Man Without a Country
by Alexander Gordon
It is rare that someone enters the American consciousness as suddenly and
powerfully as John Phillip Walker Lindh did on December 2, 2001. The case of
the "American Taliban" so captured the attention of post-September
11 Americans that, as U.S. District Court Judge T.S. Ellis III remarked, one
"might have to go to the planet Pluto to find inhabitants who have not
heard of it."
Lindh generated visceral reactions of incredible intensity from both the
American government and populace. Although these mellowed substantially as
other developments put his transgressions into perspective, in the early
days federal officials virtually turned him into a fourth member of the
Iraq-Iran-North Korea "Axis of Evil." Lindh, declared Attorney
General John Ashcroft, "chose to fight with the Taliban, chose to train
with al Qaeda and [chose] to be led by Osama bin Laden."
From the beginning, Americans were puzzled—enraged really—by Lindh’s
journey from benign suburban beginnings in Marin County, California to
radical Islam in Afghanistan. Captured by Northern Alliance forces on
November 25 and then imprisoned at the Qala Jangi fortress near
Mazar-e-Sharif, he was recaptured on December 1 following a weeklong Taliban
revolt inside the prison. He revealed his American citizenship the next day,
and CNN and Newsweek seized the story.
On February 10, a federal grand jury indicted Lindh on ten counts,
including conspiring to kill U.S. nationals overseas. He pled not guilty to
all of them. When all defense motions were rejected on June 17, he faced an
uphill legal battle and on July 15 pled guilty to supporting al Qaeda and
using weapons during crimes of violence. In return, all other counts
(terrorism included) were dropped. If Judge Ellis accepts the deal on
October 4, Lindh will serve a maximum of 20 years.
The intense initial period of coverage lasted about a month. In the first
week after Lindh’s capture, journalists focused on determining the
rudiments of his biography. The first pieces quoted only family and close
friends, along with vaguely identified government officials. By December 4,
the sources included Muslims who practiced at the same mosque as Lindh,
former classmates, the principal of the independent high school he attended,
and even an old boyhood friend of his from Maryland.
At first glance, Lindh didn’t seem like Taliban fodder. Born in
Washington D.C. in 1981, he was the middle child of three in an apparently
unremarkable American family. His father worked as a lawyer for the U.S.
Department of Justice while his mother was a home healthcare aide.
They moved to Marin County in 1991. Lindh went to an independent high
school for self-directed learners, but dropped out at 16 after converting to
Islam. He joined a mosque in San Francisco and changed his name to Suleyman
al-Lindh and then to Suleyman al-Faris. Late in 1998, he traveled to Yemen
to study at the Yemeni Language Institute for a year, and returned to Yemen
in February 2000.
In late 2000 he enrolled in a fundamentalist Pakistani madrassah, or
religious school. His last contact with his parents was in May 2001, when he
told them via email that he would be going "somewhere cooler" for
the summer. That place happened to be Afghanistan. He spent time at several
al Qaeda training camps and fought with the Taliban against the Indians in
In its December 3 web exclusive, Newsweek set the terms for Lindh
coverage. By juxtaposing the image of the "shy, sweet" son his
parents maintained him to be and that of the Taliban combatant, the magazine
emphasized the drastic transformation generated by his profound religious
Journalists tried, along with many other Americans, to "connect the
dots between where John was and where John is," as his father Frank
Lindh put it. Though articles differed in their sources and the depth to
with which they delved into his adolescence, John Lindh was usually
described as an atypical child, though not, in most cases, negatively.
The New York Times reported on December 4 that he was known
as "the quiet religious kid who did not play with others" in an
article headlined "A U.S. Convert’s Path From Suburbia to a Gory Jail
for Taliban." The Times focused mainly on Lindh’s seeming
wholesomeness before his disappearance 14 months ago. The Washington Post
called him "a studious California teenager" on the same day,
though its article, "Religious Quest Led American To Taliban
Side," balanced positive with negative.
A few days later, on December 9, the Chicago Sun-Times’ "‘Good
boy’ drawn to Taliban" noted that Lindh "loved his collection of
stuffed animals and never showed any interest in toy guns or action
films" (though this statement came after several hundred words
detailing his involvement with the Taliban and the many incriminating
statements he made).
