By Dr. Jeffrey Lant
Walk down the corridor at any dormitory at any university campus in the land. One of the things you are sure to see more often than not, are sign that says “Men working” or “No Parking” or “Deer crossing” and many others. These directions are found on signs carefully “liberated” by students out on treasure hunts. The signs are considered wampum, and most college students at some point or other have lifted one or more to decorate their dormitory room. The more rare the direction the more prized they sign.
Now, technically the students know this is theft. Technically, the universities know it too. But no one makes a big deal out of it. It is just something kids do during their college years. Steal things and then post them in their dormitory rooms. It is like wearing eagle feathers in their war bonnets.
Otto Warmbier came out of this tradition, and so when he went to North Korea as part of a special trip for Westerners, he probably didn’t think a great deal about lifting a sign that was in the corridor of the hotel where he was staying. The sign said “Let’s arm ourselves strongly with Kim Jong-il’s patriotism!” He certainly never thought it would be much of an issue. After all, why do people go to North Korea in the first place? Because it is dangerous. Because they want to come back to his home in Ohio. They want to come back to their homes with tales a plenty, tales for life.
Close to the case
I feel very close to the Warmbier case. In 1968, I was 20 year old and en route to Poland, which was then under the control of the Communist regime of Wladyslaw Gomulka. Gomulka was a very nasty character and Poland was in deep distress at that time. The Communist Party still ruled, and any action against the regime could result in torture or even death.
I was living in London at the time; Like Otto, I wanted to see the world. So a friend and I signed up for a trip offered by the Young Pioneers of Poland. You may not know what a Pioneer is but in those days Pioneers were the young Communists. These were the equivalent of the Communist Boy Scouts. Only the behavior wasn’t very Scout like.
We paid a 150 Pounds to go from London to Zakopane in the south of Poland. The trip was strikingly successfully even although it was billed as a ski-trip. Uncoordinated as I am I didn’t see much time on the ski-slopes except looking up from the ground, head in a drift. However, at the end of the trip which was in January my friend and I decided that we wanted to go to Warsaw to take a good look around the capital. This was not included in the tour price. Nothing daunted we simply got on one of the state railways and rode illegally (First Class no less) from Zakopane to Warsaw. No one stopped us. This was quite an extensive trip involving as it did, traversing the entire country of Poland.
Well, we bluffed our way through to get to Warsaw. Ticket collectors would come to us. We’d pretend we didn’t understand them- which we didn’t because we didn’t speak a word of Polish. The point was that we did this deed of daring-do without having a penny for it or even considering it might be dangerous. We thought it was the greatest hoot of our lives. The danger only added to the spice. I tell you this because American college students then and now haven’t changed that much. They want to one-up their friends when they are travelling. To go to the Eiffel Tower is nothing but to go to the top of the Eiffel Tower in a balloon is everything.
Now, I cannot get into the head of the deceased student Otto Warmbier. But I can tell you this, I can picture the scene in Pyongyang that evening when he arrived. He travelled with 10 members on this trip organized by the North Korean Pioneers.
Otto saw in the corridor a sign and I know that he immediately thought hmm, I want this to go on my bedroom in Ohio. It would have made indeed a wonderful addition. Needless to say North Koreans didn’t see it this way. What Otto did was this; he got to the hotel. He saw this sign with its provocative pro-regime message; a message one of-course never sees in Ohio outside of history books and documentaries. He then decided to take it down and keep it. Well, he got it off the wall; then discovered that he couldn’t fold it or easily carry it away. So he took it down to the staff floor in the hotel and left it.
This was all captured in film, because of course being a Communist regime there was tight control run by control freaks. The people who were watching the television screen saw what he did and immediately called in the authorities who promptly arrested him at the airport as he was ready to leave.
The tour guide, Danny Gratton, reported later that Otto didn’t resist and went away with the authorities with a half-smile on his lips, no visible fear, possibly even thinking what a great story it would be when he was back in Ohio telling this tale. And so it might have been had not the North Koreans lost their sense of proportion, something always in short supply.
