A Cheer and a Half for John Walker Lindh

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 forever.

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.

January 10, 2002