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June 24, 2017

When People Become Pawns

by Anne Paddock

Losses must be answered, grief redressed.    ~ Julie Orringer (from Neighbors, a short story published in The Paris Review, Issue 221, Summer, 2017)

Injustices occur in countries across the world every single day and while these events often shock or sadden us, there are incidents that truly outrage us. The treatment of Otto Warmbier, the 22-year old University of Virginia college student, at the hands of the North Korean regime has touched many an American and there have been more than a few who have demanded revenge.

Otto Warmbier visited North Korea for 5 days in January, 2016 and was arrested for allegedly tearing down a propaganda poster and then sentenced to 15 years of hard labor.  He was released for “humanitarian reasons” and returned to the US on June 13, 2017 in a coma which the doctors at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center claim was the result of extensive brain tissue loss consistent with a cardiopulmonary event which basically means his brain was deprived of oxygen and the tissue died, leaving him in a vegetative state. In other words, Otto Warmbier’s heart stopped or was stopped for a period of time sufficient to render him unable to do anything but breathe and blink when his heart was restarted.

Who does things like this? How does anyone ever justify treating another human being this way? Otto Warmbier was legally an adult but he was really a college kid who made the mistake of visiting North Korea where basic human rights are not respected and it cost him his life.

Otto Warmbier’s death enrages the public just like Daniel Pearl’s death (the Wall Street Journal journalist who was kidnapped and murdered in Pakistan in 2002) did. These men were not on a crusade to topple a regime but both were made scapegoats and pawns in a political arena focused on hate.  Hate of other cultures. Hate of others who share different beliefs. Hate of other governments. Hate as retaliation for real or imagined policy differences. Hate as revenge for mistakes.

What happened to Warmbier and Pearl also happened to others. Innocents murdered for being who they are  (Warmbier for being American and Pearl for being American and Jewish) and for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The murderers lose sight of their victims as someone’s son, daughter, brother, sister, father, mother, or simply a person loved by others who will forever feel the loss of their loved one. Where is the empathy? Do these murderers not have children, a spouse, siblings, or parents whose murder would deeply affect them?

The most recent issue of the Paris Review (#221, Summer 2017) includes a short story entitled Neighbors by Julie Orringer that explores the realities and range of revenge when a young Chinese American man loses his 4-month old baby after a neglectful caregiver forgets to give the child medication to control seizures. That the target of the father’s grief is not the caretaker shows the reader how terrifying revenge can be.

As much as revenge or retaliation is on the agenda of many an American after the most recent events in North Korea, the answer is actually forgiveness because forgiveness can stop the cycle and allow those left behind to move forward with their lives. There are those who will say it’s easy to promote forgiveness when you’re not the one who lost a loved one and there is some truth to that statement. But, I would also say that channeling grief into revenge (or what some would call justice) is counterproductive because revenge volleys loss back and forth without end. Only when we ask ourselves “how many more are we willing to lose?” and the answer is “none,” will we realize that revenge is not the answer. It’s not easy but as Julie Orringer so eloquently writes “losses must be answered, grief redressed.”

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