At no time in the proceedings was Otto Warmbier guilty of anything other than bad judgment. He didn’t curse. He didn’t scream. He didn’t cry. He didn’t try to escape. He didn’t make a fuss. He simply cooperated after all he was bringing to the situation an American outlook. He was behaving in a polite Ohion way because he was sure that he would be out within hours possibly a day or two if the things went longer than expected. And then something went terribly wrong.
Many people know what this is. I am not one of them. You are not going to be one of them either because the people who know are not telling. But I can guess, Otto went uncomplainingly along with the guards and was locked up in a cell. At this point no charges had been brought against him and his mood would have been relatively light. However this all changed quickly.
In the event, he went before a judge, and this is where the bombshell occurred. The judge sentenced him in January 2016 to 15 years of hard labor for the “hostile act”, trying to steal a propaganda poster off the wall at his hotel.
Now think for a moment. Here is a Ohio boy, dressed in Ohio clothes, with a Ohio mentality; no doubt very polite as Ohio boys tend to be. In his eyes he had done nothing wrong, and he was no doubt flabbergasted by the position in which he now found himself.
Why did the regime decide to hit Otto Warmbier with a haymaker, especially at a time when it seemed both the US and North Korea were inching towards a thaw, no matter how slight? No one who is in a position to talk is talking and every day that goes by everyone wants this Otto matter to be silenced.
To err is human
Why? Because one mistake beget another. His captors in a short snippet of film show Otto’s North Korean guards dragging him across the court like a bag of potatoes. Otto looks like a complete and total vegetable, head down no evidence he knows where he is or what is happening. Clearly he did not expect this. No one expected it. But the judge delivered this brutal sentence which probably followed roughing up or worse. I suspect that is what happened. Was he manhandled by some prison guards? Who of course do not have Ohio manners and do not approach their task in a polite and courtly fashion.
They had this hot potato named Otto. He was there; they didn’t know what to do with him. So they probably victimized even tortured him. One thing led to another and all of a sudden there was brain damage, massive brain damage. I imagine this occurred fairly early before any outside authority could be called into the case.
The judge said 15 years. Who told him to say that? How much leeway did he have? Was he being briefed by someone? The regime had a nasty problem on its hands now. They had gone beyond any reasonable kind of punishment. If any punishment in this case; what would have been reasonable?
They had abused Otto. After all he was the prime witness. To cover up what they had done they needed to kill him. A dead Otto was preferable from Pyongyang’s point of view, because a live Otto would have told exactly what had happened, and they didn’t want to have that. So, they covered it up. They kept the brain dead body with all the brutal evidence on his body for what they had done to him. They needed time to prepare the body so there would be no evidence.
It would have been best from the North Koreans standpoint if he had died “naturally” and quickly but they could hold out for a while. Then some bright light in the North Korean government decided that they want the body out and wanted him to die outside North Korea. Anywhere but Pyongyang.
And so the case of Otto Warmbier continued to galvanize people’s attention in the government. What to do with Otto became the persistent question. And what was done with him of course was hours literally couple of days before he died. The body which was now not so much piece of evidence as something appalling which had to be removed from North Korea, everybody had to stay quiet. Nobody wanted to rock the boat.
The real problem of this case was first of all who ordered the beating of Otto? Because I am sure at the very beginning he was beaten in a prescribed North Korean fashion. Who ordered that?
Who ordered the judge to give the 15 year sentence? Because I imagine that sentence was not given by the judge spontaneously but was the result of the government intervention. What benefit would there have been?
Meanwhile Ottos’s body continued to be a silent witness. He was still technically alive but in no position to testify and as soon as the North Korean government decided that there were no telltale wounds on the body and that it was too late for an autopsy. No scabbing of past injuries. As soon as they were certain that the body offered no grounds for accusation against the regime, they got rid of the body.
Now, we have a problem in Washington. The United States government has been trying to build bridges with North Korea. President Trump even offered to go to North Korea to advance things. Now, Otto’s lifeless body was a menace to that. Something had to be done. Poor old Otto; the boy who started the whole thing off, simply by stealing a sign in a prescribed Ohio fraternity boy fashion. His body lay silent. An accusation to everyone involved in the case.
