January 28, 2002

John Walker Lindh: An empty cup waiting to be filled

Political trials are the musical accompaniment of modern warfare: Stalin's purge trials, purportedly showing that the Soviet dictator’s enemies on the home front were agents of Hitler and the Mikado, provided ideological grist for Moscow's propaganda mills during World War II. The Reichstag fire and the subsequent trial gave the German Nazis a rationale for smashing the opposition and consolidating one-party rule.


It isn't just foreign totalitarians who have made the show trial a popular form of political entertainment, especially in wartime: during both world wars, the US launched a campaign to target and incarcerate American fifth columnists, both real and imagined (mostly the latter): the Great War saw the jailing of Eugene Debs and vigilantes roamed the countryside, trolling for German-speakers to tar and feather. World War II saw the Great Sedition Trial of 1944, where the great "liberal" Franklin Delano Roosevelt instructed his Attorney General to round up a passel of antiwar dissidents – from crackpot right-wing pamphleteers to the entire leadership of the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party, to the distinguished writer and alleged "fascist" Lawrence Dennis. The Vietnam era, too, saw more than its share of political trials, the "conspiracy" charges against the Chicago Seven being only the most telegenic.


These trials all have two things in common: 1) They appear, at first, to have all the elements necessary to convincing a propagandized populace that the enemy lurks within their midst and must be mercilessly smashed, and 2) In retrospect, they are always revealed for what they really are: a clumsy attempt to divert attention away from the failures of the regime. In the case of John Walker Lindh, the pattern is running all too true to form….


Having failed to capture or kill Osama, and having let Mullah Omar speed away in a rickshaw, the administration has settled on the next best thing: prosecuting the "American Taliban." Indeed, having an American in the dock may be a whole lot better for those who would love to imagine (if not actually see) Susan Sontag, Noam Chomsky, and Ted Rall behind bars: it is prosecution by proxy, a subtle way to vilify left-wing "anti-Americanism" without a reprise of the Palmer Raids. At a time when almost 60 percent of the American people believe that high government officials of a Republican hue have something to hide stemming from the Enron case, can anyone blame Attorney General John Ashcroft for taking full advantage of what can only be described as a gift from Allah?


If you thought the O. J. Simpson farce, or the JonBenet murder case, was a circus, wait until you see the carnival surrounding the Tali-boy on trial: with little or no action to report on the Afghan front at the moment, and no "phase two" more exciting than the dispatch of a relatively small number of US troops to the Philippines, the mainstream media is looking to the trial of John Walker Lindh to maintain ratings, sell newspapers, and generate visits to their ill-designed and generally faltering online editions. Pundits, too, trolling for material, are swooping down at the sight of the frail, pathetic figure of John Walker Lindh, made aggressive by the prospect of a fresh kill on which to feast.

Most but not all of these talking heads are of the conservative persuasion, including a number of writers at the Wall Street Journal and National Review, who blame the Tali-boy's hapless parents – and, most of all, the liberal milieu of Marin County and the touchy-feely faux-spiritual "it's all good" atmosphere that permeates Northern California. Joe Farah, of WorldNetDaily, who is no conservative, nevertheless sums up the complaints of traditionalists who point to the parents as the chief culprits in what he describes as "a sad commentary on the way Americans raise their children today." His critique centers not only on the parents, but on the region and the subculture in which the Tali-boy grew up:

"After moving to the San Francisco Bay Area, his parents placed him in one of those 'alternative schools.' There, Walker was known to his peers to be steeped in the sick culture of rap music. So deep into the world of hip-hop did Walker plunge that he actually sometimes pretended to be black himself."

Isn't it a shame that the "gangsta" rap of "hip-hop" is the only shred of authenticity he could find, but, I wonder, can we blame the Tali-boy for that? As for those dubious "alternative" schools that supposedly poisoned young Walker-Lindh's mind – isn't home-schooling, a favored cause of WND, also a form of "alternative" education? Can anybody really be blamed for seeking an alternative to mind-deadening and frequently dangerous public schools?


None of this occurs to Farah, apparently, who continues with his little morality tale:

"In other words, this kid wanted to be anyone other than who he was. But it gets worse. About the same time, his father upped and left his family and moved in with his homosexual lover. If this kid wasn't having an identity crisis up until then, this may have pushed him over the edge. Next, young Walker, who stopped using his father's name, by the way, suddenly got an interest in Islam – probably related to his immersion into the black American Experience."