Lindh’s conversion to Islam was at first a shock to his parents. But
being a religiously diverse family themselves—Lindh’s father is Catholic
and his mother a converted Buddhist—they soon accepted his choice in what
would come to be seen as stereotypical Marin County fashion.
Journalists portrayed Lindh as both an innocent youth in over his head
and a culpable traitor, knowingly involved with an enemy of the United
States. With so much contradictory evidence, no clear inner portrait of the
American Taliban emerged.
Nevertheless, the sense that Lindh was guilty of something horrific had
crystallized. The Houston Chronicle caught the consensus with its
December 4 headline "Catholic teen molded into bloodied Taliban
fighter." Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz pronounced on CNN that
Lindh’s case involved the grave "sin of moral treason" on the
evening of December 3.
Lindh hadn’t done much to help himself. In his first interviews with Newsweek
and CNN, he described himself as a "jihadi," a person who fights
in holy wars, and explained that he was with the Taliban because his
"heart became attached to… the literature of the [Taliban]
scholars." The Taliban, he said, was "the only government that
actually provides Islamic law." If these statements weren’t enough to
render the American public aghast, when he was asked about the September 11
attacks he responded: "Yes, I supported them."
The most common reaction was to brand Lindh a modern-day Benedict Arnold
and advocate his quick and harsh disposal. "If he’s guilty, shoot
him," the Augusta (Ga.) Chronicle thundered December 5.
He made some people so angry, the Boston Globe reported December 4,
that Marilyn Walker and her two other children fled "their modest wood
house" because of telephoned death threats.
At first, President Bush didn’t seem to be with the program, referring
to Lindh as a "poor fellow" on ABC’s 20/20 December 5. It fell
to his mother, former first lady Barbara Bush, to offer a clarification:
"[T]he president meant that [Lindh is] obviously demented," she
told the Globe December 20. "[H]e did something terrible."
"The thought of an American from well-to-do parents joining enemies
of the United States brought many people… to a boil," the New York
Times’ Michael Janofsky observed in a December 7 article
headlined, "For Many, Verdict’s In for Taliban Volunteer (and Skip
In a December 10 commentary in the Washington Times, Boston
Herald columnist Don Feder got to the heart of the matter: "Like
our families, our nation gives us an identity and nurtures us… [T]o turn
against such a nation is an act of ingratitude that must make the angels
sigh." After a gestation period of more than a month, Attorney General
John Ashcroft waded in on January 15, asserting that while "we may
never know why [Lindh] turned his back on our country and our values… we
cannot ignore that he did."
Law professor Jonathan Turley of George Washington University developed
the idea more fully in the Los Angeles Times of January 23.
"For millions of Americans… there is an almost personal feeling of
betrayal of our common identity as citizens; a type of constitutional moral
sin" that John Lindh had committed.
It is this widespread sense that by "embrac[ing] a moral code that
spit[s] in the face of everything [Americans] hold dear," as Joan Ryan
of the San Francisco Chronicle put it January 29, Lindh
deserved the harshest punishment available, and more.
While Lindh cooled his heels in a Virginia jail, several papers,
including the March 24 Boston Herald, reported on the mild conditions
of Lindh’s incarceration, almost incredulously noting that his guards
"even provided an extra white prison towel as a prayer mat" and
"obligingly pointed east" so that the Muslim convert could pray.
The mocking tone of these comments reveals the depth to which John Lindh had
stoked certain Americans’ post-9/11 fury.
When Lindh’s father maintained that his son "didn’t do anything
wrong" during an early CNN interview and family friend Bill Jones
proclaimed him to be "a good American kid," many Americans were
outraged. Lindh’s mother took another tack, saying her son had been
"led by charismatic people"—something that can easily happen
"when you’re young and impressionable." A few outsiders agreed
that he had experienced the effects of brainwashing or cult behavior. In a
December 19 op-ed in the Boston Globe, Steven Hassan opined that
Lindh would "eventually realize he was duped into accepting terrorism
and murder, which is condemned by [Islam]."
Between the rash of calls for Lindh’s swift execution and those
persuaded of his innocence a middle ground emerged. The New York Times
editorialized December 21 that the charge of aiding a terrorist
organization, with its maximum sentence of life imprisonment, "sounds
about right" because of his "serious mistakes." The Times
avowed that "to be 20, American and Taliban is to have fallen down a
rabbit hole of one’s own making."
