February 10, 2002
Happy Birthday, John Walker Lindh
John Walker Lindh turned twenty-one yesterday.
I don't know if the name needs explaining but just in case, he's the U.S. citizen who was captured in Afghanistan, fighting with the Taliban.
I guess my liberal roots are showing because, try as I might, I can't work up a really good head of steam against him.
I do believe he belongs in jail. I certainly don't condone anything he did or what he himself (in a TV interview) claims to believe.
But I reserve my anger for his parents.
My first son was born in 1981, only weeks after Lindh.
When I see photos and films of the "American Taliban", I can't help but think of Mark.
I read that they named him after John Lennon, who had been murdered only two months previously.
I made a point of NOT giving Mark the same middle name as Lennon's killer. He would have been Mark David instead of Mark Aaron.
The similarity probably ends there.
Being a parent is the most difficult job I can imagine. You are on call every minute of every day for the rest of your life. More so of course when they're babies but even as adults if they need you, you respond.
Often the hardest response to muster up is the word "no".
Kids think their parents love to say "no".
Often we say "no" at the wrong times and for the wrong reasons.
I believe in picking my issues, but the ones I pick won't be the easiest for me, they'll be the ones with the greatest potential for harm, both physical and emotional.
This is the job description for parent, as I see it:
1. Provide unconditional love.
2. Provide necessities of life - food, shelter, clothing.
3. Provide and arrange for education and training so that the child can function reasonably well as an adult. This includes manners, common courtesy, the mores of the society, and the consequences that can be expected for breaching them.
(Not that the child will never do anything outrageous, but he should be aware of the implications when he does it.)
This includes setting limits, whether it be for a three year old to not cross the street or for a twelve year old to not take drugs.
It does not include blindly bankrolling a teenager's every whim.
Lindh made choices, unfortunate ones.
He must be held accountable for his choices and his actions.
But it's his parents and his community who molded (or failed to mold) him into what he is.
Of course I don't have all the facts. I'm basing my opinions on news reports (including this one from Newsweek as quoted below) which are no doubt inaccurate.
But all the facts as reported, taken together, paint a very disturbing picture which, even if not strictly applicable to this case,
is no doubt applicable to others.
It's achingly obvious that this was a child looking for structure and guidance.
His parents failed to give it to him.
The school system failed to give it to him.
He found it in organized religion.
That in itself is not a bad thing. That's what organized religion is supposed to be for, to offer guidance and a lifestyle to those who need it.
He could have joined a gang.
He could have joined a cult.
He found his place in Islam, which again, to me, is not a bad thing.
That is part of my point: some of this boy's choices were positive ones. He doesn't strike me as a bad apple, looking to cause destruction and anarchy. Instead, I believe he was looking for direction, a sense of right and wrong, and most of all, rules and limits.
It looks to me like his parents meant well, but did the wrong thing over and over again.
For one thing, why was he permitted, at age 14, to visit
"Web sites for hip-hop music with particularly crude raps on sex and violence."
Quite obviously his online activities were not supervised, and could have turned out as a tragedy in their own right.
When my kids were online at that age, I spied on them. And told them so. (I don't know if it counts as "spying" in that case but I told them they had a choice of being monitored or not being online at all. They chose the former.)
Why was John Lindh sent to
"an elite alternative high school where students were allowed to shape their own studies and had to check in with their teacher only once a week."
In retrospect, for a boy searching for the very meaning of life, this was the worst place he could be. Why was he allowed to remain there? Did the school not do psychological studies to identify which of its students did not benefit from that philosophy?
(Maybe not, if the fees were paid up.)
And to my mind, the biggest turning point:
Why was he allowed to go to Yemen at age 17 to study Arabic?
His parents not only permitted this but paid for it.
If my son wanted to go to Yemen at age 17 I'd tell him that until he was 18 (or the relevant age of majority) he wasn't going anywhere and he'd better get a job and save his money because the trip would be on him.
And I'd hold my breath and hope his plans would somehow fade in importance with time. I'm betting they would and even if they didn't, he might have a better idea of why he was going and what it took to get him there.
Yet another clue was ignored by the parents after the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000. After receiving an email from his son expressing support for the act, Frank, the father, claimed that his concerns were raised but
“my days of molding him were over.”
"Frank disagreed with his son, but he didn’t cut off the money."
So he continued to fund what he now knew were his son's anti-American values and by extension, potential activities.
I wonder if the FBI or the CIA has thought about that.
Whether his parents didn't care enough to take a stand, or whether they just didn't know any better, it is their son who will pay for those mistakes for (and with) the rest of his life.
So happy birthday, John Walker Lindh.
I don't believe you are evil.
I believe you rebelled, in a most flamboyant manner, against the society that produced you.
Better you should have been raised by wolves.
Online version of a 1950s personality test attempting to measure "fascist receptivity at the personality level."
I came out as a "liberal airhead".
Graphics courtesy of