THESE ARE HARDLY the best of times for John Walker, the young American traitor who left the comfort and freedom of his Marin County upbringing to take up arms and live a life of austerity with the Taliban. He has been almost gassed, burned, drowned, and shot to death. But the worst is behind him. Soon, he will return to the country he betrayed, where a fawning base of loyal supporters and a certain hero status is sure to await him.
The first step in Walker’s canonization has already taken place the effort to portray an adult who voluntarily cast his lot with obvious thugs, tyrants, and terrorists as some sort of a victim. It has come not only from his parents (Mom: He must have been "brainwashed"; Dad: "He’s really a good boy"), who have reason to be in denial, but also from some independent observers who should know better.
Last Friday, Louis Freedberg, a senior writer at the San Francisco Chronicle, came to the hometown jihadist’s defense. "Instead of labeling him a traitor, as we did to Aaron Burr, Tokyo Rose and Ezra Pound, President Bush should allow Walker’s parents to fly him back to Fairfax, and let him get his life back on track. We’d want nothing less for our own children, who could easily have found themselves in a similar mess." Two days later, the paper published an op-ed echoing a similar theme. Walker "put his life on the line for his religious convictions," author Glenn Sacks remarked. "How many of us are that courageous?"
Of course, Walker not only put his own life on the line, he sided with organizations that use their religious convictions as a pretext to maim, torture, and kill thousands of innocents. It may be courageous to risk one’s own martyrdom, but it’s evil to inflict that fate on others. The early whitewashing of Walker’s crimes herald what now seems almost inevitable, a path traveled by many a traitor and terrorist before him the emergence of a new cause célèbre.
Walker is not the first young American to take up residence in the Third World and befriend terrorists. In the early 1990s, Lori Berenson, an MIT grad with a penchant for socialism, joined up with Peru's Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA), a Marxist terrorist outfit waging war on the Peruvian people and government. In 1996, a shady and secretive Peruvian tribunal found Berenson guilty of treason. A civilian court overturned that verdict last year, but still convicted her of collaboration and sentenced her to 20 years in prison.
Back in the U.S., Berenson has a group of defenders who swear by her innocence and complain about her trials. Peruvian courts, it goes without saying, don’t uphold American standards of fairness or due process. Still, the evidence against her is pretty compelling she lived in a house that doubled as an MRTA armory. Her Peruvian friends were largely MRTA activists, some of whom have identified her as a conspirator. And at the close of her first trial, she shouted out, "In the MRTA, there are no criminal terrorists. It is a revolutionary movement."
Yet evidence never persuades the true believers. The ranks of Berenson defenders includes The Nation and sundry left-wing religious and campus organizations. Some 143 members of the House of Representatives have signed letters calling for her immediate release. In the Senate, they have been joined by New York Senators Hillary Clinton and Charles Schumer.
Could Walker elicit the sort of sympathy that Berenson has enjoyed?
His case is more difficult, as his comrades killed not only foreigners thousands of miles away, but fellow Americans here at home. But that hasn’t stopped other militants from joining the left’s pantheon of hero-victims. Kathleen Soliah helped to plant pipe bombs under Los Angeles police cars in 1975, yet she remains a heroine in "progressive" circles. Another left-wing favorite, Mumia Abu-Jamal, shot a Philadelphia police officer to death. Killing Americans by no means precludes the support of the hard-bound American left.
Nor, for that matter, does aiding and abetting the nation’s enemies. Neither Jane Fonda’s popularity among left-wingers nor her career much suffered from her posing with Viet Cong. For leftists, America is the root cause of all the world’s evils. In their view, lashing out against the country, its institutions, and its people is sometimes an unfortunate but understandable act of frustration.
Of course, Walker is not as obvious an ally for the left as a Berenson, Soliah, Abu-Jamal or Fonda. For starters, he’s a white male, which keeps him from claiming victimization by birth. Moreover, the Taliban, while viciously anti-American, is also anti-feminist, anti-gay, and anti-sundry other causes the left holds dear.
Yet these are obstacles Walker can clear because he represents so much else that the left supports. It’s doubtful that his Marin County parents and community would have been so quick to support his intellectual journey had, say, Walker sought to become a fundamentalist Christian instead of a fundamentalist Muslim, a member of the Michigan Militia and not the Taliban. Nor would many write off his transgressions as a "youthful indiscretion." Some extremes are more politically correct than others, and the Taliban, while pushing the limits, could just make the cut.
Whatever their differences, which Walker could smooth over when he finds himself in need of allies, the left can empathize with the sense of white American guilt that drove him to flee the country and join its enemies. When he returns to his native soil, all he has to do is make some public remarks about the injustices of western imperialism and complain occasionally about his treatment as an American prisoner of war.
He’ll have his following in no time.