Why had the United States government moved so slowly? Why didn’t they know more about his medical condition? Why didn’t they insist on medical intervention earlier in the case and on and on… The questions are blurring.
It comes to a point where yesterdays’ front page news which is what the Otto story was becomes today’s eighth page news which is where today’s Otto story is today.
June 22nd 2017, today is his funeral where everyone involved just simply wants closure. No more questions. No more accusations. No more evidence. No more speculation. Simply silence. They want the case of Otto Warmbier to be truly buried.
I am here to offer a candle in Otto’s memory. The pictures of him show exactly what he should have been in age 22; bright, clever, a charmer, a bit of wicked wit and high jinx about the boy. The boy who will now never know the joy of marriage, the joy of children, the joy of getting old and cracking jokes on the veranda. All these were denied to him because he became involved in what is probably a human error compounded by other humans trying to cover up. It is a sad story and it is a story that happens every day around the world, the most often of all in North Korea a brutal, stupid, thoughtless, menacing regime.
It involves government officials coming together. They want closure. They want this case to be over and move on and forget Otto. Let’s not do that this time. Let’s remember him as the attractive young man that he was; who made what by any standard anywhere else besides North Korea, that labyrinth of menace was a small mistake that cost him his life. And I say this as we put this matter to rest and continue our talks with North Korea. Let’s never forget this young man. Let’s never forget what North Korea did to him and is capable of.
Let’s also never forget that human error above all is the greatest error that could be imagined and it was human error and stupidity as much as anything else which caused this boy to die. There are now 3 additional Americans in North Korean prisons and one Canadian. Let us not forget the Canadian. I urge President Trump to get on the phone and call Pyongyang and say it would be a kind gesture to let those people go and stay on the case. Otto is dead but there are four lives which could still be saved with prompt intervention. We want the North Koreans to know that what they did was unacceptable. If they wish to be part of the community of nations they must learn our ways. We know their ways; they are the ways of brutality, terror, and random pain. We don’t need to learn theirs, they need to learn ours.
'Look away Dixie Land!' The day that determined the outcome of the U.S. Civil War. The Battle of Hampton Roads, March 9, 1862. And you are there....
by Dr. Jeffrey Lant
Author's program note. The American Civil War began April 12, 1861 with the firing of the rebel forces on Fort Sumter in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina. It officially ended on April 9, 1865 when General Robert E. Lee surrendered his army at Appomattox Court House. In between, 212,938 people from both sides were killed in action, with total casualties exceeding 625,000 in what was the most bloody war ever fought on this planet... and the most embittered, as is always the case when brothers fight each other to the death, enraged, grieving, broken hearted but determined to have victory, whatever the cost...
This war was filled with incident, great deeds of valor, deeds, too, of squalor, treachery, unmitigated cruelty... and chivalry... but of all the deeds in this great struggle, the deeds of just a handful of men determined the outcome. These were the men who fought each other at the Battle of Hampton Roads, Virginia March 8-9, 1862. And I am taking you there today... for you will want to know who won, who lost, and why it happened the way it did.
For the incidental music to this article, I have selected Daniel Decatur Emmett's famous tune, "Dixie," also known as "I Wish I Was in Dixie," a song originating in the black face minstrelsy of the 1850s. It is a tune that makes even the least likely ready to jump up and whirl. I have selected it today because, as Abraham Lincoln himself said on April 10, 1865, it's "one of the best tunes I ever heard" ... but also because of its famous line, "Look away, Dixie Land." After the Battle of Hampton Roads, Virginia and all the other Confederate states had nothing to look forward to... and everything to look away from.
But it didn't look that way on March 8, 1862... quite the contrary.
News of the most alarming portent arrives in Washington, D.C., Sunday, March 9, 1862.
Gideon Wells, a New England journalist, found himself urgently summoned to the White House. Come! Come at once! And this Connecticut Yankee, in his unlikely role as Secretary of the Navy, scurried to a meeting where he found Mr. Edwin Stanton, Secretary of War, in the greatest possible dismay... and so alarmed himself that he was alarming, too, the President of the Dis-united States of America.
