American Taliban Turned Into Scapegoat In Drive To Bolster Patriotism

5 April 2002

By Stentor Danielson

The case of John Walker Lindh, the American Taliban member captured in Afghanistan several months ago, took on a new twist this week as prosecutors revealed that they lacked evidence to prove Lindh ever killed or directly attempted to kill an American. It had been thought that Lindh would be shown to have taken part in, among other things, the prison uprising in Mazar-e-Sharif that killed CIA agent "Mike" Spann.

Despite early and loud calls for a treason charge, Lindh was ultimately charged only with conspiracy to kill Americans and materially aiding terrorist organizations. The government maintains that the conspiracy charge will stand even if Lindh was not directly involved in the death of an American, and the judge presiding over the case agrees. While Judge Thomas S. Ellis III granted the defense’s request to see all evidence gathered by the prosecution, he denied several other requests. And he pointedly asked Lindh’s legal team, when they argued that Lindh did not go to Afghanistan to be a terrorist, "well, what was he doing over there?"

Lindh’s defense maintains that Lindh had no intention of harming Americans. He went to Afghanistan only to fight against the Northern Alliance and to support fundamentalist Islam (which, while unsavory, is not a crime). Poor communications with rural Afghanistan meant that Lindh did not know about September 11 and the role of Osama bin Laden -- who Lindh met during his sojourn -- in it. The defense further questions the conditions under which U.S. officers interrogated Lindh, saying he gave incriminating statements only because he was led to believe that doing so would get him a respite from his inhumane conditions.

Despite the new revelations, there remains little doubt that Lindh will be convicted. Some may point to other high-profile cases, such as O.J. Simpson or the police officers charged with the beating of Rodney King, in which a defendant who was tried and convicted by the media was acquitted by the court. However, these defendants were not connected to a crime of the magnitude of the attacks on September 11.

There remains a real danger that Lindh, as well as September 11 conspirator Zaccarias Moussaoui, will become the whipping boys for the entire Qaida and Taliban apparatus. Lindh’s connections to al-Qaida and the Taliban have earned him little sympathy in the United States. Commentators are quick to point out how much easier Lindh is getting off than if he had faced similar charges under the Taliban.

The U.S. does have other members of al-Qaida and the Taliban in captivity in Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. But Lindh is likely to bear the brunt of the nation’s anger over September 11.

On the most basic level, Lindh’s trial will be by far the most visible. The Bush administration has proven to be one of the most secretive in recent memory. When the Qaida and Taliban detainees go before military tribunals, the administration will keep the trials low profile in order to thwart criticism of the tribunals both at home and abroad.

The administration suffered a backlash when the tribunal plan was first made public. Many critics (especially those in Europe, who already tend to see the United States as a human rights abuser, given the continued existence of the death penalty in this country) were not pacified by the administration’s final rules for the tribunals, which reinstated many of the rights, such as a right to counsel and to see the evidence that will be used by the prosecution, that had been questionable at first. The situation was not improved by Vice President Dick Cheney’s recent announcement that the U.S. may keep detainees in custody even if they are acquitted, essentially declaring them guilty even if proven innocent. It will be in the administration’s best interests to keep these tribunals below the public radar, allowing attention to focus on Lindh.

A more important reason for Lindh’s increased significance in the public eye is the simple fact that he is an American. The thought of an American -- one of the people citizens had been declaring their solidarity with since September 11 -- joining the nation’s worst enemies was unsettling at best.

Predictably, Lindh became an archetype for long-standing grudges. Critics of the government’s secrecy and abuses of power seized upon Lindh’s family and lawyers’ claims that he had been beaten, starved and denied counsel while in captivity in Afghanistan -- though only the farthest left had the deficit of patriotism to make this argument.

Meanwhile, we were treated with explanations tying Lindh’s conversion to fundamentalist Islam to permissive parenting. Lindh’s parents, weeping as they insisted that their son loved America (in contrast to Lindh’s own correspondence that asked "What has America ever done for anybody?"), were painted as archetypes of liberals who refused to draw a distinction between good and bad. If only these parents had given their son some solid moral guidance, these columnists opined, he would never have thought it was acceptable to join up with Mullah Mohammed Omar’s troops.

Most of all, though, Lindh is simply a face to put on the entire Qaida-Taliban terror structure that has disrupted American life. Bin Laden is a mysterious foreigner, a stranger who remains at large, hiding in a cave in Central Asia or dead from a U.S. or Northern Alliance strike. But Lindh is one of our own gone horribly wrong, reminding us of the vulnerability of even a person living in this apparent bastion of liberty to go down the dark path, and crying out to be repudiated. "We are not John Walker Lindh," the public wants to say. The emotional baggage of a nation is a heavy burden to put on anyone’s shoulders, even one as hateful as Lindh’s strongest critics tell us he is.

It would be premature to make a judgement about what, exactly, Lindh is guilty of without seeing the evidence that will be presented in court. But it is not premature to say what he is not guilty of. He is not guilty of flying a plane into the World Trade Center. He is not guilty of causing the distress and insecurity that have plagued America since September 11. He is one man among many who have been drawn to the cause of radical Islam -- he just happens to have come from California instead of Pakistan or Britain or Saudi Arabia.

The jurors who will hear Lindh’s case are drawn from that same public that remains so unsympathetic to Lindh. The prosecution should have an easy time convincing the jury that Lindh was not a poor naïve young man on a spiritual quest. Hopefully the jurors will be discerning enough to separate the crimes Lindh actually committed from the larger problems of which he has become the poster boy. And hopefully the rest of the public can do the same.

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