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Otto Warmbier detained by North Korean authorities.Facebook via AP
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In Otto Warmbier’s Death, Echoes of Steven Sotloff and Jason Rezaian

Two young Americans were murdered by crazies. Why were their families forced to stay silent?

Liel Leibovitz
June 21, 2017
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Otto Warmbier detained by North Korean authorities.Facebook via AP

Now that Otto Warmbier is dead, it’s time to ask what, if anything, might’ve been done to save the innocent young American from being detained and tortured by North Korea’s genocidal regime. To answer that question, it’s instructive to compare Warmbier’s case to those of two other Americans similarly seized and imprisoned by our enemies—Steven Sotloff and Jason Rezaian.

The Obama administration, Warmbier’s father, Fred, said in a recent interview, urged a policy of inaction. “When Otto was first taken,” he recalled, “we were advised by the past administration to take a low profile while they worked to obtain his release. We did so without result.”

The Sotloffs, whose son, Steven, was a journalist kidnapped by ISIS in Syria, were given similar instructions. When they tried to raise the ransom money necessary for their son’s release, the Obama administration, they said, warned them that negotiating with terrorists was out of the question. Steven was eventually executed in a gruesome beheading documented on camera and shared widely online.

The Rezaians were more fortunate. The terrorists who took their son, a reporter for The Washington Post, were the ones with whom Obama was very keen on negotiating: the government of Iran. Throughout Rezaian’s ordeal, his brother, Ali, was vocal on his behalf, frequently appearing in public and on television and meeting with various officials around the world. No one had discouraged him from making so much noise. The existence of an American hostage in Tehran, it seems, provided a convenient excuse for the Obama administration to pay money to Iran—which the United States did, repeatedly—in order to further the goal of rapprochement with the Islamic Republic. As far as we know, no American payments were made to North Korea or to ISIS.

To the victims of Obama’s legacy—which include the hundreds of thousands slaughtered in Syria as the United States did nothing so as not to jeopardize the Iran Deal—add two more American families, the Sotloffs and the Warmbiers, whose personal tragedies are compounded by the silence forced on them by the previous administration. It’s a deeply distressing thought, but, sadly, one that’s hard to chase away. May we never again remain complicit as young Americans are taken and tortured and killed.

Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One.

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