In our hyper-cynical age, it’s very easy to dismiss political theater as naked manipulation. It becomes much harder to do that when you’re weeping.
Between Fred and Cindy Warmbier, whose pain was so raw that it couldn’t be contained, and Ji Seong Ho, holding up his crutches and demonstrating the infinite possibilities that the hope for freedom creates, tears were an inevitability. Especially for me.
As I watched the Warmbiers, in their justified anger and all-too-earnest grief, I was unprepared for the rage and sadness that would overtake me. All parents can empathize with grieving mothers and fathers. Each child’s death is a tragedy. But Otto Warmbier was killed in the name of an evil ideology: he was tortured and killed in the service of a sick and twisted politics. His death was the result of the savagery born of utopianism. He became a political prisoner and was paraded on the international stage and eventually left in a coma . . . all for allegedly stealing a poster.
It was also hard to keep the emotions in check because as President Trump recounted Otto’s story, I realized that for the months he was being tortured, Warmbier was also mocked and maligned by the American Left, and all but ignored by President Obama (who wouldn’t even meet with the family, but did send “thoughts and prayers” after the fact). Then, as with all news events these days, Otto Warmbier the person became eclipsed by Otto Warmbier the Hashtag as the story fell victim to the culture of Outrage and Counter Outrage that has become so prevalent these days as we continue to collectively divide ourselves.
Otto became another signifier in an increasingly growing list of in-group/out-group indicators. We couldn’t talk about Otto Warmbier because we were too busy yelling at each other about Otto Warmbier. It stopped being about him; it became about us.
President Trump changed that by inviting the Warmbiers to the State of the Union. It was impossible to look at that mother and father with their palpable sorrow and think about anything but them, their son, their ongoing suffering and the depth of pain the North Korean regime inflicted on that family. It was impossible to see that and not also feel shame for the quality of our public discourse surrounding his capture that did them no service. If you looked at the Warmbiers and couldn’t feel their genuine pain, or saw only a cynical ploy, it is to your shame. If President Trump was the beneficiary of their presence at the speech last night, he benefited because he spoke a deep truth and allowed them to show us theirs. This is not manipulation. It is demonstration and persuasion. And there’s a big difference.
Flight to Freedom
Then President Trump introduced North Korean defector Ji Seong Ho, whose story was so touching, poignant, and unbelievable that it bears repeating. In 1996, during a state-caused famine where an estimated 1.5 million people died, Ji and his family survived by stealing coal from moving trains and trading it on the black market for food, a crime for which they could have been executed. During one of these coal runs, Ji was so starved that he became dizzy and passed out on the tracks, only to have his limbs run over by a passing train. North Korean medicine being what it was, his left foot and hand were amputated . . . without the benefit of anesthesia or antibiotics. As a result, his parents tried desperately to stop infection by rubbing salt into his wounds. Four years later, after a trip to China where he was looking for food, he was detained and beaten by North Korean Guards for talking to Christians, and being disabled:
For one week, they beat me more than the others I had crossed the border with . . .They told me I had brought shame on North Korea because I was disabled and that a person with only one foot should not leave his home.
It was after this that he and his family decided to escape. The escape took six years to plan and execute; his father was caught during the escape, then tortured and killed.
Ji Seong Ho, a man with one foot and one hand, who needed crutches to move around, found the will and strength of spirit to use those crutches and cross thousands of miles to freedom.
He brought those crutches to the State of the Union and held them high as President Trump introduced him. The moment he held those crutches up, it was impossible to keep the tears at bay. The profound image of that man proudly raising his crutches in that chamber spoke more about the human spirit’s drive towards freedom and dignity than any philosophy book ever could.
In the end, I wept not merely because I was imagining the deplorable conditions that fostered such desperation and necessitated such courage. Nor did I cry merely for the Warmbiers’ pain, or even for the pride in the human spirit that allowed a man on crutches to escape all attempts at state-imposed nihilism. My tears were responding to those things, of course, but at bottom, my emotion was the result of the knowledge that these stories are hardly unique; that despite our vast historical and current evidence to the contrary, Communism, the poisonous ideology at the root of these stories continues to be embraced as a means towards benevolent ends. It seems to be a poison that kills and erases memory.
What makes these stories so important is that taken together, the Warmbier and Ji experiences encapsulate the most egregious failings and barbarism of Communism. Otto Warmbier’s tale speaks to the inevitable necessity of Communism’s resort to cruelty. Ji’s story conveys the failings, inhumanity, and cold disregard for suffering inherent in central planning but it also vividly illustrates the indomitable human spirit, driven by the desire for a better life and freedom.
We would do well to remember that for every Otto Warmbier or Ji Seong Ho whose stories reach us, there are countless thousands—whose stories will never be told—suffering the savage brutality and maddening injustice that are an inherent and necessary part of the systems of communist regimes tasked with carrying out the utopian and inhuman eschatology that defines communism.
Ji’s story reminds us of the pattern of death and destruction that follows in the wake of misguided attempts at central mismanagement of essential goods and services. While North Korea’s famine, sometimes referred to as “The Arduous March” was due, in part, natural flooding, it was their economic policies—food distribution systems based on perceived loyalty to the state and a politically chosen isolation—that were the driving factors in most of the deaths and starvation. Because of this politically perpetuated famine, Ji had to steal coal in order to survive. There was so little food that while he was convalescing from his injuries, his brother and sister gave him their food rations while they ate dirt. Ji had free healthcare didn’t include anesthesia or antibiotics. And the underlying premise of all of it was that his life was not his own to live. He couldn’t leave.
This is by no means anomalous. Over the course of the last century, famines and disease caused by communism have killed millions all the while every promise that the philosophy made to promote the honest redistribution of wealth somehow became perverted into favoring a select few who ended up owning everything and determining how essential goods were then to be meted out to the hoi polloi.
Ignorance of History—and Its Remedy
Over the years, thousands of defectors from Communist countries have screamed from the mountaintops about the horrors they have left behind, only to have large pluralities of free people discount their admonitions as exaggerations or “not real communism.” Enough.
Trump’s line in the sand with regard to this ideology is a breath of fresh air. For the past decade at least, especially given the absence of a mortal enemy in the Soviet Union, it seems as though the idea of Communism as a dangerous political ideology and moral philosophy has gone out of style. We’ve been so caught up in our 20-year post Cold-War victory lap that the idea we might slip witlessly back into the arms of that seductive ideology seemed impossible.
But that ideology, rooted in envy and division, is a persistent threat that never goes away. It stands as a constant threat to freedom and individual dignity. Bringing up the threat of Communism to kids today is like announcing you grew up watching Bewitched and walked to school barefoot in the snow, uphill both ways. It’s something old people did and Millenials mock them for it, all the while embracing socialism as they, secure in their ignorance of history, labor to convince themselves their brand of Communism will somehow be different. (How telling was it that when the president mentioned his administration’s sanctions against Cuba and Venezuela, half the chamber sat on its hands?)
But the truth of the matter is that Communism really is one of the most evil, most malevolent philosophies ever devised. With over 90 million dead, it is the shame of modernity and the 20th century, and if we’re not careful it’s grim body count will continue well into the 21st. The fact that its symbol, the hammer and the sickle, is not as universally reviled as the swastika is telling and should serve as a warning as to its seductive nature. What makes Communism so insidious is that it takes our best instincts, the desire to be kind, fair and good and uses them in the service of our worst—cruelty, greed and desire for power. It’s not merely political theater to call it out for what it is, it is bearing true witness against a seductive evil and keeping that evil in check.