Is Fred Warmbier Grieving or Warmongering?

Fred Warmbier, whose son Otto Warmbier, a student here at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, died shortly after returning from North Korea, is reportedly traveling to the Winter Olympics with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence.

It’s hard to imagine the incredible grief of losing a son and of having seen a son suffer. I would not risk being perceived as advising a father how to grieve were it not for the risk I perceive of creating tens of millions more such grieving parents.

It’s hard, I imagine, for some people to say no to a vice president or a president, although I’d do it in a heartbeat and a number of Philadelphia Eagles seem to have managed it. For some people, it may be easier to think of saying yes as carrying no import, while saying no would be some sort of a statement. I think, on the contrary, that a grieving family has a ready-made polite excuse to demur from trips abroad or even from serving as props at State of the Union addresses. The Washington Post described the scene at Trump’s State of the Union:

“‘You are powerful witnesses to a menace that threatens our world, and your strength inspires truly us all,’ Trump said to the Warmbiers as they sat in the audience, their younger children Austin and Greta behind them. ‘Tonight, we pledge to honor Otto’s memory with total American resolve.’”

According to The Telegraph:

“Mr Warmbier is travelling as a guest of the vice president, and his presence is being seen as a signal to Pyongyang that Washington has no intention of easing the pressure on the regime of Kim Jong-un over its human rights record. . . . Mr Pence told reporters that he would use his trip to South Korea to make it clear that ‘all options are on the table’ to deal with the threat posed by North Korea. . . . Mr Pence has also described North Korea’s behaviour in recent weeks as a ‘charade’ designed to steal the limelight away [sic] South Korea’s hosting of the games. A key part of that will be reminding the world that North Korea is ‘the most tyrannical and oppressive regime on the planet’, an aide to Mr Pence told The Korea Times.”

In Trump’s State of the Union he expanded on the theme of using war in response to actions unrelated to war:

“Around the world, we face rogue regimes, terrorist groups and rivals like China and Russia that challenge our interests, our economy, and our values. In confronting these horrible dangers, we know that weakness is the surest path to conflict and unmatched power is the surest means of our true and great defense.”

Now, a rival is just something that you call a rival, and I suppose it can challenge your “values” merely by not sharing them. Perhaps it can challenge your “interests” and “economy” through trade agreements. But those are not acts of war. They don’t require or justify acts of war in response.

The Pentagon’s new Nuclear Posture Review proposes nuclear weapons to counter even “cyber warfare” and of course for “deterrence,” but also for “achievement of U.S. objectives if deterrence fails.” One of the authors of that document once proposed that a “successful” war could kill 20 million Americans plus unlimited non-Americans. He made that statement before it was widely known that a nuclear winter could threaten the viability of the crops that feed billions.

Let’s assume the best of Otto Warmbier and the worst of the North Korean government. Let’s assume the young man was tortured and murdered for a petty offense. Such a crime is an outrage. The United States ought to join the International Criminal Court and pursue the investigation and prosecution of such offenses. But such a crime is in no way, shape, or form a legal, moral, or practical justification for war.

Such a crime is, however, wonderful war propaganda. The U.S. military is in Syria right now in large part because people saw videos of murders with knives. Before NATO destroyed Libya, it alleged rape and torture, as the U.S. had with Iraq as well. Prior to the first Gulf War, fictional stories of removing babies from incubators were central. Afghanistan needed to be invaded and occupied for 16 years and counting, in part, because it restricted women’s rights. Wild stories of death camps made Serbia an enemy. Panama needed bombing because its ruler used drugs with prostitutes. U.S. drones are engaged in warfare in a half-dozen countries because people imagine that war is somehow law enforcement without all the troublesome due process (like finding out whom you are killing). The entire “war on terror” is based on the refusal to treat the crimes of 9/11 as crimes. And the single biggest mover of U.S. weapons sales today is a collection of grievances against Russia, few of them proven, and none of them acts of war.

Yet there is no actual correlation between the severity of human rights abuses and the launching of wars. If there were, the United States would be bombing Saudi Arabia, rather than helping it bomb Yemen. And there is no worse human rights abuse than launching a war.

The sanctions that the U.S. takes the lead in imposing on North Korea are abusive. And of course North Korea accuses the United States of being racist, unjust, full of poverty and crime and mass-surveillance and the world’s biggest prison system. True or false or hypocritical, such accusations are not justifications for war, and there can be no accusation greater than that of engaging in or threatening war.

Family members of those killed on September 11, 2001, formed a group called Peaceful Tomorrows and said they had “united to turn our grief into action for peace. By developing and advocating nonviolent options and actions in the pursuit of justice, we hope to break the cycles of violence engendered by war and terrorism. Acknowledging our common experience with all people affected by violence throughout the world, we work to create a safer and more peaceful world for everyone.”

I urge the Warmbiers to not make themselves part of the marketing of any war.

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