- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 24, 2002

The sad anniversary of September 11 is drawing closer, and over the past year, we have learned a lot about al Qaeda, the Taliban and the "terrorist community" as Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge so delicately put it a few days ago. More than any of us ever wanted to know.

Yet, understanding of the motivation of the individuals involved, particularly the westerners who got themselves mixed up with the violent Islamic extremists, remains as elusive as ever. Has self-loathing driven them to want to destroy the world in which they grew up, are they misguided or evil, or do they see something in a leader like Osama bin Laden that the rest of us simply cannot see? The answer has to depend on whether you ask a theologian or a psychiatrist.

Over the past week, we have had the doubtful pleasure of seeing three of the most prominent cases back in the news. They are three very strange birds indeed, these frontline soldiers in the jihad against the "Great Satan."

Last Monday, John Walker Lindh Johnny Jihad pleaded guilty in federal court in Alexandria to everybody's great surprise, including apparently the judge in the case. By admitting that he willingly supplied services to the Taliban and carried an explosive device while committing a felony, Lindh secured himself a prison sentence of 20 years, as opposed to the life sentence he could have incurred if convicted of all ten charges. At 21 years of age, Lindh will have a lot of life left when he is released. The government's decision to accept a plea has understandably been second-guessed many times. Americans want to see someone punished for the atrocity of September 11 , and one of our own turned traitor makes a very strong candidate.

Lindh's parents amazingly assured their fellow Americans that the son they had raised in Marin County, Calif., in what appears to be a state of utter confusion about his own identity, actually loved the United States dearly and was full of remorse for what he did. They may be as strange as he is, albeit less dangerous.

Meanwhile, Zacarias Moussaoui, an Egyptian-born French citizen who is charged with conspiring to commit the attacks of September 11, had seemingly been paying attention to the John Walker Lindh case. Moussaoui tried to plead guilty as well, which would do him no good in the absence of a plea agreement. He has accused his lawyers of undermining his case, and is conducting his own defense in a manner generally incompatible with any known theory of jurisprudence in the civilized part of the world. In fact, so bizarre has his behavior been that the judge in the case is still trying to determine whether to accept his plea.

Moussaoui's courtroom appearances have been dominated by his cursing, haranguing and threats against the United States. But even stranger is the fact that he was willing to give up his life to become the "20th hijacker," but appears to be trying to save himself from the death penalty. You would think that Moussaoui would welcome the promise of "martyrdom," but perhaps "martyrdom" is not the same when you cannot take hundreds or thousands of people with you.

And now, we find that British suspect Richard Reid, who will be known to history as the "shoe-bomber," plans to defend himself. The U.S. District Court in Boston, where he is being tried, will have to brace itself for antics like the ones we have seen here in Alexandria. According to a report in The Washington Times, Reid wants a "show trial" so he can plead guilty to attempted mass murder aboard a trans-Atlantic flight. He is apparently planning to defend himself on the grounds that Allah ordered him to set fire to his sneaker, which was packed with explosives. Thanks to Reid, we now have to take our shoes off in airports across America before flying.

Americans who chose to join up with violent radical Islamic groups may be few for now, but the phenomenon will probably become more widespread as immigration procedures are tightened. Recruiting Americans and other westerners to do their dirty work will be more important for groups like al Qaeda. It will hopefully be difficult to persuade large numbers of westerners to join terrorist to fight against their own country and their own civilization.

Still, in order to counter this trend, we will have to understand it better. At least when it came to communism, the ideology had certain utopian aspects that made it potentially attractive to those who were capable of ignoring its totalitarian shortcomings. What's the appeal of Muslim extremism? John Walker Lindh, Zacarias Moussaoui and Richard Reid may hold an answer even if it will take some doing to unearth it. Their cause does not even pretend to advance human civilization.

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