I was almost John Walker. At age 19, I quit school and, using a few thousand dollars I’d saved, left the United States to look for adventure and a cause to believe in.
There were a lot of young men like me in hostels and train stations in many parts of the world disaffected youths who felt stifled in their own countries and had set off alone to see the world. Wherever the hot spot was, that’s where we wanted to go. A guerrilla war in the Spanish Sahara? Let’s go there. Downtrodden masses fighting civil wars in Nicaragua and El Salvador? The honorable thing to do, of course, is to go there and help them.
John Walker’s parents are excoriated by many who blame them for their son’s actions and his “lack of values.” Well, my parents instilled good values in me and raised me well, and when I was 19 they couldn’t do a thing with me. Even my father, whose simple reproach I feared as much as any child ever fears his mother’s rage or his father’s belt, was unable to stop me.
John Walker’s foolish cause was Afghanistan. Mine was Zimbabwe.
Two decades ago Zimbabwe, formerly known as Rhodesia, had recently thrown off its oppressive white minority government after a long guerrilla war. The new regime, led by victorious guerrilla leader Robert Mugabe, promised to be the world’s first socialist parliamentary democracy and to pursue an unheard-of racial reconciliation. While traveling in then-communist Eastern Europe, I met Zimbabweans who were being educated by the Soviets, who at the time were posing as friends of anti-colonial Africans. They spoke to me of the poverty and backwardness of their country, and of their bright hopes for their nation’s future.
I believed them, and I wanted to help. I wrote letters to the Zimbabwean government. I traveled to Africa and contacted their officials. I volunteered to be a “teacher, worker, soldier, or whatever the revolution needs me to be.” I imagined nothing nobler than a white American repenting for the sins of the rich white world by going to Zimbabwe and helping black Africans begin their own, new, egalitarian country.
Fortunately for me, despite all my efforts, the Zimbabwean revolutionaries wouldn’t take me. Looking back now, it is clear that Mr. Mugabe is a brutal leader who unleashed horrific ethnic strife and bloodshed on his country, and who hasn’t done a thing for his people in his 21 years of rule. Had the Zimbabweans taken me and had there somehow been a conflict between them and the United States, I might have ended up in the same impossible situation that John Walker is in today.
After my rejection by the Zimbabwean government, I returned to the United States and poured my idealism into political activism and later into my career as a high school teacher. Am I embarrassed today at what I did when I was 19? Of course. Am I ashamed? Absolutely not.
It is said that anyone who is a radical at age 40 has no sense, but anybody who isn’t a radical at age 20 has no heart. John Walker was certainly foolish to think that helping the radical Taliban founders of the “world’s first pure Islamic state” was a noble cause. Recent reports indicate that he may have gone farther than that, and trained in terrorism, which is vastly more difficult to excuse. Reportedly, he has now come to his senses and, according to Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is providing the United States with valuable information on the Taliban.
We don’t know and we may never know what led Walker to do what he did. He certainly has a lot of courage, and he may well have a lot of heart. Unfortunately, he allowed his extraordinarily poor judgment to eclipse them both.
Glenn Sacks, a columnist, is an adjunct professor at College of the Canyons.