As American soldiers were doing their job in Afghanistan two months ago, they were in for a surprise as were all of us back home. The surprise came in the form of a Taliban fighter captured by the Northern Alliance. He was thin and wore a beard. But the most important characteristic of this 20-year-old man was his status as a natural-born American. I refer, of course, to John Walker Lindh.
We know his biography so far. Born to parents who themselves were shaped by the countercultural ‘60s, Lindh (as he now calls himself) grew up in two of America’s most liberal precincts, Tacoma Park, Md., and then Marin County, Calif. Embarking on a project of self-discovery at a high school without classes, he read “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” and, at age 16, converted to Islam and changed his name.
His parents, by now divorced and his mother practicing Buddhism, were apprehensive about his decisions but supportive.
In 1999, he went to Yemen on his lawyer father’s dime to study Arabic. One thing led to another in that part of the world, and he wound up in Afghanistan, rifle in hand, fighting with the Taliban all to the surprise of his parents. “He never came to his papa,” his papa told The Washington Post last week, “to ask for permission.”
Now, there will be another, altogether necessary chapter in Lindh’s life: a U.S. criminal trial. The charges filed against Lindh announced last week by Attorney General John Ashcroft include conspiring to kill U.S. nationals, providing support and resources to Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network and engaging in prohibited transactions with the Taliban. If convicted of all three charges, Lindh could serve a life sentence.
It is usual to observe that someone charged with crimes is innocent until proved guilty, and, of course, that applies here.
But the government’s case, based on statements Lindh voluntarily made to the FBI, appears strong.
Lindh verified his conversion to Islam and his travel to Yemen. He related his subsequent migration to Pakistan (to continue his studies) and then his association with terrorist groups, his travel to Afghanistan to fight with the Taliban and his actual military training in an al Qaeda camp, during which time he met bin Laden.
Critically, Lindh told the FBI that prior to September 11 he knew bin Laden and his network were “against America” and determined to engage America in battle. One of his instructors in warfare told him bin Laden had sent operatives to the United States to conduct suicide missions. He was deployed with other al Qaeda fighters to fight the Northern Alliance before September 11 an engagement that soon turned into a battle against the United States because of the events of that day. Lindh told the FBI he learned about the attacks of September 11 via radio and expected others would follow. He fought with the Taliban in the trenches at Takhar until U.S. bombs forced their retreat and eventual surrender.
You can anticipate Lindh’s defense. Prior to his interview with the FBI, Lindh was duly informed of his Miranda rights, including the right to remain silent and speak to a lawyer. He said he understood his rights. And he waived them. His defense counsel doubtless will argue that Lindh, who had been wounded in the leg while in custody, was in no shape to waive his rights. And that the government should have known better than to think that whatever he said could have been given voluntarily, as it must be to pass constitutional muster.
An effort, in effect, to delete Lindh’s statements from the trial would dovetail with a public affairs strategy designed to portray him as a kid so confused by life that he need not take responsibility for his actions. Already, it has been said he was the victim of permissive parents or divorce or radical Islamic teaching (“brainwashed,” his mother said) or the Taliban and al Qaeda, from whom he never could have escaped.
Faced with the evidence before it, some of which doubtless still is to be made public, the government could not do other than prosecute Lindh. He may or may not be convicted, but the government, knowing what it knows, would be derelict in its duty if it weren’t trying to hold Lindh accountable. As Mr. Ashcroft put it last week: “Youth is not an absolution for treachery, and personal discovery is not an excuse to take up arms against one’s country. Misdirected Americans cannot seek direction in murderous ideologies and expect to avoid the consequences.”
Terry Eastland is publisher of the Weekly Standard.