's one possibility. More likely, he kept on doing what he was told, and the guards took the torture too far. It is beyond comprehension the level of insidious cruelty employed on this one boy. They hurt him enough and kept him to keep him quiet – "in unresponsive wakefulness." For over a year. This is an extreme example of the sort of real life evil that lurks in the hearts of some beings who pass themselves off as human. He was most likely aware of what was happening to him, and numb with shock. His family, upon his return, described how he looked anguished when he was finally brought home, and became peaceful right before he passed away. It was as if he realized that the nightmare that had become his life was finally at an end. The prolonged suffering could stop. 

To state that this should never have happened – is an understatement to be sure. However, to firmly state that it should never happen again is imperative. Critics who glibly dismiss Warmbier's story, miss the entire point. Former professor Katherine Dettwyler, now thankfully won't have to listen to all the students who annoyed her, as she has been promptly removed from her post. Apparently, she'd been at her job far too long and had become embittered. She quickly lumps Warmbier into an assumed privileged, spoiled, category with never having known him personally, let alone had him as a student.

To suggest that anyone, regardless of status, class, race, what have you, "deserved this," is heartless, unhumanitarian, and precisely what concerns me most. Don't let Otto Warmbier's life be in vain. Don't be distracted by the latest White House drama or Kim Kardashian photo so quickly, that in weeks we will say, Otto who? North Korea needs to know that this is unacceptable. Even stricter sanctions and a travel ban for Americans to go there do seem appropriate, as some U.S. senators have been discussing. The remaining imprisoned Americans – there are three – should be released without delay.  

The heart of the matter is this: if we stop being compassionate with one another, if we stop caring and shut out situations and people who are suffering and ignore them – or worse yet – criticize them – we lose our humanity. We lose that, and we can no longer think of ourselves as an intelligent, evolved species. Everyone loses. It is past time to stop the widespread plague of desensitization in our culture.

Another of the things that saddens me, is that there was a more innocent time in our nation, when traveling to far off, exotic locales was fun – and for the most part, safe. Now with increasing unrest in so many parts of the world and increasingly strained relations with our own country – it seems those days are long gone. I do not pretend to know how to right all the wrongs of the past committed by those in power, but I do wish for a future world with more peace, understanding, and empathy. Let's not lose it completely, before it's too late.


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