I recently wrote about the lives of some of the extremists I had tracked as part of my researches into books, articles and films.
The catalyst for this piece was the on-going trial of the Norwegian killer, Anders Behring Breivik, who murdered 77 mostly-young people in a bombing and shooting outrage last summer.
Included in my story was the tale of John Lindh, a young American 'revert' or convert to Islam who had had the misfortune to be captured alongside fellow Taliban prisoners in Afghanistan in 2001, and then was mistreated by US soldiers and handed down the most harsh of prison sentences for his apparent crimes.
It is true, it was partly my interest in what drives people to extremes that piqued my professional interest in Lindh's - dubbed by the media as 'the American Taliban' - case. However, it was equally my strong belief in human rights, and my background in covering and working with human rights organisations, that propelled my desire to write about his case.
With hindsight, perhaps the way I wrote my recent story didn't accurately reflect Lindh's position - or how I view his position, at least (for his case generates passionate comment) - as someone who has served enough time in jail and who should be freed forthwith from the punitive conditions in which he has been held for a decade.
I wrote at length about John Walker Lindh's case in 2009. He was treated shockingly by his captors, media, politicians and even the highest members of the legal profession, alike.
I will quote from my own article here:
"Take the gloves off."
That was the order that Donald Rumsfeld, the Secretary of Defense, personally sent to John Lindh's interrogators.
Whilst John was being tortured, the country's highest legal officer, Attorney General John Ashcroft repeatedly called him a "traitor" during press conferences, whilst Rumsfeld claimed (falsely) that he had been taken with an AK-47 in his hands.
It was like a feeding frenzy. Hillary Clinton was on Meet the Press calling John a traitor. Presidential hopeful, Republican Senator John McCain said he should be taken to the site of the 9/11 attacks "to see how he felt". Mayor Giuliani of New York said John should get the death penalty. George Bush's father was quoted saying John was despicable and they should leave his hair and face the way it was and let him wander around the country and see what kind of sympathy he got.
I was helped extensively by John's father Frank, a sincere and devout Catholic as well as commercial lawyer who extended great courtesy and opened his heart to a member of the potentially-hostile media. For that, I received criticism from some who had followed Lindh's tale and believed him to be a terrorist, the very symbol (for them) of Al-Qaeda incarnate. There was another side to Lindh's saga too: that of the father and family of CIA agent Johnny "Mike" Spann, who was killed at the same Taliban prison riot where Lindh was also arrested. A separate tragedy in its own right. The trouble was you couldn't cover one side's story without offending or upsetting the other.
Should Lindh junior, then, have remained part of my piece on killers and other extremists? If he was, and is, so deserving of release? Yes: but a qualified yes. John Lindh may have been a young and naive young man; in my view, he fitted the image of a zealot, someone who went far beyond what most people would understand as a 'born again' desire to connect with a new-found faith. Even his former friends, those who had witnessed his shahaddah (conversion), told me as much.
He had trained with weapons. He had met Osama bin Laden. He had volunteered to fight for the Taliban. Was he present when "Mike" Spann died at the prison outbreak at Qala-i-Jangi fort in 2001? Yes, he was.
But did he kill anyone? No. Not that I, or anyone else, knows. The judge in his trial even said so. What he did was violate economic sanctions, effectively, in volunteering to fight for a proscribed power (the Taliban). What he might have wanted (or not) to do is moot. And for that he received opprobrium heaped upon him by politicians and media alike; as well as a trial scheduled for the first anniversary of 9/11; and his documented mistreatment at the hands of US forces once captured (he was blindfolded, held for two days in a freezing shipping container still with a bullet in his thigh, with 'shithead' scrawled on his blinds and soldiers spitting in his food). He may have been a young zealot, or idiot, fool or any number of other things: but he was also unlucky, being caught in the arms of America's Enemy Number One (the Taliban) right after the Twin Towers were brought down. There was no suggestion he knew anything about these events: indeed, it seems, he was probably shocked by them. His dream of a perfect Islamic Emirate was not to be found in Afghanistan.
In many moving pieces and speeches, Frank Lindh contends his son paid dearly for his mistakes. I agree. Every Christmas, Frank and his son's attorneys prepare to file a petition for commutation of sentence to the President. Each year it is turned down.
Lindh's parents - both of whom I met - may not agree with how I placed their son into an article alongside vile killers and far-right extremists. Perhaps they are right. But his was a foretaste of America's nightmare to come at Abu Ghraib in Iraq and Guantanamo in Cuba. Others accused of similar crimes to Lindh have since been set free. I, therefore, like they, believe the time is long-past to release their son.
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