Jonah Goldberg, who seems have a bug up his – I mean, seems overly concerned – about the Gay Question (he admits to having a "very thick file on this subject") has taken the same tack on this gay angle: Dr. Goldberg's expert diagnosis is that the kid may have "flipped out" when he discovered his father was gay. Goldberg, who once wrote a column that brought up my own sexual orientation in an inappropriate context, doesn't explain how or why this fits in with the supposedly ultraliberal milieu in which the Tali-boy was nurtured: if "do your own thing" ultra-individualism is really such an intrinsic part of Marin County culture, then why was young Walker-Lindh immune?

The "he went nuts because his Dad's a faggot" scenario fits in with Goldberg's prejudices, but not with the facts. Like some nutball anti-Semite who is forever seeing the Elders of Zion behind each and every disaster, Goldberg and his ilk see the Elders of Sodom as the secret masters of an insidious cabal, one whose evil influence is practically omnipresent.


Deluded by the culture of permissiveness, and utterly without values or direction, John Walker Lindh simply went stark staring mad, and, before he knew it, found himself in Afghanistan wearing a turban and fighting for the Taliban. There is a major flaw in this otherwise neat and rather compact explanation for the bizarre transformation of a privileged American teenager. For if Farah and his fellow traditionalists would really look at their arguments, and the trajectory of the Tali-boy's life, they would see that the poor kid shared their critique of the permissiveness of American culture: indeed, his whole odyssey can be explained as a rebellion against social liberalism. As MSNBC put it in a news report:

"Most teenagers, when they rebel, say they want more freedom. John Walker Lindh rebelled against freedom. He did not demand to express himself in different ways. Quite the opposite. He wanted to be told precisely how to dress, to eat, to think, to pray. He wanted a value system of absolutes, and he was willing to go to extreme lengths to find it."


Here, after all, is a young man who excoriates another poster on a hip-hop newsgroup for writing that drug use and hip-hip are practically synonymous:

"Often when someone says something incredibly stupid, the people around them will respond with remarks such as 'what are you smoking?' and 'are you drunk?,' illustrating the obvious fact that intoxicated people do not think on the same level as normal humans. With this in mind, are you then trying to say that you'd have to be dwelling on a lower level of consciousness [sic] in order to appreciate Hip-Hop music?"

It sounds like they should've signed the Tali-boy up to be a foot soldier in the war on drugs. Instead, he signed up to fight in Afghanistan, where the Taliban were conducting a war against growers of poppies as well as blowing up ancient statues and cutting kites loose from their strings.


I suppose it's just by chance that a 16-year-old Johnny Walker got caught up in the Koran, instead of the Bible or the writings of the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, but, in any case, can there be any doubt that, instead of embracing the liberal values of his parents, the Tali-boy was in full and open revolt against the permissive society, a young ultraconservative whose disdain for the "do your own thing" ethos of the sixties is shared by many of the same people now calling for his blood? What better way to express his disaffection from the woozy Marinite "Buddhism" of Marilyn Walker, his mother, than to join up with a group busily blowing up statues of Buddha?


The Vanity Fair writer and left-wing war hawk Christopher Hitchens exulted that the US has "bombed a country out of the Stone Age," and this triumphalist war-cry sums up the widespread idea that the "war on terrorism" is a war for modernity. The streamlined fully-"globalized" free-trading freewheeling world of the future-that-is-now, where women are "liberated," and sexuality is unleashed in all its various permutations, has triumphed in Afghanistan, where burkas are being discarded and the warriors have gone back to sodomizing young boys. It won't be long before McDonalds opens, or reopens, in Kabul, and already the marketplaces are bursting at the seams with the American-made hip-hop music that supposedly corrupted the tender young mind of the Tali-boy.


Like many American conservatives, John Walker Lindh is a rebel against modernity. As he descries the facile hedonism of his fellow hip-hoppers online, he sounds like a young Bill Bennett denouncing the moral emptiness of American culture:

"Have you finally given up on Hip-Hop? Are you ready to move on to heavy metal this month, or is it back to alternative rock like last month? Please keep rec.music.hip-hop posted, we all love to hear your remarks and feelings on such subjects as Foxxy Brown's [under age] ass, rental cars, and which type of soft drink is the coolest amoung [sic] those 'real heads' …."


The charges against the Tali-boy could give him life in prison, and include "engag[ing] in a conspiracy to kill nationals of the United States while such nationals were outside the United States," being a member of a designated terrorist organization, and the relatively niggling count of contributing "material support" to a terrorist organization (did he give them his allowance?). Although it is far too early to make any definitive judgment, the preliminaries already indicate the weakness of the government's case.


