Shortly before I sat down and began writing this piece, I heard the news that Otto Warmbier had passed away. Warmbier, for anyone who’s unaware, was an American college student arrested in North Korea in early 2016 for allegedly stealing a government propaganda poster from a hotel. The legitimacy of the North Korean government’s claim remains a mystery; there remains speculation that his arrest was motivated more by his nationality than by his actions. His confession appears coerced and somewhat illogical, and surveillance video of the purported incident released by the North Korean regime could be described as grainy at best.
Warmbier was recently released from custody after talks between U.S. and North Korean officials, slightly over a year after having been sentenced to fifteen years hard labor for his alleged crime. In normal circumstances, this would be cause for celebration, but this situation was much different. Warmbier was comatose and supposedly had been so for a year, although no one outside of North Korea had known this until a week before he was sent home. The North Korean regime claims Warmbier’s state was a result of contracting botulism, but the prevailing assumption is that he was tortured while in custody. Regardless of what happened, reasonable people can agree that he did not deserve to die.
The reaction to his death on social media was generally predictable. Some condemned his treatment by the North Korean authorities, some used his death to attempt to score political points (as usually occurs after a tragedy), while others had a different (and extremely problematic) take: the idea that Warmbier was somehow responsible for his own death because of the fact that he (supposedly) broke the law.
To be clear, stealing someone else’s property is a violation of their rights and should be looked down upon. Even if he really did steal the poster, my condemnation of those blaming Warmbier for his own death because he broke the law is in no way a defense of theft itself (although one could argue that taking something from the North Korean government is not really stealing, as much of what it has accumulated has been taken through theft in the first place.)
However, the Twitter and Facebook posts I’m referring to did not say that he shouldn’t have committed theft. Rather, they say that he shouldn’t have broken the law. This seemingly innocuous difference is actually an important distinction, for totalitarian regimes like North Korea (and other governments that are supposedly more accepting of freedom) have many laws that are far less defensible than rules against stealing.
Saying that someone deserves punishment because they broke the law implies that the law should always be followed. When someone says that it’s wrong to break the law, what they are really saying is that everyone in an arbitrary geographical area must follow the orders of that area’s ruling class. One must always remember that every law is backed by the barrel of a gun; when someone advocates for making “X” illegal, they are saying that violence or the threat of violence should be used by the state against anyone who commits “X”.
Those who say that breaking the law is wrong in itself are justifying some of the worst atrocities in human history. In order to be logically consistent, those who believe in this “cult of the law” would also have to believe that it was wrong for the members of the Underground Railroad to assist runaway slaves, as this practice was outlawed by the Fugitive Slave Acts. They must think that it was wrong for Germans to help Jews in hiding from the Nazis during World War II, as this was explicitly illegal. They would also have to say that people who practice homosexuality in certain Middle Eastern countries are in the wrong, as many of these countries have laws against homosexual acts that can lead to punishments as extreme as execution. They would have to acknowledge that if a country were to pass a law outlawing the consumption of bread, it would be wrong to eat bread within that country’s borders. This absurd logic would also dictate that if the “bread law” were to be repealed, the immorality of eating bread would be no more. If one were to believe that any of the above examples are morally wrong, they must discard the idea that law dictates morality.
There are, of course, times when breaking a law is immoral. But it is not the fact that an action is against the law that makes it immoral; it is the action itself. Regardless of whether or not the person in charge of an arbitrary geographical area thinks so, it is wrong for a person to initiate violence against another, as the person committing the violent act is infringing upon the other’s inherent right to self-ownership of his mind and body. A law requiring you to kill your neighbor would not make murder just, just as a law banning peaceful coexistence with your neighbor would not make inviting him over for dinner wrong.
The idea that morality can change on a dime based on the opinions of those in charge is illogical and frankly dangerous. Authority figures are far from infallible; they have instead been the perpetrators of mass atrocities throughout history. We must not let an organization with as violent a history as that of government determine what we view as right and wrong.