Justice and Johnny Walker
Johnny Walker Lindh would be a college sophomore today. However, instead of dorm events and coursework he trained at an al-Qaeda camp and met Osama bin Laden. Walker sought religious truth and found meaning in the strict values system of Islam. It was his unquenchable search for truth and meaning that brought him to Afghanistan, where he was captured by Northern Alliance troops. Is it possible to wrap our minds around his choices? Can we find a just punishment for his actions?
The discovery of an "American Taliban" set off media frenzy. The story took on a life of its own when it was revealed that CIA operative Johnny Spann's last minutes were spent interrogating Walker.
Spann and Walker were raised across an American cultural divide. Spann was the All-American boy. He grew up in small-town Alabama, worshipped at a conservative Protestant church, played football and joined the Marines after college. He was patriotic and was sure of America's role in the world.
Walker, on the other hand, was the embodiment of the northern California lifestyle. He was the product of a permissive upbringing that urged him to find his own path to truth. From an early age, he carried with him the liberal guilt of American power in the world — equating it with repression and racism. What he found in radical Islam was a way to both identify with the oppressed and rebel against the oppressor.
The worldviews of these two young men were shaped by different values. One felt guilty about America's power and institutions. The other represented and honored it. At a basic level, both symbolize historically grounded and legitimate parts of the American political discourse. If Walker had marched against globalism or worked against sweatshops his foreign policy perspective would find sympathizers and adherents. Those who protest International Monetary Fund meetings and disrupt World Bank proceedings share his distrust of American capitalism and military might. But their actions do not lead them to shoulder an AK-47.
Sixty-two percent of those polled in a recent USA Today poll want Walker tried for treason. Most surprising, 69 percent of San Francisco Chronicle readers want him to face the death penalty. The polls show a deep anger and a desire to avenge the deaths of Sept. 11.
There are those who argue that international law allows the death penalty for the crime of genocide. And is not al-Qaeda's plan for violence against Christians, Jews, liberal Muslims and Americans genocide? As this argument goes, Walker was trained and proudly took part in this plan. As a participant he is guilty of helping to carry out genocide.
The Nuremberg Trials, after World War II, made the case that those who plan genocide are as criminally liable as those who carry it out. I believe bin Laden and his lieutenants planned genocide and would have little qualm seeking the death penalty against them. It would be best if they were judged and executed by an Islamic Court, by the very law they purport to uphold, but that is not going to happen. It is up to the United States to seek justice for the victims of Sept. 11 and against al-Qaeda's crimes against humanity.
But do Walker's actions raise him to this level? The answer is plainly no. I base his conclusion on the facts. Walker was mobilized to fight against the Northern Alliance before the United States entered the war. It is not clear he even knew the United States was in the war. He was a recent recruit to al Qaeda who never had the opportunity to become a terrorist because his own commander sold out the unit to the Northern Alliance. He may have had the intent, but he never got a chance to carry out the crime of genocide.
So what would be a just punishment?
Presently, there are many voices arguing for leniency. Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen refuses to blame Walker for his actions. He says that every parent can recognize the romantic and rebellious kid who needs love, not punishment. Walker's father wants to give him a "small kick in the butt … and a big hug." And President Bush, perhaps thinking of his own rebellious youth, urged compassion when he called Walker a "poor fellow."
The calls for retribution and the calls for mercy do not fit the crime. Justice for Johnny Walker Lindh will require much more than love and much less than death. Willingly or unwittingly, he took up arms against his country. His journey of faith made him become an enemy of the United States. For that he must pay.
But can we punish the outcome of his earnest search for truth, while protecting all sincere journeys of faith?
I believe that Walker should receive a stiff prison term, but that his sentence should be contingent on the successful completion of the war on terrorism. Let President Bush promise to commute his sentence once al-Qaeda is wiped out. Such a sentence tempers justice with mercy. It penalizes Walker's actions, but signals that his beliefs — whether motivated by religious zeal or youthful idealism — can be tolerated in the United States.
This message of democratic and religious pluralism is one of our nation's strengths. We should use the case of Johnny Walker Lindh to preach it to the world.
Scott Flipse is associate director of Notre Dame's Washington Semester and a Pew Civitas Fellow at the Brookings Institution. For more information on the Washington Semester, please visit the website at www.nd.edu/~semester/.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.
All Viewpoint Stories for Monday, February 4, 2002