Twenty one year olds feel invincible. I did, when I was 21 and in the Peace Corps in Panama. We did some incredibly stupid things — like hitchhiking down the Pan America highway at 11pm and being picked up by perfect strangers, or walking along the deserted harbor in Panama City after midnight just to see the lights on the ships awaiting transit through the Canal. God willing, life is kind to the young and we get away with the stupid things. But sometimes, life is not kind.
Otto Warmbier entered North Korea with a low-budget Chinese tour group, eager to explore the Forbidden Kingdom on a five day jaunt. While there, he may have taken a propaganda poster as a souvenir. He was arrested and detained at the airport, tried, convicted, and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor. He was recently repatriated home in a coma, and on Monday he died. Medical testing here in the U.S. did not reveal the cause of his persistent vegetative state. But something terrible happened in a North Korean prison, bad enough to cause this young man’s death.
I wouldn’t go to North Korea, or Iran, or Syria, or Somalia. I wouldn’t go to a lot of places where there isn’t a direct U.S. embassy presence and a reasonable expectation of humane treatment as a tourist or aid worker — and I don’t think I would have at 21, either. If I had gone, might I have taken a poster as a souvenir? Yes. I wouldn’t have expected that simple act to lead to a cascade of events that would result in my death.
I’m sure such a dire outcome never occurred to Otto Warmbier either. I’m sorry for him, and for his family, and for the fact that the tolerance for his somewhat foolish act was so slight and that his life was so easily broken.