A Cheer and a Half for John Walker Lindh

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Back when Miss Jean Brodie was in her prime, sending our idealistic
youth to take up arms in strange lands in defense of lost causes
was reason to rejoice. We were still producing romantic political
heroes. And that was good news for American "progressives"
of the u201830's.

The brigade of American volunteers fighting fascism in Spain also
produced a cottage industry in the entertainment realm, garnering
Pulitzer Prizes, fiction book awards, and Oscars. It enriched politically
conscious artists, from Pablo Picasso to Gary Cooper. Somehow the
aspect of it being a lost cause only added to the romantic grandeur.

Poor John Walker Lindh. He'll receive none of the benefits accruing
to an older generation of American idealists. He may have gone a
step too far, by mixing it up with a bunch of radical religionists.
In latitudinarian America, keep your religious causes in the mainstream
if you know what's good for you. He also seems to have suffered
from a serious case of bad timing. By being born about a thousand
years too late.

Personally, I would like to know more about John Walker Lindh,
also known by several Muslim names. I would like to hear it from
his own lips, although I doubt his attorneys will allow him to take
the stand, and I seriously doubt that the New York publishing world
is bidding on the rights to his personal war memoirs. I'll have
to be satisfied with the predictable incantations from the political
right and left, and from America's religious moralists who tend
to triangulate politically along the same right/left fault lines.

The president made the politically correct comment that he was
a poor, misguided young man. Journalists and pundits on the right
ponder the applicability of the death penalty in his case, while
delighting in the rich ironies between his liberal, Marin County
upbringing and his spiritual home with the Taliban. Meanwhile, the
left doubts that two reliable witnesses can be found to testify
against him.

I suspect most Americans are willing to buy the poor, misguided
youth argument. It's something they can identify with, have in fact
used themselves to justify a number of things they wish they could
take back. But America is not exactly in the repentance business.
"Poor, misguided youth" sounds nice and therapeutic, and
gets us all off the hook for our own egregious sins euphemized into
youthful indiscretions. It's an argument that has become so effective
that we deliberately refuse to grow up. It comes in handy all the
time. It's even used by presidents on occasion to excuse their very
adult sins.

In the end there will be some kind of trial, with Defense and Justice
looking for a way to dispense with the thing as quickly and easily
as possible so that John Walker Lindh can receive the Solomonic
justice that is rightly his due: exile to his home back in Marin
County where he can wait on tables at Starbucks, attend weekly therapy
sessions as per court order, and argue tenaciously with his mom
on visitation days about why the Taliban were justified in destroying
ancient Buddhist monoliths. Which means he'll be a religious schizophrenic
like the rest of us. We Americans really know how to punish people
for their sins.

Which leads to my confession. I sort of admire John Walker Lindh.
He deserves a cheer and a half for some things no one seems to have
considered. First is his conversion to Islam. Who among us is willing
to take on such a rigorous commitment of regular prayer, fasting,
and self-denial? My Protestant friends worship for an hour or two
a week while comfortably seated on their behinds. My Catholic friends
attend Mass on Saturday afternoon so as not to interfere with their
Sunday tee times. Few of my Jewish friends are kosher. And my Orthodox
friends sound more and more like Episcopalians with each new buy
signal from their broker.

Putting dogmatic questions aside for a moment, try going through
the Muslim ritual for one week and then tell me it's not something
of worthy note for this effete kid from Marin County to have achieved.
But that apparently was not enough. Not being content with an Americanized
version of Islam, he embarked on a journey to Pakistan to learn
the Koran in its original tongue.

Now, I don't know where your travel agent sent you on your last
adventure vacation, but an extended stay in Pakistan is not for
the faint of heart. Nor is the study of Arabic. Has John Walker
mastered the glottal stop? Try it some time. I don't mean to sound
glib on this point. He seems to have mastered something beyond the
ken of our best CIA and DIA agents, who complain that they have
precious few "assets" available to decipher the intent
of our new terrorist enemies, let alone their dialect.

