Those who are willing
to sacrifice for what they believe in deserve respect, even if
what they believe in is foolish. As a teenager American Taliban
fighter John Walker gave up a comfortable life in a wealthy
Northern California town and traveled halfway around the world
to put his life on the line for his religious beliefs. How many
of us are that courageous?
Walker, who currently lies in an Afghan hospital suffering from
grenade and bullet wounds, may face treason charges in the
United States, and talk show hosts, callers, and columnists
across the country are howling for "the traitor" to hang. Yet
Walker fought the Northern Alliance, not the United States.
While today we see the Taliban as enemies who sheltered those
responsible for the September 11 terrorist attack, this could
not have been foreseen six months ago when Walker left Pakistan
to join the Taliban. What he did see was the support and
admiration many Pakistanis had for the Taliban. Even many
Afghans had originally welcomed the Taliban as liberators who
would finally end their country's chaos and civil war and
establish order in Afghanistan. Walker was told that the Taliban
had created the world's only authentic Islamic state and that
the volunteer Taliban soldiers were heroes--heady stuff for a
have been other times in American history when idealistic young
men have volunteered to put their lives on the line for foreign
causes in foreign lands, though it has generally been for far
worthier causes. For example, 3,000 Americans joined the Abraham
Lincoln Brigade in 1936 and fought as volunteers against the
fascist takeover of Spain during the Spanish Civil War. They did
so in violation of American law, and with Soviet-made weapons in
hand. The US remained neutral in the war, but at the time it was
possible that the US would side against the Communist-influenced
Spanish Republic. Had this happened, the first Americans to
fight Hitler would have been traitors instead of heroes. In
addition, there are many American Jews who have fought in the
Israeli army. Had the US chosen to side with Israel's Arab
enemies, these men too would be "traitors."
Conversely, instead of a "traitor," Walker could easily be a
hero today. The Taliban are Muslim fundamentalists, but so are
many of our allies in the Northern Alliance. Alliances have
shifted constantly during Afghanistan's two decades of civil
war, and when Walker joined he had no way of knowing that he
would end up fighting against America's allies. In fact, many
Taliban fighters did not agree with the war against the US and
defected when given the chance. Some of them are now fighting on
the side of the US and its allies. Walker could easily have been
a volunteer soldier in our ally's army and be considered a hero.
The Taliban sent
Walker to be trained in a camp funded by bin Laden because the
young American had learned Arabic but did not speak Pashtun.
After his training Walker fought for the Taliban, not bin Laden.
If Walker had tried to leave the Taliban after the US military
action against the Taliban began, he would have been shot as a
deserter or a spy. It is true that Walker, as he lay in the
hospital wounded, has made some stupid statements about America
and September 11. However, he has had little contact with the
outside world for several months and knows only what his Taliban
commanders told him.
bad as the Taliban are, there are many young men who have fought
for bad causes and who, rightly, have been forgiven. The most
destructive act of treason in American history is the Civil War,
when hundreds of thousands of Southern men volunteered to fight
against the US government and in defense of slavery. After the
Civil War, which left 600,000 dead, Confederate soldiers'
actions were excused and their courage noted.
How did Walker acquire his beliefs? According to his family,
Walker, raised as a Catholic, began to take a serious interest
in Islam at age 16 when he read The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
This is certainly understandable--the book is the inspirational
story of a down and out African-American convict who turns his
life around by embracing Islam.
Concerned over poverty
and injustice and inspired by the book, Walker became
disenchanted with the American way of life, as many teenagers of
previous generations have. Young people sometimes don't realize
or appreciate how hard their parents worked to provide them with
a comfortable life. They see our consumer society as empty and
devoid of meaning and seek meaning in a cause. Usually their
passion goes little beyond attending university demonstrations.
However misguided Walker is, he clearly is made of better stuff.
President Bush showed compassion and wisdom when he spoke of
Walker as a "misguided young man" who "thought he was going to
fight for a great cause." When judging Walker I ask the reader
to think back to when you were 19 or 20 years old. Like me, you
probably cringe at the memories of your own foolishness. Walker,
if allowed to return to the US and live freely, someday, no
doubt, will cringe at his. Let's make sure he has the chance.
This column first appeared in the
San Francisco Chronicle
Philadelphia Inquirer (12/9/01).
Sacks' columns on men's and fathers' issues have appeared in dozens of America's
largest newspapers. Glenn can be reached via his website at
via email at Glenn@GlennSacks.com.