“That’s what the hell he gets. Good for him!” My mother had uttered those words in her typical matter-of-fact tone one morning as she watched the news. “He” was Michael Fay, an 18-year-old from Ohio who had confessed to vandalizing cars in Singapore, and was subsequently sentence to six lashes from a rattan cane. I was in sixth grade and all I could imagine was how horrible the pain would be. My mother was unmoved at the thought, remarking, “He earned that.”
I thought about my mother’s words a few days ago while watching video of 21-year-old Otto Warmbier, another man from Ohio who last week was convicted of subversion for stealing a propaganda banner in North Korea, and sentenced to 15 years hard labor. Just as in Fay’s case, I was shocked by the severity of the punishment. I’ve tried to imagine spending a decade and a half performing what the North Korean state deems hard labor and I can’t. But I’m not 11 anymore, and now, my mother’s callous reaction to Micahel Fay’s sentence is my reaction to another young white man who went to an Asian country and violated their laws, and learned that the shield his cis white male identity provides here in America is not teflon abroad.