‘Otto Warmbier had it coming’

The warped morality of privilege-checking commentators.

The case of Otto Warmbier, an American student who was imprisoned in North Korea, came to a tragic end last night when his family announced he had died.

The then 21-year-old student was arrested at Pyongyang airport in January last year for allegedly stealing a propaganda banner from the hotel he was staying in. He was on a guided tour of North Korea. Warmbier was subjected to a televised showtrial and gave what was almost certainly a coerced confession, breaking down in tears as he did so. The court sentenced him to 15 years hard labour.

After being detained for 17 months, he was flown back to the US last week in a state of ‘unresponsive wakefulness’. Warmbier’s family said: ‘Unfortunately the awful, torturous mistreatment our son received at the hands of the North Koreans ensured that no other outcome was possible beyond the sad one we experienced today… When Otto returned to Cincinnati late on 13 June he was unable to speak, unable to see and unable to react to verbal commands. He looked very uncomfortable – almost anguished.’

Kim Jong-un’s totalitarian government claims Warmbier’s vegetative state was caused by him contracting botulism, but American doctors dispute this. According to The Times, ‘the brain damage he suffered was more consistent with the effects of respiratory arrest, which can be caused by physical trauma, suffocation or the misuse of drugs’.

This is an utterly appalling affair. And yet, last year, following Warmbier’s trial, some sections of the media were not so sympathetic towards him. On Comedy Central’s The Nightly Show, presenter Larry Wilmore mocked Warmbier, introducing the news item by saying, ‘Tonight’s story is about the North Korean government which recently captured one of America’s most annoying exports: a frat bro’.

He continued: ‘North Korea isn’t a playground for college pranks, Kim Jong-un isn’t a fictional character from a Seth Rogen movie, and Pyongyang isn’t some game you play with Coors Light and Solo cups… It’s just tough for me to have much sympathy for this guy and his crocodile tears.’

In March last year, Ebony and the Huffington Post published an article by writer LaSha, in which she said Warmbier acted recklessly as a result of his white male privilege. ‘As shocked as I am by the sentence handed down to Warmbier’, she wrote, ‘I am even more shocked that a grown man, an American citizen, would not only voluntarily enter North Korea but also commit what’s been described as a “college-style prank”. That kind of reckless gall is an unfortunate side effect of being socialised first as a white boy, and then as a white man in this country… The kind of arrogance bred by that kind of conditioning is pathogenic, causing its host to develop a subconscious yet no less obnoxious perception that the rules do not apply to him, or at least that their application is negotiable.’

As an entitled white boy, he had it coming, is what they were saying. Sadly, this kind of supercilious moralising is not uncommon today. For years now, liberal-left commentators have been banging on about the sins of ‘privilege’. There is ‘cis privilege’, ‘Christian privilege’, even ‘thin privilege’. But none is so sinful as ‘white male privilege’, and this is why Warmbier was subject to mockery instead of sympathy. This obsession with competitive victimhood has so skewed the moral compasses of these commentators that they were almost ready to celebrate a totalitarian state’s unjust imprisonment and torture of a young student, instead of seeing it for the horrific abuse that it was.

Naomi Firsht is staff writer at spiked and co-author of The Parisians’ Guide to Cafés, Bars and Restaurants. Follow her on Twitter: @Naomi_theFirsht

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