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 naive teenager.
There 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.
As 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.
- San Francisco Chronicle12/9/01
- Philadelphia Inquirer12/9/01