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The Captivity of Otto Warmbier

Outsiders, Insiders, and Mad Kings

We know almost nothing about what University of Virginia student Otto Warmbier experienced as a visitor to, and then a prisoner of, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). Arrested in early 2016, convicted in March 2016 of trying to steal a propaganda poster, sentenced to fifteen years of hard labor in a North Korean prison, last night Warmbier — said to be in a coma — returned to his family Cincinnati.

I’ve followed Warmbier’s story as closely as I can — as closely as any of us can at this remove from the DPRK’s closed society, one dominated by an autocratic regime that is itself ruled by the whims of a mad king. At the same time, I have thought about the history of others who have been taken captive around the world, specifically in the North American and Atlantic World history since 1492 that I know best. Some historical captives were taken prisoner from their own homes and neighborhoods, so to speak, while others (like Warmbier) were taken thousands of miles away from home.

In fact, intercultural contact across diplomatically and/or militarily charged borders has created millions of captives and prisoners of war in the past 500 years. From eighteenth and nineteenth centuries captives like Esteban the North African slave of the hapless sixteenth-century Spanish Navárez expedition, to the 20,000 and more British seamen captured by the Barbary Corsairs in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, to the numberless Native American women and children captivated and enslaved by the Comanche to modern-day “redeemed captives” like Patty Hearst, Bowe Bergdahl, and Otto Warmbier, they represent a wide range of political circumstances and personal suffering. Are there any connections that might connect their experiences across time and space? How can we think productively about the experience of captivity in such far-flung geographies and different circumstances?

Two key factors are important to consider when comparing captivities that range across the globe over five centuries: the interest the captors had in turning captive outsiders into insiders, and the degree to which they either included these “new insiders” on equal terms, or held them apart in a kind of permanent captivity or slavery. One historically specific group who were motivated and successful at incorporating captive outsiders were the Northeastern woodlands Indians of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, who were faced with depopulation because of the disease and warfare brought on by the colonial encounter. Taking either Native American or European and Euro-American captives to replenish their numbers (and in some cases to replace specific family members) was for a time a functional response to the pressures of colonialism.

This practice was highly effective because they brought captives into their homes and families on mostly equal terms as kin, not as permanent prisoners or slaves. Another group, the Comanche of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, were highly effective at taking women and child captives and incorporating them into their community labors. Yet captives of the Comanche appear to have been held apart as slaves who were exploited for their sexual and productive labor alike. To be fair, life for women and children who were born Comanche in the late eighteenth century didn’t look very different: it was a rigidly hierarchical and exploitative culture for all but the big men at the top.

How do the experiences of the captives taken from the borderlands of our modern-day revolutions, wars, and hostile regimes compare to these historical captives? Christopher Castiglia, in Bound and Determined: Captivity, Culture Crossing, and White Womanhood from Mary Rowlandson to Patty Hearst (1996), fruitfully compared the autobiographical representations of captive women across 300 years. I’ve written elsewhere about Bowe Bergdahl, the curious AWOL soldier and volunteer captive of the Taliban for five years, and found intriguing comparisons between his experiences and the experiences, not of prisoners of war, but of captive civilian boys in colonial New England. Like A’ongote, the former Eunice Williams in John Demos’s The Unredeemed Captive: A Family Story from Early America (1995), Hearst and Bergdahl were at least for a time eager to become insiders in their captors’ cultures. Hearst’s captors, the Symbionese Liberation Army, like the Iroquois families that A’ongote was adopted by and married into, were eager to make their outsiders into insiders; while Bergdahl’s experience among the Taliban suggests that he always remained a prisoner and an outsider on unequal, and even tortuous conditions.

As with the Bergdahl story, there is no happy family reunion here either, nor is there likely to be. Last night Otto Warmbier was returned to his parents in an unconscious state that has reportedly lasted an entire year. The DPRK’s official explanation — or at least the one released to the international news media — is that “he had contracted botulism and had been given a sleeping pill, causing him to slip into a coma, according to the people briefed on the situation, who insisted on anonymity to discuss the highly sensitive matter.” This eccentric series of medical misfortunes seems utterly implausible, a ridiculous pretext for returning a 22-year old man to his family that would be laughable if it weren’t so sinister. American officials believe it more likely that “his condition is the result of his treatment at North Korean hands, given the record of the brutal treatment of past prisoners there.”

I’ll be eagerly awaiting news from the University of Cincinnati Medical Center today when they have planned to report on Warmbier’s condition. Because it’s such a diplomatically fraught situation, I expect — or rather, I should say I hope — the U.S. State Department under our own mad king and his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson are advising the good doctors of the UCMC about the language they should use when they make any public pronouncement of Warmbier’s condition. Like the “American officials” cited in the above story in the New York Times, my suspicion is that the DPRK had no intention of releasing Otto Warmbier in any condition that would allow him to report on his experiences. Like the dead, men in comas tell no tales.

By comparison with the captor cultures I’ve sketched above, the DPRK appears to be on the extreme end of determinedly resisting making outsiders into insiders, given their zeal for holding prisoner an alarming proportion of the foreigners who dare to transgress their borders. In fact, modern nations may be more generally hostile to incorporating outsiders and making them insiders, and less interested in bringing them in on equal terms, than those of earlier centuries. That said, I’m reluctant to identify the Taliban or even the DPRK as modern nations — the Taliban is in fact a non-state actor, and the DPRK is barely recognized by the international community of nations. Both groups are much more hostile to outsiders than the early modern societies I have described  — to a degree that I believe will ultimately be self-defeating. But for the time being they persist in their violent malevolence, not just to outsiders, but to many of their own people as well: women disproportionately suffer from repression in the case of the Taliban, while intellectuals and artists both in the DPRK and among the Taliban are the object of brutal treatment.

Modern nation-states have invented means other than taking war captives to make outsiders into insiders and enhance their populations. Most of these states in Europe and the Americas strive to bring immigrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers into their societies on equal terms. True, every day for the past five months has brought new stories about the arbitrary cruelty of border law enforcement in the United States by agencies under the Executive Branch such as the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). But as the treatment of refugees in countries like Germany demonstrate, these policies are choices, not cultural fates, and as citizens we can affirm or protest them.

This is why Otto Warmbier’s redemption from captivity should be a moment where Americans should pause to consider that choice. We owe it to Warmbier, his family, to all American captives abroad, and even more, to the desperate immigrant and refugee families who are literally drowning in the Mediterranean or dying in the Sonoran Desert to come to Europe or the U.S., to live up to our stated values when travelers and immigrants from other countries commit minor crimes or otherwise use poor judgment on foreign soil.

Or when they just happen to have the wrong passport at this very wrong and dangerous moment in the history of diplomacy and international politics.

Ann M. Little is Professor of History at Colorado State University and the author of The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright (2016) and Abraham in Arms: War and Gender in Colonial New England (2007). She blogs at Historiann.com.

Ann M. Little

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