As a young, idealistic Peace Corps volunteer in Malawi in the 1960s, travel writer Paul Theroux, moved by the evidence of misrule he saw everywhere around him, got involved in a plot to assassinate Malawian Prime Minister Hastings Banda. Essentially because of that experience, he now wants Obama to pardon John Walker Lindh, the Marin County Mujahid who was captured in late 2001 fighting against American troops for the Taliban.
There are several important reasons why Theroux’s case is not analogous to Lindh’s.
1. Theroux did not commit treason. Lindh did. He wasn’t charged with it, but he should have been. He was fighting against American troops on behalf of an enemy force. If that isn’t treason, what is?
2. Theroux says that he got into the plot because “the country was badly governed, and I felt the rebels would have provided wiser leadership and free elections.” John Walker Lindh wasn’t fighting to bring Afghans wiser leadership and free elections. He was fighting to preserve the Taliban regime in power. The Taliban had become notorious for brutally implementing Sharia in the areas it controlled, brutalizing women and non-Muslims, amputating hands, stoning people, etc. John Walker Lindh had every reason to know about all that, probably in greater detail than was ever known in the Western press, and as a devout, knowledgeable Muslim who, according to Theroux, “studied Arabic and Islam in Yemen, and…relocated to Pakistan, where he studied at a madrasa,” had every reason to approve and applaud it all. The Taliban regime was internationally regarded as a severe abuser of human rights; Lindh fought for it.
3. Theroux is implying an equivalence between Malawian freedom fighters, Zionists, and Islamic jihad terrorists. This only reveals that he knows little to nothing about Islam, jihad, or Sharia.
4. Theroux was repentant. John Walker Lindh isn’t.
“Pardon the American Taliban,” by Paul Theroux, New York Times, October 22, 2016:
In the mid-1960s a young American teacher in a small central African country became involved with a group of political rebels — former government ministers mostly — who had been active in the struggle for independence. They had fallen out with the authoritarian prime minister, objecting to his dictatorial style. The country was newly independent, hardly a year old. The men advocated democratic elections and feared that the prime minister would declare himself leader for life in a one-party state.
Fluent in the local language, obscure because he was a teacher in a bush school, and easily able to travel in and out of the country on his United States passport, the American performed various favors for the rebels, small rescues for their families, money transfers, and in one effort drove a car over 2,000 miles on back roads to Uganda to deliver the vehicle to one of the dissidents in exile. On that visit he was asked to bring a message back to the country. He did so, without understanding its implications. It was a cryptic order to activate a plot to assassinate the intransigent prime minister.
Within months the plot was set in motion, but it was quickly foiled, all of the intended assassins captured and hanged; other suspects were arrested, imprisoned and tortured. The American was threatened with detention, then expelled from the country as an undesirable alien and prohibited immigrant.
I was that American. I was 24. The country was Malawi, the prime minister, Hastings Kamuzu Banda. My expulsion meant that I was kicked out of the Peace Corps (“early termination”), heavily fined by it for engaging in covert political activity (“unsatisfactory service”) and compelled to undergo an extensive interrogation (“debriefing”) at the State Department. This interrogation took place in the Bureau of African Affairs, where the scowling Jesse MacKnight scolded me before a roomful of bureaucrats, and then rather touchingly softened his tone and implored me to give him details about the underground rebel movement in Malawi.
I explained that the country was badly governed, and I felt the rebels would have provided wiser leadership and free elections. Mr. MacKnight reminded me of the assassination plot. It was obvious to the State Department, and to me, that I was in way over my head….
I was a failure, and I was lucky in my escape. Over this past summer I read Michael Korda’s “Hero,” his excellent biography of T. E. Lawrence. Mr. Korda writes that Lawrence’s verdict for his efforts, his risk, his idealism, was that he’d failed, and that his subtitling “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” “A Triumph” was self-mockery. But “Seven Pillars” (to me a masterpiece) shows how Lawrence is a classic example of self-radicalization.
You become radicalized when you think that the world has ceased to care, and that in joining a shadowy band of zealots you might make a difference. Consider the Boston Irish who with “Noraid” helped fund the Irish Republican Army, which bombed innocent civilians in Ulster and elsewhere in Britain in the 1970s and ’80s. Or the young American Jews wishing to attach themselves to a cause, becoming passionate Zionists, going to Israel to patrol the West Bank as the so-called hilltop youth (No’ar HaGva’ot), brandishing Uzis, building illegal settlements and terrorizing Palestinians. Emboldened by his faith, Mayor Rahm Emanuel of Chicago served as a civilian volunteer in 1991 not in the United States Army, but in the Israel Defense Forces.
It was faith that induced John Walker Lindh to travel to the Islamic world. A Californian, raised as a Catholic, he converted to Islam at age 16. A year later he studied Arabic and Islam in Yemen, and subsequently, still a teenager, he relocated to Pakistan, where he studied at a madrasa. In the spring of 2001, stimulated by his faith, he volunteered for the Afghan Army. As his father, Frank Lindh, explained in The Nation in 2014: “John’s motivation was based on youthful idealism: He felt it was his religious duty to help defend civilians against Russian-backed warlords, the so-called Northern Alliance, which was seeking to displace the Taliban government. He was deeply moved by stories of horrific human rights abuses by the Northern Alliance.”…
Dubious figures are not unknown as guests in President Obama’s White House. He has welcomed moralizing mountebanks like Al Sharpton — who along with his for-profit business was found in 2014 to owe more than $4.5 million in taxes — sententious celebrities and movie stars, and rappers with a history of violence. Clearly, President Obama is a forgiving man.
With that in mind, those of us who have been no nearer to this White House than a picket line would appreciate it if the president, in his last months in office, reviewed the case of John Walker Lindh with a view to commuting his sentence on compassionate grounds.