Explaining American Taliban

Prisoner: He belongs in the federal courthouse, but questions worth answering still linger.

January 28, 2002

WHAT LEGAL consequence befalls John Walker Lindh will properly be decided in a federal courthouse.

But how the nation comes to terms with this puzzling young man is a more complex matter. He's a 20-year-old, middle-class kid who seems more confused than malevolent, more daffy than threatening. The accent he feigned when he was captured and the silly bravado he has exhibited since betray an immaturity that is eerily common among this country's young adults.

And yet Mr. Lindh took up with a very dangerous enemy, and involved himself in a violent religious movement that took a staggering number of American lives. So to compare his indiscretions to a college kid's drinking binges or a youthful joyride in the old man's car would be an insult to those who remain in harm's way thanks to Mr. Lindh's Taliban cronies.

Even the moniker Mr. Lindh has been assigned, the American Taliban, is a baffling oxymoron. Is he enemy or wayward teen? Does he require punishment or patience? Or both?

It's likely that some of the men who inhabit the cage-like cells in Guantanamo, Cuba, are Lindh's age or younger. (The Taliban was a student movement in the beginning.) Yet we have no moral confusion over what should happen to them, no doubts about whether they deserve what they're getting. But they are not Americans, and a part of our collective conscience recognizes the distinction.

For most young Americans who run afoul of the law, citizenship is no shield. They often go to jail without so much as a head scratch by most Americans.

But again, Mr. Lindh's transgressions seem to urge a move beyond a simplistic response.

Raw curiosity leads us to wonder how his devotion to a noble religion led him to side with zealots and killers in Afghanistan. At what point and for what reason did Islam become a path to treason for him?

Even more so than other young people who have committed atrocities (the kids at Columbine or the 14-year-old who killed his teacher last year in Florida), Mr. Lindh challenges us to ask the question: What makes a seemingly good kid go so very bad?

As much for our collective sake as for his, that answer is worth pursuing.

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