The February 6 Houston Chronicle affirmed that "justice
demands a price—even from the young." Those who thought this way
tended to feel more compassion than revulsion toward John Lindh for leaving
the American way of life. "Somehow, it doesn’t seem right that a man
go to prison for the rest of his life simply because he fell in with the
wrong crowd at 18," lamented the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s
associate editorial editor Tony Norman January 25.
As eager as Americans were to condemn Lindh, they also sought an
explanation for his choices. For many, the culprits were Marin County and,
to a lesser degree, his parents.
One of the first CNN reports about Lindh, aired on December 3, mentioned
his teenage home as "a liberal area… where residents would be more
likely to bear Birkenstocks than bear arms." Shelby Steele wrote in the
December 10 Wall Street Journal that Marin’s "post-‘60s
cultural liberalism" allowed a place where "traditional American
history, culture and religion are without any special authority. " The Washington
Times’ Wesley Pruden knocked it as a culture of
Jeff Jacoby of the Boston Globe charged on December 16
that, "if [Lindh’s parents] had been less concerned with flaunting
their open-mindedness and more concerned with developing their son’s moral
judgment, he wouldn’t be where he is today. His road to treason and jihad
didn’t begin in Afghanistan. It began in Marin County, with parents who
never said "no."
Even former President George Bush was "so offended by John Lindh"
that he called him a "misguided Marin County hot-tubber," the
Associated Press reported January 25. The same day, Peter Fimrite of the San
Francisco Chronicle proclaimed, "[T]he courtroom of public
opinion has already reached a verdict on Marin County."
On February 10, David Reinhard of the Sunday Oregonian suggested
that Lindh became a Muslim extremist in part because his father’s
homosexuality caused his parents to divorce. Such sensationalism was not the
norm, though it came and went, usually on the tail of the heaviest coverage.
Indeed, it generated its own response, with journalists defending Frank
Lindh and Marilyn Walker as well as Marin County. In a widely reprinted
column, Ellen Goodman of the Boston Globe reminded Americans that
"tolerance does not a Taliban make." The Columbus Dispatch
noted dryly, "Most California kids turn out just fine. Many even join
the U.S. Military."
Coverage died down after Lindh’s trial date was set. From mid-February
on, reporting covered the details of the legal motions of the prosecution
and defense. Completing the standard cycle of a full-blown media frenzy, on
May 31 the FX network announced that it intended to make a TV movie based on
While many in America were expecting an autumn trial to rival O.J.
Simpson’s, the July plea bargain cut short any chance of an all-Lindh-all-the-time
courtroom drama. Reactions to the plea came with almost a single voice.
"This is a major sentence," asserted federal prosecutor Paul
McNulty. "I think the American people will see this as a very good
result in this case." John Ashcroft heralded it as "an important
victory in America’s war on terrorism," despite the fact that all
terrorism charges were dropped. Meanwhile, lead defense attorney James
Brosnahan said it was "something that made sense."
The New York Times—in line with the Chicago Sun-Times,
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, San Francisco Chronicle, and many
other papers—called the plea "a reasonable conclusion" on July
16. Even the conservative Washington Times avowed that the sentence
"[met] the demands of justice and the rightful anger of patriotic
Americans." While the Dallas Morning News and New York Post
thought the punishment too light, they consoled themselves that "it’ll
have to do," as the Post put it.
In many cases, the arrangement was praised as the best possible result
mostly because it proved that "the federal criminal courts… are fully
capable of handling cases stemming from the war in the Afghanistan and the
broader battle against terrorism," as the New York Times
All this suggested that the anger against Lindh had cooled. "Early
in this case the rhetoric was in overdrive," former prosecutor Beth
Wilkinson told USA Today. "Not everybody is Osama bin
Not that Lindh’s stature as a terrorist had ever been the main issue.
It was his rejection of American life and creed that so incensed his
countrymen and women.
He had committed the same offense to American ideology that Edward
Everett Hale’s fictional character Phillip Nolan did in the 1863 story
"The Man Without a Country." Nolan was sentenced to lifelong
banishment and prohibited from reading or hearing anything about his native
land as punishment for saying, "Damn the United States! I wish I may
never hear of [it] again!"