A bad plea deal

Posted: Jul 17, 2002 12:00 AM
The surprise plea bargain in the John Walker Lindh case this week is one of several worrisome signs in the War on Terrorism. Rather than continue with a lengthy and costly trial, the government decided to plead out the case. Are Americans losing their resolve, perhaps even losing interest, less than a year after the worst attack on U.S. soil in our nation's history? Lindh admitted he was guilty of only one of the original charges against him, providing services to the Taliban, a terrorist organization, which is a felony. In addition, he pleaded guilty to an additional charge not in the actual indictment, carrying explosives when he committed that felony. Lindh will likely serve almost 20 years in prison. The plea allowed Lindh to avoid responsibility for endangering American lives and for any role in the death of CIA officer Johnny Michael Spann, who was killed in the prison uprising in which Lindh participated. As Mr. Spann's mother poignantly told the Associated Press when she learned that Lindh would probably receive a 20-year sentence, "I would have liked for Mike to have had 20 years to live." Most experts believe that Lindh would have been found guilty and sentenced to anywhere from 30 years to life in prison had the trial proceeded. The judge in the case, T.S. Ellis III, showed every sign that he would rule against a defense motion to suppress admissions of guilt Lindh made to CNN and other news organizations. In his interviews after he was captured in Afghanistan, Lindh admitted being trained by al Qaeda and that he knew that some of his cohorts were being sent out for missions against the United States. Lindh's desire to wage jihad overrode any sense of loyalty to his fellow American citizens. He was eager to kill on behalf of a group of terrorists whose fanaticism he shared. Yet there's been almost no public outrage at the plea agreement. Lindh's defense lawyers have touted the outcome as a victory -- if not for their client, who will be nearing middle age by the time he gets out -- against the U.S. government. And Lindh's father has likened his son's punishment to Nelson Mandela's, as if the time he was about to serve would someday "liberate" America. For a while after the September 11 attack, it seemed as if there had been some fundamental shift in public attitudes. Patriotism was palpable. The desire to pursue the enemy, no matter what the costs, was nearly universal. Americans seemed more sober and serious about life in general, and the meaning of citizenship in particular. When Lindh was first captured, Americans recoiled in horror that one of our own might take up arms against his fellow countrymen and give aid and comfort to those who would slaughter innocent U.S. citizens. No more. We've settled back into a comfortable malaise. Cable news shows have largely given up on war coverage and have gone back to sensational stories like the search for Elizabeth Smart, this year's version of the Chandra Levy mystery obsession. Although we're vaguely anxious that another attack might be in the works, no one seems to know quite what to do about it. And our interest in our patriotic duties seems not to have held up any better than the tattered polyester flags still seen flying out car windows. None of this bodes well for our fight against al Qaeda and other Islamist groups that have declared war on us. Our attention spans are short, theirs are long. We are rich and complacent, they have nothing to lose and are zealous. Our leaders are elected and must answer to public opinion. They are self-appointed and answer to no one. If President Bush's support wanes, as recent polls suggest it is starting to, the war effort will become even more difficult. The enemy's best strategy might simply be patience.