THERE ARE SOME TELLING differences in the legal strategies of the three Western-born, al Qaeda-trained traitors making their cases in U.S. courtrooms. And in those differences, there’s sliver hope for the redemption of John Walker Lindh, boy Taliban.
To begin, let’s look at the case of The True Believer, British shoe-bomber Richard Reid, the man smart enough to smuggle explosives in his cross-trainers, and dumb enough to try to ignite them in plain view on a crowded airplane. According to a report in the London Telegraph, Reid has decided to own up to his crimes, but will plead not guilty on the grounds that he was merely doing the work of Allah.
It’s a strategy that might fly in, say, Saudi Arabia, but won’t go far in a U.S. federal court, and Reid knows it. He has turned down the more legally feasible plea of not guilty on the grounds of diminished responsibility, and he has refused to answer any questions. One lawyer familiar with the case told the Telegraph that Reid "knows exactly what he is doing. He wants to plead not guilty so there is a trial — so he can turn it into a show trial."
The would-be martyr is ready to go down for his cause; he’s just hoping to create some political theater on the way.
Then there’s The Nut, French-born Zacarias Moussaoui, allegedly the "20th hijacker" who would have been on one of those airplanes on Sept. 11 but instead was in government custody due to immigration violations. Moussaoui has decided to represent himself in court — over the objections of both the presiding judge and the government attorney assigned to his case — proving that he has a fool, or at least a bona-fide terrorist unconcerned for his own life, for a client.
Based on his courtroom ramblings and his odd, hand-written legal motions, it’s hard to discern what strategy, if any, Moussaoui has adopted. At a hearing last week, he surprised observers with a sudden guilty plea, which Judge Leonie Brinkema promptly rejected. Moussaoui admitted to his participation "in a known terrorist group since 1995" and in "an ongoing conspiracy who have started since around 1995 and it still carries on until this day."
"I am member of al Qaeda," he told the court. "I have certain knowledge about September 11, and I know exactly who done it. I know which group, who participated, when it was decided. I have many information."
That last bit has some investigators wondering if Moussaoui would be willing to tell them what he knows about al Qaeda, perhaps in exchange for his life. It’s possible, but for the most part, Moussaoui’s behavior is hardly that of someone looking to cooperate. When Brinkema suggested that he was confused about what he was doing, Moussaoui condescendingly shot back, "I'm not confused, thank you." When she added that the "pure plea" he hoped to cop was not one of his legal options, he replied, "I don’t have to take advice from you."
By all indications, Moussaoui has little interest in cutting a deal with or giving aid to the government of the country he despises. Investigators have reportedly tried twice, once before Sept. 11 and once after, to interview him, and both times, he declined.
Now, compare The True Believer and The Nut to The Brat, Taliban John, the only traitor with the means (rich, Marin County parents) of obtaining a competent defense, and the only traitor with an interest in presenting one. Unlike his comrades, who have resisted cooperating with the Great Satan and refused to rat out their fellow terrorists, Lindh gladly accepted a plea bargain that knocked a potential 90 years behind bars down to 20, a condition of which is that he must tell federal agents whatever he knows about his old friends in Afghanistan.
With that deal, Lindh betrayed the Taliban just as easily as he betrayed America before it. To Reid and Moussaoui, he must seem like the ultimate sell-out — a fellow alumnus of al Qaeda training camps who once risked being gassed, burned, drowned, and shot to death before surrendering to U.S. forces — now a federal informant.
Why the change of heart? The most obvious explanation is that Lindh wants to save his hide. Suddenly, the promise of spending eternity with 70 submissive virgins may seem less of a sure thing — or one not worth first spending life behind prison walls with any number of perverts likely to view him with equally prurient anticipation.
But then there’s another, more hopeful explanation, which is that Taliban John’s crisis of faith is about more than just self-preservation. In an interview with Newsweek, Lindh’s attorney, James Brosnahan, said that the young jihadist grew suspicious of the al Qaeda enterprise while still in Afghanistan. "You do not attack civilians based on the Qur’an," Brosnahan explained. "You don’t commit suicide based on the Qur’an. As it became more and more clear that Osama bin Laden had done all of this, John wanted to get out of [Afghanistan]. He wanted to go home. But he couldn’t for fear of death. You don’t hail a cab when you’re fighting with the Taliban up there."
As a lawyer doing damage-control for his client, Brosnahan isn’t to be taken too seriously. Yet still, if Taliban John were more concerned with honoring his radical Muslim brethren, he wouldn’t permit his counsel to spout off publicly about the Taliban’s favorite Saudi billionaire. Rich parents or not, a more loyal rat would give his lawyer the ax and fend for himself, like Moussaoui.
Remember that only seven months ago, Lindh was voicing support for the 9-11 attacks, even as he was in the custody of American troops. So maybe, just maybe, there’s reason to hope that reality has struck Taliban John between the eyes with the force of a hijacked jetliner. Perhaps he’s having second thoughts, and having given up on martyrdom, the Taliban, and Osama bin Laden, he may, in time, ditch the whole radical Islamic enterprise, too.
There have been such conversions before. Many of the great names of modern conservatism, including the likes of Whittaker Chambers and David Horowitz, were one-time adherents of the last murderous ideology to threaten Western Civilization, Communism. Their face-to-face confrontation with some of their fellow travelers’ wicked deeds led them down a path that ultimately made them some of totalitarianism’s greatest critics.
None of these men, of course, ever took up arms with the enemy, or worked toward the killing of innocents, but even such crimes aren’t an obstacle to conversion — they only make the conversion all the more spectacular. To see Lindh, the American Taliban, renounce his ideological past would be spectacular indeed.
Not all conversions are instantaneous, and Lindh’s, if forthcoming at all, still seems a long way off. Nothing less than a total apology, a complete owning up to his betrayal, and a renunciation of his beliefs will do. And even that, impressive though it would be, wouldn’t mitigate his past crimes or bring back CIA agent Johnny Michael Spann, who died in Lindh’s final battle as a Taliban foot-soldier. Redemption or not, Lindh has earned every day of his 20-year sentence, and if he ever tries to claim otherwise, it will be clear he hasn’t learned a thing.
What remains to be seen, though, is if the cooperation and the hinted-at remorse that Lindh has shown so far are the actions of a desperate weasel, or the moral stirrings of an awakening conscience. There’s good reason to suspect the former, while hoping for the latter.
Chris Weinkopf is an editorial writer and columnist for the Los Angeles Daily News. To read his weekly Daily News column, click here. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.