Thursday, February 14, 2002

John Walker Lindh, a 20-year-old American who fought for the Taliban, has been indicted by a federal grand jury for “ten serious crimes,” including five conspiracy charges, and denied bail. The prosecution has made public his e-mail and other messages including this one to his mother on Feb. 15, 2000 in which he urged her to move to London:

“I really don’t know what your big attachment to America is all about. What has America ever done for anybody?”

I found his question disturbing. Reading these sentences from a young American made me wonder where and how this young man could have reached such a low opinion of his own country. Sentiments of this sort don’t suddenly appear out of nowhere, even in northern California’s Marin County. In other messages young Lindh told his parents that the 1998 bombings of American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania had been the work of the U.S. government, not Islam believers. In another message he told them that an American official had encouraged Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to invade Kuwait in 1990.

Half-a-century ago or longer, one could have pinned the inspiration of such sentiments “What has America ever done for anybody?” on communist or fascist propaganda against capitalism and the United States. There was in those long-forgotten days a highly efficient Soviet apparat in this country: There was the Communist Daily Worker; there was a Comintern; there was a Communist Party seeking recruits. A successful Soviet propaganda campaign had turned Josef Stalin into a sinner-saint and the Soviet Union into a modern utopia which various “useful idiots,” such as Henry A. Wallace, a former U.S. vice-president, defined as a new kind of democracy. So it was understandable, that some young men and women could be led willingly to betray their country in the name of their depraved idealism.

At the age of 19, Ted Hall, a genius at physics, while working on the atomic bomb at Los Alamos back during World War II, handed over its secrets to a KGB courier. Where did he learn that there was a higher moral law which would justify treason? Where did Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs, older than Hall but not wiser, learn that treason was not a sin? As for fascism, Mussolini’s propaganda seduced some Italo-Americans, as did Hitler’s German Bund in New York’s Yorkville have influence but not remotely to the degree that communism, including Trotskyism and Maoism, affected some young people as well as some of their teachers. In Lindh’s case, we can ask: Has Mecca supplanted Moscow and the jihad the class struggle as symbols of today’s rebellion against American democracy? Is radical Islam, as John O’Sullivan has proclaimed, “the bastard child of Marxism”? Is Islam to become the ideology du jour for rebels seeking a cause? It has surely become that for Islamic youth but for an American teen-ager to seek liberation in a culture which threatens what was once his own culture? Come on. Something’s going on down below.

I’m not sure whether I ought to include in the same category as the indicted American Talibanist the young men who in recent years have come to school with automatic weapons and killed anything that moved in classroom, lunchroom or school hallways. That they are killing and wounding their own classmates doesn’t seem to matter to them. Where did they learn such homicidal behavior? And is it similar to Lindh’s? Do they have the same roots?

There are several places where behavior can be learned and role models created: home, school, church, films and television. I think we can assume that Lindh’s conversion to Islam wasn’t learned in the local church nor in his home or school. Where do you learn to ask, let alone formulate, such a loaded rhetorical question as: “What has America ever done for anybody?” Where could Lindh have learned to denigrate his own country, an attitude which led to his willingness to shoot at fellow Americans in Afghanistan somewhat like those young men who have turned some American schools into slaughterhouses? Did he learn at school about 1776 and the American Revolution, the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights, Abraham Lincoln and the freeing of the slaves, the Marshall Plan which rescued the Western European countries crushed by victory in World War II, the fall of communism and on and on? In fact what did he learn at school? That may be the key.

Professor Kenneth S. Lynn of Johns Hopkins University has written: “Self-criticism is now so rampant in American culture, that many historians simply cannot deal with the principal achievements of the American past unless they can think of ways to discredit them.” Writing in the context of a just-published history book, Mr. Lynn wrote that the author “would have us believe that the nation’s most spectacular achievement of the first half of the 19th century, to wit, the extension of its principle of free democratic republicanism across the width of an entire continent, was first and foremost a victory for a racist ideology of quasi-Hitlerian viciousness.”

Last week we celebrated, sadly because of his incurable Alzheimer’s, Ronald Reagan’s 91st birthday. To me and to countless others, particularly in Central Europe and the Baltic states, Mr. Reagan’s policies led, without war, to the overthrow of a subversive system which threatened world freedom. I doubt that young Lindh would regard such an historic achievement as worthy of respect let alone admiration. And many intellectuals and academicians on the political and ideological left would agree with him.

In the 1960s and 1970s we had a homicidal Bomber Left, some of whom are being tried today for past political violence. And there’s nothing unusual in men going to fight for a cause that does not involve their native land: Spain in 1937. But Lindh’s case is different. And we must find out what is going on in the fermenting mind, as Matthew Arnold called it, of a small group of young men like Lindh, so we can, if possible, find out why he has renounced his native land.

Arnold Beichman, a Hoover Institution research fellow, is a columnist for The Washington Times.

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