Remember John Walker Lindh, the 20-year-old so-called “American Taliban,” who was captured in Afghanistan during the initial phases of the U.S. invasion of that nation? I’ve often wondered what has happened to that intriguing white American derided as a handmaiden of the radical Islamic sect that ran Afghanistan and gave haven to al-Qaeda.
Lindh was on a religious quest that had taken him to Yemen and Pakistan before he entered Afghanistan. His faith-based journey echoed themes found in many stories of Westerners seeking enlightenment in exotic lands. But Lindh’s spiritual quest received little sympathy. Instead, administration officials disparaged him as an al-Qaeda sympathizer; right-wing commentators portrayed him as a product of his parents’ liberal permissiveness. He was demonized in much of the mainstream media. America’s hatred of Lindh was fulsome and bipartisan. Even Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) got into the act by calling him a traitor.
That seemed discordant to me; it seemed clear that Lindh was just a naive young man who chose the wrong time and location for his pilgrimage. He arrived in Afghanistan in June 2001, about three months before the 9/11 attacks transformed the Taliban from an uneasy ally to bitter enemy.
In May of that year, Colin Powell had announced to great fanfare a $43 million grant to the Afghani people to aid “farmers who have felt the ban on poppy cultivation, a decision by the Taliban that we welcome.” Although Powell also included strong criticism of the Taliban in his announcement, the grant was widely viewed as a gesture of outreach to the Islamic government. Lindh went to Afghanistan to assist that government in fighting the Russian-backed warlords.
Once eligible for several death penalties, Lindh pled guilty to only one of the 11 charges initially lodged against him – providing assistance to the Taliban government in violation of the economic sanctions imposed by President Bill Clinton, a charge completely unrelated to terrorism. But Lindh still received a 20-year sentence and a gag order that bars him from relating the specifics of his ordeal.
In retrospect, Lindh was “the first American to get Abu-Ghraibed.” This insight, foretelling the pull of brutality in the war on terror, was one of many offered by Tom Junod in an article featured in Esquire’s July 2006 edition. Junod’s piece, headlined, “Innocent: Can America and Islam Coexist?” eloquently tells Lindh’s horrific tale.
Now 25, Lindh is confined to a federal, medium-security prison in Victorville, Calif. He is allowed no visitors except his family and attorneys, and none of them can publicly reveal anything he says. The government has complete access to his communications and forbids him from speaking Arabic, in which he is fluent.
Junod tells the story of an intense young man who collides with history while pursuing his religious passion. In the process, he uncovers an uncomfortable truth about American bigotry. The question asked in piece’s subtitle: “Can America and Islam Coexist?” correctly distills the tribal essence of our animus against Lindh.
I’m convinced that the Bush administration is punishing Lindh for converting to Islam – or, converting-while-white. Like the white “nigger lover” in the segregationist South, many white Americans see Lindh as a traitor to his culture. Little else explains the cloud of derision that greeted his December 2001 capture and surrounds him yet. The power of this tribal sentiment is manifest in Lindh’s continued imprisonment and the government’s spiteful prohibition of Arabic.
Lindh was born in Washington D.C and lived in Takoma Park, Maryland, before moving to California’s Marin County at age 10. His father said Lindh became interested in Islam at 12, after watching the movie Malcolm X. He converted at 16 and a year later went to Yemen to learn what Muslims consider the purest (that is, least affected by vernacular distortions) form of Arabic. He returned after a nearly a year abroad, but left again for Yemen in 2000. Lindh traveled to Pakistan later that year where he remained until crossing over into Afghanistan in June 2001.
During this period, Afghanistan was considered a “failed state,” so the rise of the stabilizing Taliban was considered a good thing in much of the international community. The Soviet Union occupation was gone for nearly a decade, but the nation was paralyzed by tribal conflicts.
Russia, the rump Soviet Union, was backing Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance during this period and the U.S. supported the rival mujahideen, an Islamist grouping that Pres. Ronald Reagan once called “the equivalent to the founding fathers.” Elements of the mujahideen later formed the nucleus of the Taliban.
Lindh’s trip to assist Afghanistan’s Taliban was in line with his quest for Islamic purity. The Taliban sought an Islamic state but were plagued by the Northern Alliance and its Moscow-backed allies. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 changed Afghani alliances overnight. Suddenly, the Taliban were America’s battlefield enemy and Lindh an enemy combatant.
U.S. officials knew many of these specifics not long after Lindh’s famous capture in December 2001. But instead of framing his presence in Afghanistan in the proper context, officials sought to portray him as a symbol of treachery. The military tortured him into making incriminating statements and officials vilified him as the treasonous “American Taliban.”
It’s hard to believe that a nation of laws (run by adults) can be so incredibly spiteful. Junod’s chronicle of John Walker Lindh reveals an administration lost in its own illusions, and pulling the rest of us into some dangerous blind alleys.