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The frenzied cry to string John Walker Lindh up by his thumbs is a fine example of America’s determination never to let facts get in the way of a good temper tantrum. Attorney General John Ashcroft accuses Lindh of dedicating himself to “killing Americans,” and a 10-count felony indictment includes allegations that Lindh committed “conspiracy to murder United States nationals.”
The Attorney General even went so far as to accuse Lindh of complicity in the atrocities of September 11. At his January 15, 2002 press conference Aschroft stated that the filing of criminal charges against Lindh was compelled “by the inescapable fact of September the 11th.” “We cannot,” Ashcroft said, “overlook attacks on America when they come from United States citizens.”
The mainstream media coverage of this case has been characteristically shoddy, shallow and sensational. Much attention has been given to Lindh’s Marin County upbringing and to the pathetic attempts by his parents to make him look like a good boy. Less frivolous commentary has tended to focus on such things as the conditions of Lindh’s battlefield confinement, whether he was properly Mirandized and whether his statements will be admissible at trial. Almost completely absent has been a discussion of what exactly Lindh did and whether it justifies the government’s attempt to put him away for life plus 90 years.
A close look at the facts will embarrass both the government and the mainstream press. It will also shame the alternative media, which has been unforgivably silent about what seems to be a blatantly political prosecution of a United States citizen.
A detailed account of Lindh’s conduct can be found in the “overt acts” section of the indictment, a 21-paragraph recitation of his journey from Pakistan to Afghanistan to prison. Its most striking feature is the absence of evidence that Lindh engaged in, attempted to engage in, assisted or attempted to assist others in engaging in acts of terror against the United States. Indeed, it makes abundantly clear that Lindh was simply on a mission to prevent the Northern Alliance from retaking Afghanistan.
The indictment alleges that Lindh entered Afghanistan in May or June of 2001 “for the purpose of taking up arms with the Taliban.” He then presented a letter to Mujahideen headquarters in Kabul and indicated that “he wanted to go to the front lines to fight.” He later underwent military training at an “al-Qaeda training camp.” In June or July of 2001 he left Kabul for the front. After the United States entered the conflict in October of 2001, Lindh remained with his unit until they were captured in November. It is nowhere alleged that Lindh ever fired a shot at anyone. He and several other trainees also met with Osama bin Laden in the summer of 2001 for several minutes. During this meeting bin Laden “thanked him and other trainees for taking part in jihad.”
That’s it. That’s the government’s case. That’s the basis of the hysterical cries to throw away all keys. Where, one wonders, is the evidence of intent to “murder United States nationals” or to assist in “attacks on America?” And if these rather tame facts are not sufficiently humbling for the lynch mob, there is paragraph 14 of count 1 of the indictment. That paragraph states that in June or July of 2001 Lindh was offered the chance to travel outside of Afghanistan “to conduct operations against the United States and Israel” but that he “declined in favor of going to the front lines to fight.” Thus, the government’s own pleadings have Lindh declining to participate in terror operations against the United States.
Obviously Americans have not bothered to pay attention to the facts of this case. And those charged with defending the public’s right to know have not been much help. Paragraph 14 has been all but ignored by the press. A San Francisco Chronicle reporter told me that “that detail got lost in the avalanche of other information.” A Cox News reporter with an apparent reading disability told me that “there are no court documents or testimony to support that [Lindh] expressly turned down assignments to commit terror against the United States.” Yet there it is in the indictment, evidence that this kid was not out to harm the United States, that his purpose in entering Afghanistan was to fight an undisputably vicious group of warlords who were seeking to regain control of a country that had four years earlier given them the boot. One may not approve of Lindh’s choice of causes. But to divine from these facts a “conspiracy to murder United States Nationals” is a laughable bit of Ashcroft-speak.
Unfortunately, nobody is laughing. Perhaps we have taken to heart White House spokesman Ari Fleischer’s command that Americans start watching what they say. This is disturbing because much more is at stake here than the fate of the accused. The Lindh prosecution is a power grab that has staggering implications for the expressive rights of all Americans. Multiple life sentences for John Walker Lindh might just be what the government needs to bring annoying dissenters a little more into line. And it looks like the strategy may just work.
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