In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks, US operatives took into custody John Walker Lindh, an American citizen who had fought side-by-side with the enemies of his own country. Convicted of assisting the Taliban and carrying a rifle and grenades, Lindh was sentenced to 20 years in a maximum-security prison.
That was 17 years ago; this week, Lindh was released early for good behavior, to the consternation of everyone from President Trump, to United States senators, to the families of murdered American civilians and troops. At the time of his capture, Lindh knew that his fellow jihadis, being held in an Afghan prison, had grenades, and he didn’t warn the CIA officers who came to interrogate him. One, Michael Spann, was killed in the ensuing riot. Spann’s family has been particularly vocal in their dismay that Lindh was going free.
For now, Lindh is a free man, though he will be closely monitored for the next three years and cannot access the Internet or leave the country. But as several analysts who have been in contact with him have stated, his fanaticism hasn’t changed. How dangerous is the so-called American Taliban we’re releasing?
John Walker Lindh’s father, Frank, has called him a prisoner of conscience, a victim of media sensationalism, and a poor, misunderstood boy who only wanted to help mankind.
At various times, federal prosecutors and intelligence officers have described Frank’s son along rather different lines: John Philip Walker Lindh the murderer, serial killer, psychopath, torturer, terrorist, entry-level Quranic scholar, mujahideen wannabe, covert communications liaison to the Taliban and all-around bad guy.
Everyone seems to think that Lindh was one of those spoiled California rich kids who come from wealthy liberal families and drift into crime as much out of boredom as anything else. George H.W. Bush called Lindh a “Marin County hot tubber.” His family gave him everything he wanted, which may have been part of the problem. After he dropped out of high school, he wanted to study Arabic in an Arab country and asked his family to pay for it. They did. What could go wrong with letting an impressionable American teenager wander alone around the Middle East?
With typical inaccuracy, the media has given John Lindh the nickname “American Taliban.” Actually that is a misnomer, since Lindh himself proudly sniffs that he was never a member of the lower-level Taliban, but only of a more select organization, an affiliate of al-Qaeda, which is called Ansar al-Islam.
When other kids his age were hanging out or joining a fantasy football league, Lindh was one of the few American teens who joined al-Qaeda…before 9/11.
Doctors still do not know why some people become sociopaths. Is it an inherited trait like a broken gene or is it a natural response to some harsh environmental trauma as a child? Criminal nature or callous nurturing?
I suspect that the answer is a bit of both. I suspect that sociopathy lurks in many gene pools, like a latent virus in the bloodstream, waiting for a traumatic triggering event to wake it from its slumber and infect the brain of its host.
In Lindh’s case, the trauma that might have pushed him over into sociopathic behavior probably occurred when he was 16. His parents’ divorce was trauma enough, but the vicious gossip that swirled around in their social circles may have added to the pressure on an already vulnerable adolescent.
Lindh was one of those very bright children who was isolated from his peers in a special class for gifted kids. Even among them, he was a loner. Lindh did not play well with others. He found a kindred spirit in the life of Malcolm X, who converted to Islam because of the brotherhood he found while attending the hajj in Mecca.