To begin with, the whole case could be thrown out of court on the grounds that the young Taliban warrior wasn't given access to a lawyer. Walker-Lindh's lawyers are already claiming that the kid asked for legal representation a few days after his capture, and yet the government continued interrogating him. Ashcroft's boys, for their part, insist he waived his rights and they have a signed document to prove it. Yeah, but how did they get him to sign it? Now, I'm sure we'll be seeing Alan Dershowitz, the ex-civil libertarian, a whole lot during the upcoming trial, and perhaps he would be willing to argue that we had the right to torture the Tali-boy and to heck with a lawyer. But I don't think any American judge is going to go for that line of argument, and, if undue pressure is proven or even implied, there is a real possibility that Ashcroft may not get his show trial after all.


There is, however, a great danger to the Tali-boy and his legal team, and that is in the footage of him kneeling before Johnny Michael Spann – the CIA operative killed when captured Al Qaeda fighters rebelled – and not answering simple inquiries, such as: who are you and how did you get here? If Walker-Lindh was just a kid on a lark, one who, according to his father and his lawyers, never made war on America and "loves America," then how come he didn't jump for joy at the sight of a fellow American? The Tali-boy's legal team is bound to argue that, in fighting the Northern Alliance, their client was not conspiring to kill American nationals. But, if not, then why did he treat Spann like the enemy?


Even if the results of interrogation are ruled inadmissible, this video footage is powerful evidence that could lead to a conviction – especially if the government manages to successfully imply or even prove that Walker-Lindh-"Suleyman" had anything to do with Spann's death, either through an overt act or a failure to act. Furthermore, if the results of the interrogation aren't thrown out, and the government establishes that he knew about the September 11 attacks, knew of bin Laden's responsibility and still decided to stick with his cause, then the Tali-boy had better kiss his ass good-bye – because, in that case, he is a perfect sacrificial offering to the War God.


Hapless, clueless, and thoroughly pathetic, they'll drag him to the altar as the mob howls and hoots. Like Romans cheering the most exquisite tortures of the arena, we'll look on the supine and trembling Tali-boy as the knife is plunged into his youthful flesh and roar with delight at this jolly entertainment, drowning our sorrow and fear in an orgy of vengeance – not against Osama bin Laden, who is long gone, and by this time half-forgotten, but against our own. The trial of John Walker Lindh will be an act of vengeance turned inward: in the end, for Americans, it's always all about them.


Meanwhile, as the Justice Department mobilizes its apparently limitless resources to prosecute a deluded nutball who's proved more of a threat to himself than to anyone else, Ashcroft has issued yet another security "alert" – as if to remind himself, as much as us, of the real danger. Having focused the resources of his department on the Tali-boy, I guess the long-promised investigation into how US law enforcement and intelligence agencies managed to miss a conspiracy that was at least five years in the making will have to be delayed – perhaps indefinitely. Or, at least, until one day, years from now, when we come upon an item buried in the back pages of the Saturday paper, reporting that some obscure government commission has just released a report "proving" that no one was really culpable, and that the agencies involved need "reform."


The political uses of the Tali-boy's trial are too many and lucrative to be passed up: Ashcroft and his journalistic amen-corner are no doubt hoping for a long, drawn-out affair, all the better to milk this to the max and achieve the chief purpose of any show trial: to create an atmosphere in which opposition to government policies is de-legitimized and suspect. Oh, but how can you say that, why we live in a free country, there's no such thing as censorship here. Uh huh, and if you don't believe it, just ask Matt Welch, the (pro-war) "blogger" who informs us in the online edition of Reason magazine that

"It's hard to keep a straight face while crying 'censorship' in 21st century America – with its cheap and widespread Internet access, tiny percentage of state-owned media, and hundreds of thousands of media jobs – when you've met people like Cuban baseball historian Severino Nieto. Nieto has written more than a dozen important works of scholarship since 1959, knowing full well that none will be published in his lifetime unless Fidel Castro dies first. (El Jefe doesn't like reminders that there were organized sports before the Revolution.)"


Of course, not everyone is Susan Sontag: I'm sure that the Florida professor being run out of his job, and the high school teacher fired for his anti-war views, don't have the clout of the "seven-figure role models" Welch mocks. And certainly Welch doesn't contest what Sontag says, since it's irrefutable: "It turns out, we have increasingly become incredibly conformist, and very afraid of debate and criticism." Yes, and even making a virtue out of it. As Welch would say: "Too true! Pass the book deal!"

