Lindh rage gives way to sadness

July 23, 2002|By Susan Reimer

THE CASE OF John Walker Lindh has been resolved to the apparent satisfaction of both parties.

The U.S. government put this smallest of Taliban small fry away for at least 17 years without having to gin up a courtroom spectacle out of the meager evidence of his culpability.

And the boy who went from Marin County, Calif., to the mullahs avoided the life sentence this angry nation was ready to lay upon him in the early days of our holy war against al-Qaida.

Perhaps now it is safe for me to say what I believe many parents have been thinking since we first saw the television pictures of this dazed, filthy and wounded ragamuffin: There but for the grace of God goes my smart, quirky seeker.

Our outrage at John Walker Lindh was genuine. This product of comfort, this child of free thinkers, had turned his back on his country and joined those who used our own planes to destroy a symbol of our power and slaughter 3,000 innocents as they arrived for work.

He was certainly a nobody on Osama bin Laden's organizational chart, but his betrayal made him somebody on whom we could vent our rage.

But my second thoughts are just as genuine. I am sure Lindh's parents never dreamed that a 20-year sentence in federal prison was waiting for their child at the end of a journey of self-discovery they stepped back and allowed him to take.

Talk about "letting go." This is beyond any parent's worst nightmare - that a religious quest, as opposed to choosing to be a street-corner drug dealer - would result in prison for their child. That a naive and quixotic kid would be branded the worst traitor. That a boy who never quite belonged is judged to belong in jail.

I am thinking now of the parents of my parents' generation, who never dreamed when they packed their children off to a modest state college in Ohio that four of them would be shot and killed by Ohio troops.

I am thinking of the parents who never imagined that their child's flirtation with student protest would lead to bombings, cop killings, bank robberies and 20 years of living on the run.

I am thinking of parents who could not conceive that their children would be executed and their bodies buried in an earthen dam for simply registering voters in Mississippi.

That emerging racial pride would gain their unarmed children death in a barrage of bullets fired into an apartment by Chicago police. That their children would be beaten bloody and gassed by police - on national television - as they marched outside a convention held to nominate a candidate for president of a democracy.

All of these families learned a lesson the Lindh family now understands. Idealism can be fatal to our young people. Search for yourself and you may find you have a rattlesnake by the tail.

If feeling sad for John Walker Lindh and his family is un-American, then so be it. That young man was searching for something, as so many of our children will, and his parents sent him on that journey with their blessing, as any of us would, however reluctantly.

Both parents and child were overtaken by world events of unimagined proportions. Forgive the Lindhs if they still love that child. Excuse me if I feel sad for them all.

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