It was a scene to brighten every heart in Dixie... and cause shrewd financiers to sell U.S. Treasury bonds short before Wall Street opened Monday, to chaos and defeatism.
Mr. Stanton could not keep still, could not hide his profound anxiety and fear. He sat down, only to jump up again and rush to the windows... What was he looking for? A savior for the Union cause... What did he expect to see? The CSS Virginia in all her glory steaming up the Potomac, sinking the Federal cause with effortless grace. It was a scene of destiny, and every man on both sides of the struggle knew that history of the gravest magnitude was happening now! To them! At Hampton Roads! And so depending on their point of view and allegiance they either gave way to unbridled joy... or profound despair and lamentation. No one was neutral on this urgent matter.
USS Merrimac into CSS Virginia.
The largest naval installation of the Great Republic was at Norfolk in Virginia... and so after the Old Dominion seceded (April 24, 1861) it became a matter of the greatest urgency to both sides to arrange matters there to their greatest advantage. This to the Federal forces meant moving as much as could be moved, destroying the rest. And, to the rebels, to do just the reverse.
Thus was the USS Merrimac, unable to be removed in time and against the rebel sentiments of her crew, burnt and sunk... but not effectively. Her new owners quickly discovered both hull and engines were serviceable... and so began her transformation into the CSS Virginia, the vessel which made Secretary Stanton quail with acute fear and humiliating anxiety.
Because CSS Virginia, for all that she had just weeks ago been scuttled, was transformed into the mightiest ship of all the navies of all the seas... a ship sheathed in iron, designed to deal death to the picturesque, now ineffectual sailing ships of every navy, but without suffering a single nick at all. Thus did the dead Merrimac come to be the super weapon the Confederacy needed to pulverize the Union and secure their freedom from the meddling, inept Yankees they despised.
Confederate triumph March 8, 1862.
The world changed this day... as the Virginia, with the merest motion, rammed the hapless USS Cumberland, 121 seamen going down with her... then the USS Congress was put out of action, surrendering... and everyone, from the merest cabin boy, saw the future... and knew that every gallant wooden vessel, yesterday puissant, was now dross. And so, as cat to mouse, Virginia moved to her next sure triumph, USS Minnesota... while every telegrapher sent on the news, the news that so discomfited Secretary Stanton... and every other brave Union heart. Armageddon was here... and it flew a Confederate flag.
In August, 1861 Gideon Wells authorized work on a top-secret Union ironclad... and in due course the USS Monitor was born, the most radical naval design ever; the invention of Swedish engineer and inventor John Ericsson. And it was this curious, much mocked vessel that steamed into Hampton Roads March 9, just in time, to reverse what but yesterday had seemed certain, Southern command of the seas and therefore victory.
And as Monitor and Virginia battled each other to a draw, each unable to finish its deft opponent, the entire strategic scene changed. All wooden ships, every single one, was now obsolete; thus a new arms race started for command of the seas. USS Monitor had, simply by maneuvering to a draw, stopped the South's "certain" advance and commenced a war of bloody attrition, a war the North could win, and the South had most reason to fear. For without access to the world, the South could only rely on itself... and that would never be enough to ensure independence as every Southern family would, in tragic due course, come to understand only too well.
As for both the historic ships of this engagement, neither sailed for long. Virginia was burnt again and sunk when Union forces took back the Norfolk port facilities in May. As for the plucky Monitor, she sank December 31, 1862 off North Carolina. The remains of one of her stricken crew, 24-year-old James Fenwick, were just recently brought to the surface for honorable burial. He had been married just a few weeks before Monitor embarked on her final voyage; her history short but
"Old times they are not forgotten; Look away! Look away! Look away! Dixie Land."
By Dr. Jeffrey Lant
With over 70 colleges and universities in and around Boston, information on commencements is frequent and suggestive. Speculation begins months before the actual commencement season about who will be the most invited celebrity in the honorary degree competition. Then the coverage transfers to what these new honorary degree recipients are saying and what it tells us about the state of the Great Republic and its peoples.
Sadly, no one has recommended my name for consideration; worse, it doesn’t look like it will happen anytime soon. No worries.
