Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Afghan Columbine

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, February 19, 2002 --  

Just mention the name John Walker Lindh, and you can almost see the lust for vengeance flash across Americans' faces. In a time of almost coercive patriotism, the charge that one of America's own took up arms with its enemies is more than enough for most people to call for blood. It's a fantastic story, and like many fantastic stories, it is based on rather tenuous facts.

The American government has been careful not to include in its charges against Lindh the one charge that is on everyone's mind -- treason.1 Government officials say there are legal technicalities that drive this omission, but it is undeniably true that a treason case against Lindh would be impossible to prove in an American court. There is no public evidence that Lindh ever fired on or otherwise attacked any Americans. Prosecutors haven't even suggested that he ever planned to attack any Americans.

So why is he in jail? Lindh's alleged crimes against America seem to be entirely based upon guilt by association. He has admitted serving as a Taliban soldier fighting against the American-supported Northern Alliance. This sounds bad now, but remember that not even six months ago -- well after Lindh joined the Taliban -- the United States was neutral in the conflict between the Northern Alliance and the Taliban. Only when the bombing began in October did the U.S. government initiate a demonizing campaign to make the Taliban virtually indistinguishable from Al Qaeda in the public mind.

Of course, Lindh's statements that he spent time in an Al Qaeda training camp is potentially much more incriminating. Still, it is entirely possible that this training was intended only to help Lindh fight against the Northern Alliance -- a group of shady warlords that certainly rival the Taliban for brutality. If you believe Lindh's few defenders, he is simply a misguided youth whose strident belief in Islam led him to Pakistani religious schools, where he joined with many others to fight for a religiously pure state in neighboring Afghanistan.

Indeed, the case of John Walker Lind has many similarities to that of Lori Berenson, a 32-year-old American who has been imprisoned in Peru for the past six years.2 In 1996, she was convicted by a secret Peruvian military court of plotting to take over the National Congress with the Tupac Amarau Revolutionary Movement. At first glance, the conviction seems easy to dismiss -- the military judges were even fitted with hoods to hide their identities. But Tupac Amaru later succeeded in taking over Lima's Japanese Embassy in a strikingly similar incident. In a new trial in a civilian court, Berenson was again convicted of aiding the plot. She continues to serve her 20-year sentence.

Like Lindh, Berenson was an idealistic young American who went to another country to fight (peacefully, according to Berenson) for what she thought was a just regime. Where Lindh was an Islamist, Berenson was a Marxist. Both ideologies are acceptable for public discourse and the halls of academia -- especially in a country like America where the freedom of ideas is absolute. Among intellectuals, such radical ideas are almost quaint. But when put into practice, repressive dogmas always lead to terribly violent consequences. These two American youths went overseas to put their dogmas into violent practice against the people of other countries. In this light, Berenson and Lindh are little more than intellectual variants of the Columbine assailants. They are rich kids who, for whatever reason, grew up to be bitter people seeking to engage in violence against others. It isn't quaint anymore.

Recently, Berenson's parents started a campaign to lobby the American government to seek a pardon their daughter.3 President Bush should have nothing to do with it. Berenson has committed serious crimes against the Peruvian people, and she deserves to pay the price, regardless of lobbying from her rich American parents.

The same goes for John Walker Lindh. He fought to sustain a terribly repressive and unpopular regime that brutalized the Afghan people. His real crimes are against Afghans, not Americans. True justice should remain with them.


1 The Washington Post, Lindh Indicted on Conspiracy, Gun Charges, February 6, 2002

2 The Associated Press, Berenson to Seek Pardon in Peru, February 19, 2002

3. The Washington Post, Ibid.