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> Columns > Boston Globe > Lindhs' blind devotion ill-serves errant son

Lindhs' blind devotion ill-serves errant son

By Cathy Young | July 22, 2002

THE BIZARRE CASE of John Walker Lindh, the young American who fought for the Taliban, achieved a legal conclusion last week when he pleaded guilty to charges of providing support to terrorists and carrying and using firearms and explosives during crimes of violence. Lindh will receive a 20-year prison sentence, of which he will have to serve at least 17 years.

Some believe he is a traitor who got off too easily; others see a screwed-up young man who was punished too harshly because he screwed up in the wrong place at the wrong time. Brooklyn Law School professor emeritus Henry Mark Holzer, co-author of the recently published book ''Aid and Comfort: Jane Fonda in North Vietnam,'' says that the sentence sends a much-needed message: ''United States citizens who traffic with the enemy will be held fully accountable.''

Meanwhile, one of the most annoying aspects of the ''American Taliban'' saga - his family's indulgent attitude toward his acts - was on full display at the press conference where his attorney and his relatives discussed the plea agreement.

''I think any father who knew John would be proud to claim him for a son,'' proclaimed his father, San Francisco lawyer Frank Lindh. ''And I mean that. ... He's a really good kid.'' He went on to add that ''John loves America.''

Lindh's defense has stressed that he never intended to take up arms against the United States - that when he joined the Taliban, it was to fight Afghanistan's Northern Alliance, not Americans. At the press conference, his mother, Marilyn Walker, explained that he was ''a devout Muslim'' who went to Yemen, and later Pakistan and Afghanistan, to find ''a fuller understanding of the teachings of his adopted faith, Islam.''

Let's leave aside for a moment the issue of whether Lindh knew that he was fighting for America's enemies. There is no question that he was fighting for a gang of fanatical thugs who imposed a regime of rarely paralleled brutality on Afghanistan - to call it medieval would be an insult to the Middle Ages - and murdered ten of thousands of Afghans. In case anyone needs a reminder, the Taliban were the guys who closed girls' schools and forbade women to work, who beat up women for letting their veils slip and men for trimming their beards, who threw people in jail for painting or playing the guitar.

Most Muslim clerics around the world, including ones hardly sympathetic to the West or to secular democracy, denounced the Taliban's barbaric policies as a perversion of Islam. Yet this was the version of his ''adopted faith'' that Lindh chose to defend.

As for his sentiments about his country, there is no solid evidence whether or not Lindh has supported the Sept. 11 attacks on America. But even his family doesn't deny that in e-mails from Pakistan less than a year before those attacks, he defended the bombing of the USS Cole by Islamic extremists, arguing that bringing the US warship to Yemen was ''an act of war.'' Frank Lindh has told reporters that his son's statements ''raised his concerns,'' but, as he put it, ''my days of molding him were over.'' (His days of sending his son money, however, were not.) Judging by their public statements, Walker and Lindh reacted to their son's espousal of violent Islamic radicalism the way a parent might react to a grown child's decision to join a different political party - as if it were just a legitimate difference of opinion.

That Walker and Lindh still love their son is understandable. No one is asking them to disown him or curse him. But they could have expressed some grief, regret, and shame over their son's acts (or simply remained silent). Perhaps some contrition would have won more sympathy not only for them but for their son as well.

They could have tried to convince the public that John Lindh was not an evildoer but a messed-up young man who made some terrible choices. Instead, they have tried to depict him as an idealist with a heart of gold and admirable devotion to his principles.

A few conservatives have tried to use John Lindh to indict liberal parenting or the progressive counterculture. That's absurd and unfair; how many other products of overly liberal parenting have ended up fighting for extremist regimes overseas? However, Frank Lindh's public stance does suggest a caricature of nonjudgmental liberal open-mindedness - so open-minded that one's brains fall out.

Note: In my last column, I wrote that conservative commentator Ann Coulter was fired by National Review due to her inflammatory comments about Arabs and Muslims. In fact, what precipitated Coulter's departure and whether it was voluntary remain in dispute. At the time, National Review Online editor Jonah Goldberg told The Washington Post that the magazine didn't want to be associated with the sentiments expressed in Coulter's column.

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