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
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
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.