I am going to tell you without benefit of invitation my remarks; the remarks I would have given. I am going to give my own Commencement Speech which I modestly tell you is a gem. No doubt about it. Now without further ado, here’s the great speech.
Colleagues of the class of 2017, are you beginning to see you’ve been lied to, deceived and mislead all these years, for the great majority of you will never achieve success, the kind of success you have dreamed of all your life; which you were sure your sheepskin delivered. Instead you will have to brag about today for the rest of your life, for it is the final day you will ever have for living the pampered, coddled, exquisite self deceptive student life you have grown far too comfortable with and which ends today.
Yes starting today, the overwhelming majority of you graduates will not have three nutritious meals placed in front of you with never a dish to wash; all that you need to do is open your mouth and chew. You will not have laundry services that present you with clean linens without you doing any more than sleep on them. You will not have instant friends right on the very floor of your dormitory, no less, just like a sitcom; to cheer you, make you laugh, help you out, and make you think that life is a lark, tra la.
You will discover, perhaps you already have, there will be no one to recommend books and ensure you read them. Worse, as you leave this institution today you already have read most of the books you will ever read in your life. This shocking fact noted historian Arthur Schlesinger (1917-2007) told me many years ago.
Your days of reasonably uncomplicated sexuality will now come to an end unless you live in a commune, or have special expertise in juggling more than one partner at a time. You will be forced to make a decision involving spouses and offspring. Thus the uncomplicated delights of promiscuity end here.
You will no longer be able to face the world In T-Shirt and jeans. You must now dress for others, not for yourself. From here on out you will have to bathe regularly, brush your teeth occasionally, comb your hair, and above all not smell from lack of soap which need not be festooned with some designer’s expensive moniker. Coming as you are is no longer an option. Reading these lines, you are perhaps now aware of the Shangri-La which you will be forced out of in just hours; to pass on to your eager successors, who are eagerly awaiting to repeat your mistakes.
Hey man, you will need to be on time for all appointments for there is no surer way of insulting people than coming late and shrugging it off as if it doesn’t matter. I remember the day this was driven home to me for life. It was at Harvard, in Professor Walter Jackson Bates’ (1918-1999) famous class on 18th Century English literature. Right from the start he made it clear that if you could not trouble to be on time, don’t bother to attend.
Of course the students didn’t believe him. After all they were the most important people in the equation. They could do what they wanted including being on time or not, whatever their lordlings deemed suitable.
Bates however was a man of his word. Thus when he saw a young pup creeping tardily into his class, he acted at once hitting the offender with a copy of his masterful volume on John Keats for which he had won one of his two Pulitzer Prices. Because of his precise and graceful aim he nicked the ear of the offender, as Professor Bates boomed out “Don’t bother to come if you are late. Now get out”.
In your future incarnation as a responsible person, people will expect you to do what you are supposed to do when you are supposed to do it. This may well be something no one has properly stressed until now.
Your future will be composed of things you must do completely, and thoroughly and, professionally. You can’t blow them off or ignore them. For example, take your job as a citizen. Most of you have political opinions which are nothing more than slogans derived from a cheap poster. You will become comfortable with mouthing platitudes. Complicated issues, you discover, are far too complicated. Complicated issues after all are just that, complicated. Why bother, then; why study them when all you need is a slogan, a victim who can bring people together, and text messages, which showcase human language in extremis.
You may understand that the nation is a civic entity, where at any given time there is a smorgasbord of essential and compelling issues. You must choose one, it doesn’t much matter which. What matters instead is that you choose a topic larger than you are, in which to invest your time, money, energy, and enthusiasm. You must learn therefore the critical aspects of insuring the Great Republic continues to flourish, and in better shape than now.
One of the most disheartening thing about talking to people who call themselves Millennial is just how trusting they are. If someone posts something on the internet for example, so long as it’s “cool”, they will believe it no matter how unbelievable. Millennials do not want truth. They want lazy habits, sage results in seconds, “Minute Rice” ideas; a society that gives them everything, asking them for nothing.
