Land of the Free?

By Вen Li

A strange thing happened this week. In something resembling a Mexican kangaroo court, “American Taliban” John Walker Lindh plea-bargained ten charges of being really, really evil down to two charges of being just evil. Apparently, convicting him on charges of illegally providing aid to the Taliban and carrying explosives “proves the criminal justice system can be an effective tool in combating terrorism.”

So, a 20-something from suburbia studies the purest form of Islam he can find in Afghanistan. There, he is trained and armed by a militia supporting the de facto Afghan government and renounces his American citizenship. A civil war breaks out and he has two options: try to escape Afghanistan and die, or fight for his religious beliefs, which happen to be embodied by the Taliban. Doing what he felt was his patriotic duty–defending the Afghan government from rebels–he was captured by other Afghanis.

It was a standard civil war until the United States declared one of the warring parties their enemy. Then, a civilian Central Intelligence Agency guy interjects himself into the path of an Afghan bullet, allowing the U.S. military to detain Lindh as an unlawful combatant, or citizen, or something.

For prosecutorial convenience, Lindh is still an American, despite renouncing his citizenship and being trained and armed by another government to fight in their military. In the process of repatriating Lindh, the U.S. somehow acquired the right to forcefully extract its citizens from another nation’s sovereign territory on the grounds that the U.S. dislikes, but is not at war with them. Compare and contrast with defectors in western embassies in China.

On the other hand, Lindh could have been detained as an unlawful combatant, like hundreds of Afghan fighters sent to Cuba’s Guantanamo Bay. As a Prisoner of War, he could not have been tried in a civilian court, because failing to stop fellow soldiers from firing at enemies would not have been a crime. But they put him in comfy medium-security prison to prosecute him some more.

It would be good if the silliness ended there, except for the charges. The prosecution claims all ten charges would have stuck, but decided against testing their evidence in court, and super-secretly plea-bargained Lindh down from what could have been a few death penalties to two ten-year sentences. They called the exercise a victory, surprising even the judge. Instead of trying one of its citizens for treason or murder and risking disfavor from the populace, the government, frustrated by its impotence and inability to apprehend a wanted individual from what they call one of the most technologically and militarily inferior hell-holes on the planet, has wisely decided to prosecute a war it can win, one against a 20-year-old kid.

The only thing terrorized here is a government in denial about someone preferring to live in that hell-hole over the land of the free, with future domestic dissent as the only true victim.