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Lindh of Arabia

February 14, 2002

John Walker Lindh has pleaded not guilty to the charge that he conspired to kill Americans. It does seem like this religious pilgrim was caught at the wrong place, on the wrong side, at the wrong time. He was drawn to Islamic fundamentalism. For him it was the radical alternative to what he came to regard as the corrupt materialism of the West. He was there when the U.S. troops came, and now he faces life in prison.

It was only 20 years ago when members of Aghanistan's Muhajadeen anti-Soviet resistance, the Islamo-fundamentalist predecessors to the Taliban, were being escorted around Washington and put on display as models of what it means to be a freedom fighter. At the time, Washington conservatives held views nearly identical to Lindh's: that we should join these fighting warriors in their great struggle against imperial aggression, and not be indifferent like the typical American living in luxury as others suffer under despotism.

I can recall one luncheon at the Hotel Washington, in the summer of 1985, where I rode up an elevator with a tall, scary bearded man who smelled like he hadn't showered in months. When we finally reached the top, I leapt from the elevator and gasped for fresh air. Only minutes later did I discover that he was our luncheon lecturer. The gathered conservatives heralded him as the embodiment of Reaganism. The strange, scary man would rattle off a long angry paragraph in his language, and then pause while the interpreter explained to us that this brave freedom fighter had just praised the merits of "free enterprise, traditional values, and a strong defense."

It was not illegal to join the Muhajadeen in those days. In fact it was compulsory: the CIA used tax dollars to provide them weapons, food, and every manner of logistical support. To be suspicious of the Muhajadeen was to be objectively pro-Soviet. To back these unkempt Islamic fanatics, to have them speak at your events, was to be pro-freedom, pro-family values, pro-America.

But if the political pilgrims of the right had their own romantic attachments to foreign peoples and their causes, so did the left. In the summer of 1987, Nicaragua was under the firm control of the Sandinistas, and living in their midst was a tribe of German, Canadian, and American socialist sympathizers who were there to cheer on the government.

Some were there for political reasons. Some were just escaping from things they didn't like in the U.S.: I recall in particular the actor Gary Merrill, the fourth husband of Bette Davis, who told all who would listen that the Sandinistas were the best thing to happen since the Incarnation.

Others were there for religious reasons: I met a number of West German students of theology there to chronicle the progress of liberation-theology in practice. There were also a number of American feminists who were sure that Daniel Ortega was going to liberate the women of Nicaragua from patriarchy.

There were enough political pilgrims present to support a thriving industry of communist cafes in Managua. The Soviets were kind enough to send back issues of Soviet Life for the patrons to read, and in these cafes the "sandelistas" could sit, suck on cheap beer, and discuss politics in safe distance from the Nicaragauan workers and peasants with whom they claimed to sympathize.

These people were there to help and support enemies of the United States. But no one would have suggested that they be prosecuted. They were just loopy leftists hanging around in Managua rather than Berkeley or Santa Monica. No big deal. In fact, better there than here.

Meanwhile, the U.S. government was supporting a different group of thugs from a different Nicaraguan faction, then marching around in the hills waiting for an opportunity to blast their way into Managua. They were called the "Contras" and they too were said to believe in free enterprise, traditional values, and a strong defense. Some derring-do American rightists even traveled with them.

I have no doubt that had the contras actually come to town blasting with American weapons and accompanied by American military advisors, a few of the sandelistas would have struggled to oppose them, the way Lindh did when the Northern Alliance (made up in part of former Soviet-sympathizers) came to Kabul. But even in this case, it would have been unseemly to prosecute these deluded lunatics.

People who come to sympathize and participate in foreign liberation movements — whether the Sandinistas, the Muhajadeen, or the Taliban – are of a particular type. From Jack Reed to John Walker Lindh, they are young, idealistic, and usually somewhat deluded. They shield their vision from the brutality conducted by the regime or movement they support, and, if they live long enough, they come to regret their actions, and even laugh at themselves.

What, after all, is the point of prosecuting them for their politics, their religion, or their travels? You might say that they should be charged with treason if they choose sides with the enemy. But in the 1980s that rule was never applied to the political pilgrims who sympathized with the communists. In any case, the sides that an imperial military chooses in a particularly conflict can change from day to day. You have to have a broad-band internet connection to keep up. It seems like only yesterday, for example, that the Taliban was being wined and dined by Texas oil interests.

In 1961, director David Lean made the spectacular epic Lawrence of Arabia about T.E. Lawrence's amazing adventures leading the Arab people to victory over the Turks and to final independence during World War I. As a black sheep in England, and somewhat alienated aristocrat, Lawrence admitted that he went native in the desert and even attempted to think of himself as Arab, just the way that John Walker Lindh did. He even wrote a book that skewered the military brass for their betrayals and conduct of the war.

He wasn't prosecuted or denounced. He was heralded as a romantic hero. He learned a lesson and in the Seven Pillars of Wisdom passed it on:

Pray God that men reading the story will not, for love of the glamour of strangeness, go out to prostitute themselves and their talents in serving another race [people].

A man who gives himself to be a possession of aliens leads a Yahoo life, having bartered his soul to a brute-master. He is not of them. He may stand against them, persuade himself of a mission, batter and twist them into something which they, of their own accord, would not have been. Then he is exploiting his old environment to press them out of theirs. Or, after my model, he may imitate them so well that they spuriously imitate him back again. Then he is giving away his own environment: pretending to theirs; and pretences are hollow, worthless things. In neither case does he do a thing of himself, nor a thing so clean as to be his own (without thought of conversion), letting them take what action or reaction they please from the silent example.

In my case, the effort for these years to live in the dress of Arabs, and to imitate their mental foundation, quitted me of my English self, and let me look at the West and its conventions with new eyes: they destroyed it all for me. At the same time I could not sincerely take on the Arab skin: it was an affectation only. Easily was a man made an infidel, but hardly might he be converted to another faith. I had dropped one form and not taken on the other, and was become like Mohammed's coffin in our legend, with a resultant feeling of intense loneliness in life, and a contempt, not for other men, but for all they do. Such detachment came at times to a man exhausted by prolonged physical effort and isolation. His body plodded on mechanically, while his reasonable mind left him, and from without looked down critically on him, wondering what that futile lumber did and why. Sometimes these selves would converse in the void; and then madness was very near, as I believe it would be near the man who could see things through the veils at once of two customs, two educations, two environments.

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