The press cannot seem to get enough of John Walker Lindh His hirsute and filthy face has filled our screens dozens of times since he was apprehended in Afghanistan, and literally thousands of stories have been written tracing his road to treason. What, they've been asking, could make a 16-year-old forsake the comfortable life of Marin County, Calif., for the wilds of Yemen and Afghanistan? And how could he turn his back on his nation, his family and his home?
It's not really that mysterious, is it? The mere wealth of America is not what engenders love of country. In fact, the least affluent areas are probably the most patriotic. No, the key to understanding John Walker Lindh is that he came from a family that was so liberal, as the old joke goes, that they declined to impose their values even on themselves. Though originally Catholic, Lindh's mother converted to Buddhism and encouraged her son to do so as well (it didn't take). And, though the press has been reluctant to report this, Frank Lindh left his marriage when John was 16 to live with a man.
Described by one former neighbor as "Birkenstock liberals," the Lindhs enrolled their son in an "alternative" high school in California. The school held no classes, but required only that students meet once or twice a week with a tutor to discuss their independent research. John studied world cultures.
Mrs. Lindh found time for political demonstrations. A Marin newspaper photo captured her at a rally in the late 1990s denouncing U.S. policy toward Iraq. John's younger sister was there as well, carrying a sign reading, "Don't Kill Iraqi Kids."
It is not clear what John was learning at his progressive high school, but it is virtually certain that a robust appreciation for America's history, culture, language and heritage were not part of the curriculum. In fact, if his school was like other schools in other liberal parts of the country, he was taught skepticism if not outright contempt toward his country -- a message that would have been reinforced at home. He was given "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" to read. And he was deeply influenced by it. It is doubtful that he was exposed to the autobiographies of Benjamin Franklin or Ulysses S. Grant, both giants of American history.
Like many teen-agers, John was deeply idealistic. He wanted to be on the side of right. But in his experience and reading, the United States was rarely in the right. It was the oppressor, the enslaver and the imperialist. Victims were in the right. Victims had all the prestige. Theirs was the team to belong to. For a time, John presented himself in Internet chat rooms as black. It was but a short step to Islam (and John could hardly pass for black in the real world).
Though it is rarely admitted openly, most mosques in America are deeply political and bitterly anti-American. For a boy from a super liberal family, that would be no barrier. Many liberals despise patriotism as ignorant and xenophobic. As Katha Pollitt of The Nation magazine memorably put it when her daughter asked to display a flag after Sept. 11: "Definitely not. The flag stands for jingoism, and vengeance, and war."
The Lindh family was extreme. And yet, the pattern is familiar enough. Eager to provide their son with "choices" and to be "supportive," the Lindhs never so much as raised an objection when their 16-year-old dropped out of school, converted to Islam and announced a desire to live in Yemen. Mrs. Lindh wondered about Islamic views of women, but not apparently enough to deny her son's request for the wherewithal to travel to Yemen and thence to Afghanistan.
On what grounds could the Lindhs have objected? Could they have argued that Christianity had a superior spiritual message? That would be ethnocentrism. Could they object that Arab nations are notoriously anti-American? They weren't wild about America themselves. Could they maintain that parents have authority over minor children because they are parents? Not the Lindhs. Their highest value was "choice."
John Walker Lindh clearly went further than his parents were comfortable with. In an email to his mother, he recently scoffed, "What has America ever done for anybody?" The Lindhs were probably dismayed that John fought with the Taliban and trained with Al Qaeda. But they should not be surprised. He simply went too far in the direction they pointed him.