As for those "hundreds of thousands of media jobs," a good many of them evaporated in the dot-com meltdown. I suppose that, like Welch and his fellow "bloggers," they could all set up their own websites: indeed, it looks to me like most of them have. Good luck to them – because if they think they can make a living at it, they'll need all the luck they can get.

I hasten to add that this is a fact of life of which Welch and and his fellow bloggers (pro-war and libertarian alike), are all too painfully aware of; I also hasten to add that I am not bewailing the "tyranny" of the market, or complaining that antiwar or even cautionary opinions cannot get a proper hearing on account of the capitalist system. I join with Welch in celebrating the lack of government-owned media in the US.


Yet it would be a mistake to infer, from this, that a party line can't be enforced just as effectively in a market-driven system. States depend for their authority on the consent of the governed: this was true even in totalitarian states such as the old Soviet Union, and demonstrated beyond doubt in the collapse of that empire: when popular consent was withdrawn, the whole system came down with amazing rapidity.

The same is true for our own system, and indeed for all governments everywhere: their legitimacy is dependent on cheerleading intellectuals who can manage to be convincing: academics, "public intellectuals," and journalists who act as a kind of chorus willing to shout "Amen!" whenever some government official comes out with a policy pronouncement. This cadre of court intellectuals is amply rewarded with emoluments and various perks, and certainly the rest of Welch's tale only confirms how this works. He starts out by telling us how his last five or so articles were rejected since September 11, and concludes:

"But what do you know? I was able to find other editors from more prominent, higher-paying publications who liked my rejected columns just fine. Not only that, I can also publish anything I want on my Web site, which costs $25 a month to maintain and has more readers than Cuba has non-government Internet users. It doesn't quite top Bill Maher's salary and sloe-eyed perks, but at least I don't have to act like a moral jackass in a comparatively free country."

Yes, we're free compared to Cuba: but do we really have John Ashcroft to thank for that? Naturally, post-9/11, the pro-war Welch has found more lucrative markets to mine: his "Wilsonian" contempt for what he calls "Consequentialist, Pacifist Chomskyite" views is in the ascendant, and rising – along with his own career. Next month his screed pooh-poohing the human casualties of the sanctions on Iraq is scheduled to appear in Reason, a formerly libertarian magazine now run by someone who thinks we can have liberty as long as we have the freedom to clone and drug ourselves to death. (This is a magazine, by the way, which tells us that Gulf War syndrome is a "myth," Accutane is harmless, and being a drug company means never having to say you're sorry). The new, "hip" Gen-X libertarians could care less if the US government rampages halfway around the world: the only war they want to end is the war on drugs. So much for "libertarianism" in the post-9/11 world.

Say what you will about the Tali-boy, at least he aspired to something higher than $200 sneakers and the "music" of Eminem (another of the "new" Reason's cultural fixations). As misguided, bizarre, and even downright evil as his cause turned out to be, John Walker-Lindh believed in something enough to actually fight for it – unlike our young laptop bombardiers, who are far too busy making good careers out of this war to actually pick up a gun.


I am pleased to announce the publication of Taking Sides: Clashing Views on Controversial Issues in American Foreign Policy (Second Edition). Edited by John T. Rourke, University of Connecticut – Storrs, this substantial volume is an anthology of paired articles dealing with various foreign policy issues. Issue number one is "Should the United States Resist Global Governance?", with Marc A. Theissen saying "aye" and Mark Leonard voting "nay": both pieces are from the prestigious Foreign Affairs magazine. Issue number two asks "Should the United States Seek Global Hegemony." Robert Kagan says "yes," Charles William Maynes says "no": both pieces are from the almost-as-prestigious Foreign Policy magazine. Issue number three is: "Has President Bush Created a New U.S. Foreign Policy Direction?" Charles Krauthammer (writing in the Weekly Standard) thinks so, but my answer – in the only piece in the book that appeared exclusively online – is: I don’t think so. Other contributors include Colin Powell, Ariel Cohen, Robert Kuttner, and Bill Clinton. The book is out from McGraw Hill in February: preorder your copy here.

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Justin Raimondo is the editorial director of Antiwar.com. He is also the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement (with an Introduction by Patrick J. Buchanan), (1993), and Into the Bosnian Quagmire: The Case Against US Intervention in the Balkans (1996). He is an Adjunct Scholar with the Ludwig von Mises Institute, in Auburn, Alabama, a Senior Fellow at the Center for Libertarian Studies, and writes frequently for Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He is the author of An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard.


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