My family came to America in July 1978. I was little, not even two yet, but that whole time looms so large in our family history that I know the story forwards and backwards.
My father had been allowed to leave the Soviet Union in 1977 and he arrived to a New York City on the brink. The blackout that summer led to arson and riots. The serial killer Son of Sam was on the loose. The country too was in despair.
It was a strange and difficult time to decide to become an American but for us it was far better than the alternative. Two years later the oil crisis would hit and at the end of 1979, Iranian militants stormed our embassy in Tehran and kidnapped 52 Americans. The held them for over a year, 444 days.
The ordeal united Americans and was covered daily on the nightly news. Every evening, Walter Cronkite would note how many days the American hostages had been in captivity. The 1980 presidential election spent a lot of time focusing on the hostages, despite the fact that the country was in an economic slide. Our family was similarly gripped by their story and their release was the moment we felt this country heading in a better direction. I grew up hearing that Ronald Reagan had so scared the Iranian regime that they freed the hostages on the very day he was inaugurated. The lesson was: we won’t stand for Americans being in peril abroad.
With the sad news that Otto Warmbier had died last week, after spending 17 months captive in North Korea and returned to his family in a coma, the most pressing question of all is: Why don’t we care about our fellow Americans in trouble anymore?
The Obama administration absolutely bears some responsibility for Warmbier’s death. It let an American student be held by a hostile country and did nothing to help him. But what’s worse is that we collectively as a country forgot about Otto. Our nightly news programs didn’t end each night with an update on how long he had been in captivity. Our news barely covered him at all.
There are those echoing the sentiment that something has changed for America, and Americans, on the world stage by saying there was a time when other countries would think twice about killing Americans. But that’s not exactly so.
Michael Malice, author of a biography of Kim Jong Il called “Dear Reader,” pointed out on the Tucker Carlson show that North Korea has previously killed Americans, after capturing the USS Pueblo in 1968 and also killed two United States Army officers with an axe in 1976.
It’s not that Americans were never killed abroad or that backward, crazed, totalitarian dictatorships had previously behaved themselves when Americans were concerned. What’s different is that not so long ago the American populace would have motivated their government to care by keeping focus on their fellow American in trouble. The whole country was united and kept up the pressure on our leadership until the hostages in Iran were free.
Something has shifted in American life since then. We’re not Americans, all worried about our fellow countrymen, we’re partisans, divided into tribes that we must protect at all time. We hear about a terrorist attack and immediately hope the perpetrator is on the other “team” so we can score points with our criticism instead of mourning together as a country.
In 1990, all the trees in my Brooklyn neighborhood were covered in yellow ribbon to support our troops fighting in the first Gulf War. Can we imagine a similar thing happening today, no matter how justified the military action? Patriotism is gauche, national identity is non-existent. Do we do anything collectively “as Americans” anymore?
“What happened to Otto is a disgrace,” said President Trump in a press conference following the death announcement. He’s right. But the disgrace isn’t so much what the previous administration neglected to do for a 21-year old American student, it’s the way we all didn’t care about him until it was too late.
Americans are so fractured that so much of the news after Otto’s death centered on left-wing crazies who were gleeful that a white American male had gotten his comeuppance by being tortured and murdered by a hostile foreign regime. But those people are the fringe, they really don’t matter. The much bigger hurdle is the rest of us who quietly looked away.