Let me tell you a story. When I was 21, way back in 1975, I was studying at the University of Leeds in England, and I took a two week trip to the Soviet Union. You couldn’t travel on your own, and had to be part of an organized tour, and our tour had Kiev, Moscow, and Leningrad as the major stops. It was great; everywhere I went Jews asked me if I was Jewish (I guess I look it) and I tried to converse with them the best that I could. Our tour seemed to stop at every memorial to the Great Patriotic War, of which there seemed to be no end with one exception—it did not stop, despite our asking, at the monument at Babi Yar, outside of Kiev. Anyway, I loved the trip—a ballet at the Bolshoi, an opera at the Kirov; one of these years I have to get back to St. Petersburg, which I still think is the most beautiful city I have ever seen, and we were there in early July, when it stays light in the city until the wee hours.
There was only one complication on the trip. I had read that the notorious Lubyanka prison, the headquarters of the KGB, where who knows how many political prisoners met their end, was in downtown Moscow, and during a break in the tour, I and my friend I was traveling with went to see the building. We decided to take pictures of it. (It’s a handsome looking building, for a prison.) I thought we were being discrete about it, holding our cameras waist-high, but evidently were not discrete enough. We were soon surrounded by several people in plain clothes who spoke to us, presumably KGB operatives, and then demanded that we destroy the film in our cameras, which we did and when we got back to our hotel rooms that evening it was clear that our luggage had been searched. There were no more repercussions, our trip continued, and we went back to England unscathed, and I eventually returned home to New York City.
This little episode/escapade came to mind this week in reading about the sad fate of Otto Warmbier, arrested in 2016 when he was 22 years old during a trip to North Korea, allegedly for the crime of purloining a poster from his hotel room, sentenced to 15 years hard labor, who returned to the United States last week in a comatose condition, and died several days afterwards. It was revealed afterwards that Warmbier was Jewish, and the State Department asked his family to keep quiet about this, but it doesn’t otherwise figure into this horrible story. It certainly demonstrates again, if we needed any additional proof, that the current regime in North Korea is a terrible tyranny, a police state and a prison state.
There has been some criticism of Warmbier of being very stupid in attempting to steal a poster (if indeed this is what happened) and no doubt it was foolish. Now, the Soviet Union in 1975 was not North Korea in 2017 (or the Soviet Union in 1935), the US and the Soviet Union had diplomatic relations, there was one of those periodic late-Brezhnev thaws afoot, it was the heyday of Kissingerian détente—the big news story when we were in the Soviet Union was a joint flight by American astronaunts and Soviet cosmonauts. But it was, in retrospect a dangerous and foolish thing to do. On the hierarchy of foolishness, taking pictures of the headquarters of the Soviet secret police ranks considerably higher than trying to purloin a poster.
So I was young and foolish; it was exciting made more so by the frisson of danger; something to tell my friends; a way for a budding historian to play chicken with history. Many of my peers, those 21 in 1975, were indulging in risky behaviors of their own (promiscuity, excessive drug use, accepting silly dares, breaking limbs and worse by trying to climb mountains without adequate training or equipment, etc.) Most of them (but not all of them) lived long enough to grow up to lead dull respectable lives. Like many of my friends back then, I was more immature than I realized.
There’s no real moral here; Mr. Wambier was very foolish and (whatever he thought about it) very young, and young people often do foolish things. North Korea, in the contemporary world, has some of the same lure of the forbidden about it that the Soviet Union had in 1975. It also was very interesting, a chance to see the enemy up close, to enter into an alien world.
There used to be a catch phrase, now thankfully moribund, “free, white and 21” which still makes me cringe when I see it in a film from the 1930s and 1940s. To which one can add “male” though as I remember hearing it in films, it was usually said by sharp young women, telling buttinski men to leave them alone and let them make their own decisions and lead their own lives. When I went to Moscow, I was free white and 21 (and male to boot, and one might add, American.) I suppose all of these factors contributed to a sense of invulnerability, a willingness to take stupid risks, with the sense that the rules of the country I was traveling in, didn’t apply to me. There has been some criticism of Mr. Warmbier as an example of “white privilege.” This is not my favorite phrase; accusing someone of privilege is a way to end a conversation. The natural riposte is “me, I’m not privileged, what about x.” The goal should be to try to understand those Howard Thurman called the disinherited, those with their backs against the wall. Through empathy with their plight, and trying to do something genuine about it, differences dissolve—the point is to change yourself through helping others.
In any event, if privilege means anything it is ability to make mistakes in your life, to have the right to pick oneself up and start over. Those on the edge of society often only have one chance, and a slim one at that, to make it. Those with power and money, like our current president, can screw up again and again and apparently suffer no adverse consequences. Was Otto Warmbier privileged? He made one mistake, a relatively minor one, and it cost him his life. The same can be said of Philandro Castile, shot to death by a subsequently acquitted Minnesota police officer for the crime of having a busted taillight on his car. The shocking video of his murder was released this week. It was a potent reminder that while the US is not North Korea when it comes to incarceration, it has little to be proud of. We do not live in a police state; it only makes the conditions of our prisons all the more scandalous.
We need to honor the death of Otto Warmbier by continuing, as he did, to try to understand North Korea, and this does not mean apologizing for it or minimizing its crimes, including his death, but we also must to try to look at the world from its point of view, and the 65 year plus cold and hot war between it and the United States. This is not easy, but there is no alternative. We can’t let his death be the pretext for the deaths of thousands more.
In short I can understand Warmbier’s temptation to visit. If I were in his position, I might have done the same. I am very sorry about his fate, and my heart goes out to his family. I suppose if I had to do it again, I would have kept my distance from Lubyanka. But then I wouldn’t have a story to tell about the day I was questioned by the KGB.