Whenever a tragic event hits the news—whether it’s as monumental as the thousands dying on 9/11, or as personal as the crew perishing on the Challenger space shuttle—something predictable happens afterwards.
People make jokes.
It’s part of human nature. Something is so awful, you have to laugh to keep from crying.
But here’s the thing—previously, these jokes were underground. They’d be passed quietly from person to person, sometimes with a sense of embarrassment. You wouldn’t turn on the TV or read a humor column to find them.
Now, however, it seems the atmosphere has become so ugly that TV, and widely-read websites, are the first place you go to hear the mockery.
Otto Warmbier just died. He was 22.
A year and a half ago, he took a trip to North Korea and, apparently, stole a propaganda poster.
North Korean officials arrested him and forced him to make a public confession. In June this year he was returned to the United States. He had serious brain damage and was in a coma. He died on Monday.
It’s not a funny story. Yet, when it first surfaced last year, it left a number of people in stitches.
Leftwing website Salon, in a piece that has since been removed, referred to him as “America’s biggest idiot frat boy.”
The Huffington Post, while taking his situation a bit more seriously, used the story as an opportunity to lecture us on Warmbier’s overbearing sense of white privilege.
Worst of all was humorist Larry Wilmore’s take on his Comedy Central show. He did a whole segment on the story, having a jolly old time at Warmbier’s expense.
The piece made extensive jokes about what a dumb frat boy he was, even mocking his name because it sounds like “warm beer.” The show put up a picture of him with the imaginary fraternity letters Alpha Sigma Sigma—ASS.
It might be claimed Wilmore couldn’t know how Otto’s story would end. That he’d likely make it home unharmed, as has happened to other foreigners detained in North Korea.
But even back in 2016, it was clear Warmbier’s story was no laughing matter. North Korea is maybe the most repressive nation on earth, and even under the best circumstances, Warmbier’s plight was horrifying. And since he was being held indefinitely, no one could count on North Korea’s sense of due process or respect for human rights to protect him.
Warmbier did foolish things, no question, and people can learn lessons from what happened. But it shouldn’t be forgotten he was no spy, or terrorist, or murderer, he was just a kid who got killed for what was essentially a prank.
So why were people laughing?
Maybe it does come down to a certain type of privilege. Because Warmbier was a white frat boy, he was the perfect target. A lot of people seem to have felt this allowed them to go after him mercilessly.
I guess they’re not laughing anymore.