Thus so long as they are rich enough, they can instantly have what it took their parents a lifetime to get. Everything can arrive at your doorstep, information (never mind if it is accurate or not), food, tickets, a date, a sexual liaison. In short there is a commitment to absolutely nothing and a “no worries” philosophy.
You came to college to learn how to make up your mind, but now it’s constantly updated with more information than you can deal with. You take the easy course and stop investigating in making up your own mind. A recent study showed that people with newspaper subscriptions spent no more than 6 minutes per day reading, claiming they have no time. You know you should read some more, but it never seems enough time. You are left embracing ignorance as your cause.
Many of you will never have an opinion of merit on anything of importance because you will not do the necessary work. Your college doesn’t care. They are worried about continuing the flow of money so they can offer this pap to generations of students yet to come. And all the while the clock is ticking as your college recommends you send in a check or even better set up an estate plan so that Alma Mater gets ever greater amounts of cash. Given this worsening problem, it is necessary to see what you can do to improve matters. Thus here in all humility are the things you can do right now to make sure that you do not become a repository of nothing more than sloth and superficiality.
One, choose the topic you wish to master. Do you want to save polar bears? Then work exclusively to save polar bears. Do not attempt to do it on your own. Tap into the resources that exist and make it a point to know where the resources are and where you best fit in. Do not try to specialize in 5, 10, or 20 different causes. The only way substantial change can occur is by choosing one.
You may think that it is craven or just plain lazy to limit your commitments. The great mistake that budding revolutionaries make is that they use their inability to change everything into an excuse for changing nothing. It is far more important for you graduates to put all your strengths together and seek to make a change in one important area or another. But that takes vision and… work, and you have no time for either.
By now you may be writhing. Just concentrating on one activity may not sound very thrilling to you, but that is because you like to feel important. If you have made a true commitment that comes from the heart and mind you will be willing to give up some or all of the credit in support of others who have made their own selection.
Here, however, where Millennials falter again, you are told (and you believe) that you can be the one who changes the world. But today’s world is far too complicated and doesn’t allow you the luxury of working alone. Instead you must do everything that fosters cooperative effort and forces you to explore ways of increasing the community effort while making it clear that you support the best ways to help in the achievement of the objective.
Two, be honest with yourself. If you have a particular cause, ask yourself if you will be willing to endorse and work for it for years to come. We are at a point in human affairs where great changes can only be effected by great focus and effective organization. Just because you say you want to achieve desirable results doesn’t mean anything.
Three, do your homework. Professor Schlesinger was right. Most college graduates read almost nothing that could achieve for the growth and improvement of the project at hand.
This may all sound depressing to some of you, but let’s simply call it a reality check. At the rate we are “progressively” changing the planet now, Earth as we understand it will soon be a thing of the past. Use yourself as an example. What causes are you supporting? Are you providing them with some meaningful support? What do you do on a regular basis to support this project? Are you engaged in efforts for bringing the cause forward? Are you more than a Sunday soldier or sunshine patriot?
Many years ago there was a famous American comic strip named “Pogo”. It was drawn by Walt Kelly (1913-1973). In the strip the characters blamed everyone for all their problems. The punch line however was stunning. “We have met the enemy and he is us”.
In a few words this master of insight had nailed the problem. We say we want to help. We say the world is a terrible place, a place that yet could be improved by our ministrations. We woke up in the morning determined to be a part of the solution not part of the problem. But here is the worst thing of all: we say we mean what we say, but we do not do what we say. “Do as I say,” my father said “Not as I do”.
You are leaving this great institution today with almost nothing. This lack of preparation highlights the worst thing you will take into the real world. That is arrogance. Arrogance however is one thing you are not entitled to. You have not earned it. Yet here is the real irony. By the time you have earned the right to be arrogant, you will understand that arrogance harms everything you do to help the world. Humility is a far better master.
Leave here today thankful for all the assistance you have garnered, humble before the new world which today you enter. If you do this you will have the best of what is available to you and what will assure you a life of honor, integrity, respect, and most of all, love. These are the things that matter, make them yours for they are the only things worth having and worth living for.
Dr. Jeffrey Lant, Harvard educated, started writing for publication at age 5. Since then, he has published over 1,000 articles and 63 books, and counting.