Which country am I describing? One that has threatened the world with nuclear arms. One with an arguably crazy leader who is a fat cat obsessed with coal. One with a love-hate relationship with China. One that publicly executes its own people. Which country is it?
This week, two American deaths have made the news and fed into our nation's swelling fear. My heart goes out to the families and friends of Otto Warmbier and Philando Castile. These men both died in the past year and have both suffered the ugliest injustice of the world. Their killers walk as their fates remain irreversible.
Defector literature describes one of the most horrific forms of public execution. During a North Korean public execution, the military rounds up everyone in the area to watch the traumatizing event. Officers stuff rocks in the prisoner's mouth, breaking their teeth and preventing them from using their last breaths to denounce the government. They tie ropes across their eyes, heart and waist. A firing squad shoots the eye ropes, then the heart, then the waist. As they do it, every citizen in attendance, children included, watches the victim's head fall to the heart rope, then the torso fall to the waist rope, then the full body to the ground.
Public execution in America is nothing new. My own home city has a popular attraction, "The Walnut Street Bridge," that we call 'the walking bridge.' Two African Americans were lynched on the bridge during the Jim Crow Era. This is not how Castile died. We live in a modern world free of lynching, right? Today, people watch the sunset and drink wine on that same bridge. We've moved on. We've walked right past that spot in history. Though it seems that our modern society has moved past the horrors of public execution, this is not the case.
Now, with to social media and video technology, we too witness public executions. In fact, we can't avoid it. Even if you have not watched the video of police officer Jeronimo Yanez fatally shooting Philando Castile in front of his girlfriend and her child, you may have watched the video of Eric Garner die at the hands of officer Daniel Pantaleo, or the video of many other American victims. These videos get circulated on every major network and outlet. Despite the fact that they are often censored, these are still public executions.
The most obvious difference between Otto and Philando has to do with race. Race is something I perpetually think about. I believe race played a role in Otto's death, but Philando, in my eyes, died because of his race. Otto, a young white man from the University of Virginia, was to a North Korean the spitting image of an American. Realize that in North Korea, the word 'American' is most often followed by the word 'bastard.' A synonym of 'American bastard' in the DPRK is 'Yankee bastard.' Anyone who studies North Korea in the slightest should know this. Anyone who decides to travel to North Korea needs to know this. The people over there are told their entire lives that America is the enemy. To the North Korean government, Otto looked like the bad guy.
In America, Philando looked like the bad guy. Our culture has criminalized black men like Castile based typecasts rather than based on his individual nature. In doing so, we've turned a blind eye to murder. To be colorblind is not a good thing. People who are actually colorblind cry tears of joy when they can see color, true color, the genuine shades of nature. Those who say they are colorblind as an excuse to avoid the conversation of race are not blind to color. Rather, they are blinded by color. Everyone who can see, even colorblind people, can distinguish between what is light and what is dark. This is why I say that Philando died because of his race. The color of his skin has blinded our society to injustice.
The key difference between Otto and Philando is that Otto made a choice. He willingly put his life at risk by traveling to North Korea and did so knowing that he would have to bow down to statues of the founding fathers of Kim's Korea. He did so knowing that he would be closely followed and watched. While he was there, he allegedly stole a piece of propaganda from the regime. This man did not deserve to die, but he should have known better. People go through hell in order to leave North Korea. Warmbier walked right in and committed a crime against the North. He made a series of ill advised decisions that he himself acknowledged on global television. Castile did not have the opportunity to acknowledge his mistake. He had to live his entire life with his crime. His crime was nothing he could control. He didn't decide to be a black man in America. That being said, he knew all too well what kind of situation he faced. He did everything he could to keep the situation calm. He informed his killer that he had a weapon in his vehicle, just as he should have. Castile followed the rules yet still died. Philando did not make the decision to risk his life. His whole life was a risk.
People in Korea don't know about Philando Castile. Understandably, they know everything about Otto Warmbier. He is more relevant in regards to international security. His death carries more weight. Forgive me for my lack of complete sympathy, but his death, relatively speaking, was not what I would describe as horrid. Torture is time. Victims of the North Korean regime and dark-skinned Americans arguably live their entire lives dying. If not physically, then mentally. They are forced to watch their kin fall. Otto, sentenced to 15 years of hard labor but returned to America after a year and a half in a comatose state. He reportedly died around his family and at peace. Dare anyone say that about Philando. He died a terrifying death. Otto's family can still feel safe. Philando's, not.
We've become numb to death. Our whole world has. We recognize tragedy when we see it, but those fortunate enough to turn off the truth often do. Therefore, it has become to easy to turn a blind eye to injustice. All while preaching modernity and benevolence. I mean, public execution is something only crazy oppressive societies do, right?