Finally, discontented still with his own lack of serious commitment,
John Walker decided to take up arms in defense of the Taliban, which
he describes as the only true defenders of Islamic law.

Although we expect to hear volumes about how unhinged John Walker
became after his exhaustive brainwashing sessions with the Al Qaeda,
the truth is that these are truly heroic efforts by a young idealist
which, if employed on behalf of some politically correct secular
cause would now be winning him interviews with Rosie O'Donnell.
The only argument of any merit against his actions, quite apart
from the technical issues relating to the Constitutional punishment
for treason, is of a purely theological nature. John Walker Lindh
chose to throw in his lot with heretics, and that's where he went
astray. But he will never be prosecuted for heresy. Heaven forbid.

The question for me is whether it is worse to be a religious heretic
than it is to be a secular American where all heresies are deemed
to be equally orthodox, and nothing is worth fighting for or against.
But this is my own case of bad timing. I long for the good old days
in Constantinople where you could have an honest fist fight in the
local taverna over the true meaning of homoousion.

Whether John Walker Lindh can articulate his pilgrimage from quintessential
American know-nothing to someone who found something worth fighting
and dying for remains to be seen. I'll just have to speculate for
the time being. I think he was responding to something inchoate
that percolated up inside of him, born of a broken heart.

In America, a young person's heart is generally broken by the age
of eight or nine. His mind is not permitted to wander to far off
worlds, especially if they are spiritual in nature. He is not permitted
to ask any difficult questions that might suggest deviationist tendencies.
He may be told that he has to attend church, but he would be seriously
discouraged from taking it too seriously. There are absolutely no
options for a truly religious vocation. There are no options if
you happen to be of a spiritually sensitive nature. You are given
the answers to the test in advance and you qualify for advancement
if you answer correctly on six out of ten true-false questions.
Ninety per cent, according to the Gallup Poll, say they believe
in God and ten per cent don't. Virtually a hundred per cent would
say that God has little or nothing to do with anything, if they
answered honestly. If the question were asked.

If anyone is to blame, it is not the secularists. It is the Christians
who have forgotten what it was like for Athanasius or Anthony of
the desert, or the many thousands of wealthy, educated Romans who
said to hell with the world (and the political state which claimed
divine status), and went to the desert to wage war against the demons.
Today you can join the Navy Seals and that's about the nearest thing.
Outside of Islam that is, which, for all of its faults, is an honest
to God heresy that is at least trying to be true to its roots. I
hope they lose. But I'm not sure who's winning.

The late German-American philosopher Eric Voegelin once predicted
the interior break up of the Soviet Union because, as he said, no
one believed in Marxism anymore. He was right when all of our best
minds in foreign intelligence were dead wrong. He also predicted
a spiritual revival of mankind, but he was less precise on the dating.
He said it was inevitable because you cannot go against human nature

I don't know if we will see a spiritual revival in my lifetime.
I suspect I will have to be content to live with my broken heart.
But if I do see a spiritual revival it will not come from the likes
of our current religious leaders. It will come from people like
John Walker Lindh. When the time comes it will be obvious to all.
There will be thousands, if not millions, of John Walker Lindhs
who are sufficiently discontented with the world to do whatever
it takes to transcend it. They will flee the cities for the desert,
they will deny their bodies sex, creature comforts, even food and
water, and they will pray unceasingly. They will allegorically take
up arms and wage war against the demons, just like it says we are
all supposed to do.

Meanwhile, I trust God is maintaining a small, vigilant rear guard
so that when the time is ripe, they will be there to lead us away
from all of the heretical nostrums that prey on our broken hearts
and our schizophrenic psyches, and steer us in the right direction.
I hear there may be a few of them left on Mt. Athos, but unlike
John Walker Lindh, I don't have the courage to buy a ticket.

10, 2002

Jones [send him mail]
is a freelance writer (which means he’s starving) and working on
his second political suspense novel. He’s not an expert on anything
and doesn’t want to become one although he’s read all of Eric Voegelin’s
stuff at least twice.


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