Why we're afraid to talk about treason.

Why we're afraid to talk about treason.

Why we're afraid to talk about treason.

Events beyond our borders.
Dec. 4 2001 12:32 PM

None Dare Call It Treason

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John Walker is a 20-year-old Californian, named in honor of John Lennon. Four years ago, John Walker told his supportive parents he wanted to convert to Islam. Six months ago, John Walker joined al-Qaida. Last weekend, John Walker, now using the nom de guerre Abdul Hamid, took part in a Taliban prisoners' rebellion in a fortress in Mazar-i-Sharif. During that rebellion, Mike Spann, an American CIA operative, was killed—and John Walker was captured.

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Is John Walker a traitor? Should he be tried for treason?

Half a century ago, there would have been no need to ask such a question. At the end of World War II, the handful of American and British citizens who had fought with or supported the Nazis were prosecuted. Lord Haw-Haw, the half-American, half-British Nazi radio propagandist (click here to hear his last program) was caught, tried, and hanged by the British in 1946, for example. His American-born colleague, "Axis Sally," was jailed as well. If she hadn't been female, she would probably have been executed too.

These days, things are a bit more confused. Patriotism may be back in fashion, Americans are flying their flag again, but treason is still an utterly taboo subject—at least to judge from the first news reports of Walker's discovery. Newsweek, for example, doesn't use the word "traitor" in its "Web exclusive" about Walker, although its reporters write that "when pressed," he said he supported the Sept. 11 attacks. It also seems, from Newsweek's account, that Walker saw Spann just before his death, but the magazine doesn't speculate about whether Walker might have fired the shot that killed him either. Instead, the story is linked to another one about Walker's parents. "He was a spiritual kid," Walker's father said. "He was exceptionally devoted to his studies."

The CNN take on the Walker story is even blander—so bland that it merits quoting at length. Walker conducted a long interview with the network, during which he described himself as a "jihadi," a fighter of holy wars, and explained that he had undergone combat training at an al-Qaida camp in Afghanistan. While he was there, Osama Bin Laden visited the camp more than once. Afterward, al-Qaida sent Walker to India to fight with the Pakistani terrorists in Kashmir, before recalling him to Afghanistan. When the U.S. bombardment began, he fled to Konduz, with his Taliban comrades.

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Nevertheless, the word treason still did not arise, not even when Larry King and Dan Rather interviewed  Walker's father, Frank Lindh. Instead, Lindh spoke of how he'd supported John's "alternative course," which was "different, certainly, from where I grew up" but "a noble thing" nevertheless. He appeared genuinely not to have known that his son had joined al-Qaida: "I want to give him a big hug. I also want to give him a little kick in the butt for not telling me what he was up to." He did concede that they'd had a disagreement about the bombing of the USS Cole—"a little father-son debate, much like my dad and I used to have over the Vietnam War." Rather did also ask him, in an extraordinarily convoluted manner, whether his son's support for the Sept. 11 attacks might not be a teensy bit out of bounds:

"Whether there's anything legally wrong with that or not, there are going to be many, many Americans, I have to say candidly this one, who would say that for whatever reason he said that, that was wrong. I would like to get your reaction to that."

Lindh replied by asking that people "have a little mercy" for his son. Rather reassured him: "Frank, I think you know that Americans are filled with mercy."

To be fair, this sort of press coverage partly reflects the conventional kid-glove treatment that the parents of traumatized children automatically receive in TV interviews. But it also reflects a great deal of confusion about the definition of treason. John Walker joined al-Qaida, an organization that was led by a man who had vowed to destroy the United States of America. Is that an "alternative course"—or is that treason? John Walker supported the attacks on the USS Cole and the attacks of Sept. 11 and carried an AK-47 to show that he meant it. Is that merely "wrong" as Dan Rather would have it—or is that treason? Should he be given "a little kick in the butt"—or should he be put on trial? It seems we aren't sure what the answers are. Why?

I suspect the explanation lies in the clash between the values of the post-patriotic society we all lived in up until Sept. 11 and the newly patriotic society to which we have not yet made a full transition. Listen to the language that Frank Lindh used about his son: He spoke of him making a "choice" that was perhaps "different" but certainly not worse than other choices he might have made. Indeed, it was a "noble" choice, since it reflected a desire to absorb himself in another culture. That's the language of post-patriotism: All cultures are equally good, all choices are equally interesting, and there is nothing particularly alarming about an American who drops out of high school in order to undergo terrorist training in Afghanistan.

If we had truly abandoned the post-patriotic, pre-Sept. 11 world, we would no longer tolerate such language. Instead, the consensus would be different. All cultures are not equally good: Democratic culture is better than Osama Bin Laden's culture of fanaticism, terrorism, and hatred. Nor are all choices equally interesting: It is extremely important for young Americans to study Arabic—but only if they do so in order to help their country, not to harm it.

We still don't talk like that, however, or at least not instinctively—which means that despite all the flag waving, we have not changed as much as some people seem to think we have changed. I'm very sorry for John Walker's parents and am indeed very sorry for John Walker, who has made some bad choices at a young age. Nevertheless, he has committed treason—and I think we should have the courage to say so.