John Leo
It's official. The campaign to "humanize" John Walker is under way. A possible trial for treason is a concern, of course, but the battle for Walker's image is way more important, according to consultants consulted by The New York Times.

In fact, the Times nudged the humanization process along by running a Page One photo of Walker as a winsome teen-ager, wearing an aw-shucks smile and a New York Knicks T-shirt. The shirt was a deft touch. How can people associate Walker with the World Trade Center terrorists when he actually supports a New York basketball team?

Still to come are the television interviews, a form of humanization unavailable to Judas Iscariot, Tokyo Rose and Benedict Arnold. ("Tell us, Mr. Iscariot, was it just about those 30 pieces of silver? Wasn't there an issue of real principle involved too?") Walker might go for the conventional TV strategy of accusing his accusers:

Q: John, some people just don't know you. They think of you as some sort of traitor, or even a rat. What are your feelings?

A: It saddens me, Barbara, that some people have to put me down in order to feel good about themselves. Name-calling like this says more about them than it does about me. Anger comes from within. It isn't caused by other people's actions, certainly not my actions. We have to ask: Why are they attacking my lifestyle instead of dealing with their own negativity?

A variation of this strategy would be the who's-to-judge, who's-to-say defense. If 10 percent to 20 percent of college students are unwilling to criticize Adolf Hitler, as one professor famously claimed, then surely a hefty percentage of Americans can be induced to avoid judgment of Walker:

Q: John, treason is a very serious charge. Your reaction?

A: Montel, the only treason is refusing to follow your own heart. We all have to pick our own spiritual paths. Nobody can do it for us. It's not for me to judge your path, and I hope you don't want to judge mine. Choosing your own spirituality isn't a betrayal. It's the deepest act of personal creation. What could be more beautiful?

Or Walker's handlers could just let him bury the interviewer in Marin County psychobabble. A risky strategy, but one known to work, particularly on daytime shows:

Q: John, I think we all know about your search, the spiritual hunger that drives you. But what would you say to those who believe the Taliban is unworthy of you? I mean, aren't they a bit authoritarian? Do they really treat women all that well?

A: Ricki, in an American context, the Taliban might look a bit authoritarian. But remember, in a group where control is shared by all, you have a facilitative climate that empowers every person. An organic flow is created with individuals living together in an ecologically related fashion. The locus of choice still resides in each person, yet as awareness expands, intuitively the community choice becomes a shifting consensus expressing each individual choice, just like the sap rising and falling in a tree when conditions make one direction or the other appropriate. I believe the women of the Taliban understand this even more clearly than the men.

Q: I see ...

Strategy has been complicated by the revelation that Walker isn't just a confused adolescent who drifted into the Taliban army. He is a graduate of a terrorist training camp. This may be hard to handle:

Q: John, many of us respect your personal quest, but what about the terrorist training? Help us with that.

A: It was a shock to me too, Geraldo. Imagine my surprise when I learned that my training wasn't just civil defense. It was a proactive course in blowing up buildings and people! Thank heaven our troops intervened before I was pushed into that sort of stuff. I think your viewers know that I stand for spiritual fulfillment and personal growth, not explosions.

The probable strategy is to portray Walker as a gentle, not-too-bright soul who really isn't responsible since he may have been brainwashed. This calls for the "mistakes were made" admission. Since Phil Donahue retired, the best place for the 20-minute redemption and absolution is Oprah's show:

Q: John, you have outlined for us the honest errors you made along the path you chose. Admitting this must have been painful.

A: It was, Oprah, but my pain isn't the issue. The important thing, as you say, is honesty. If we level with ourselves, we keep growing as persons. This is what I stand for, and if I'm punished for that, so be it.

Q: Audience, what about that?

(Wild applause. Fade to commercial.)


John Leo

John Leo is editor of MindingTheCampus.com and a former contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report.

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