What's Left



July 17, 2002


What is John Walker Lindh guilty of?



By Stephen Gowans

John Walker Lindh, the American who served as a soldier to the Taliban, "now faces up to 20 years in prison for admitting he aided the Taliban and possessed explosives while committing a crime."

But what crime did Lindh commit?

The explosives the Taliban supporter possessed were two hand grenades. These, he received, along with a rifle, when he "aided the Taliban," an act that amounted to enlisting in what effectively comprised the Afghan army.

"I provided my services as a soldier to the Taliban last year from August to November," Lindh told a U.S. District Court.  "During the course of doing so, I carried a rifle and two grenades."

Okay, so Lindh, initially dubbed Taliban Johnny, converted to Islam, traveled to Afghanistan, and offered his services as a soldier to the Afghan government, where he was issued a rifle and two grenades. Lindh is hardly a sympathetic character, but as far as I can tell, enlisting in a foreign army, and being issued a couple of hand grenades, is hardly a crime, especially when the military you've enlisted in is not officially at war with your country of citizenship and isn't, according to your own government, a terrorist state.

Lindh's crime, it seems, is to have been in the wrong place at the wrong time.

After he becomes a solider, two airplanes crash into the Twin Towers and one into the Pentagon. The aircraft, it is alleged, are hijacked by Saudis and Egyptians, not Afghans or Taliban, and not Iraqis, Iranians or North Koreans, citizens of the so-called "axis of evil" countries. And, as far as can be told, none has any connection to John Walker Lindh, an insignificant grunt in an insignificant army of an insignificant government whose last budget was one-tenth of what the US spends on a single B-52 bomber.

Washington accuses Osama bin Laden of plotting the attacks, and orders the Taliban government to hand over the Saudi, who's taken refuge in the country after being kicked out of his native Saudi Arabia and, later, Sudan.

Curiously, neither bin Laden nor al-Qaeda claim responsibility for the attacks, a departure from the usual terrorist practice of making clear to the population being terrorized who's doing the terrorizing and what needs to be done to stop it.

Instead, George W. Bush helpfully fills in the gaps, pointing out that it's a bin Laden job, carried out because bin Laden doesn't like democracy, and that what needs to be done to prevent future attacks it is to line up behind Bush's war on terrorism, applaud the abridgment of civil liberties, and channel more money away from social services to the Pentagon, while accelerating tax cuts for the wealthy.

The Taliban asks to see Washington's evidence of bin Laden's guilt, offering to hand him over to a third country, but Washington refuses. You don't negotiate with the Emperor.

Later, British Prime Minister Tony Blair discloses his much heralded "brief'" which he claims definitively implicates bin Laden, but Blair's proof turns out to be a farrago of innuendo, old newspaper clippings, and leaps of logic.

By the time the US and British attack Afghanistan -- illegally, without justification, morally or under international law, and without an official declaration of war -- neither country has put a shred of serious evidence on the public record implicating bin Laden or al-Qaeda. And bin Laden still isn't saying he did it.

Later, a grainy "smoking gun" videotape surfaces that seems to implicate the al-Qaeda leader, but it's the only evidence of significance Washington produces, and it comes long after the bombing campaign has begun; again, inviting the question of whether Washington had any sound evidence of bin Laden's culpability to begin with. The official translation of the tape is called into question, and bin Laden's words are not the self-incriminating statements that would get him convicted in any self-respecting court of law.

Neither the Taliban or Afghan civilians are accused of carrying out the 9/11 attacks, but it is people like Lindh, who have offered their services as soldiers, and, more numerously, Afghan civilians, who pay the price.

When the bombing stops, more Afghans are blown apart than the total number who died in the 9/11 attacks.

While Lindh is carrying a rifle and two grenades,  he and his unit surrender to the Northern Alliance, a collection of thugs as vicious, misogynist, benighted and cut-throat as the Taliban, but who, working for the US, are elevated to being heroic freedom fighters (as thugs, bandits and terrorists who do the US's dirty work always are. Bin Laden himself was once so designated, at a time he was working on behalf of the US, drawing the Soviets into their own Vietnam.) The Northern Alliance promises Lindh's unit safe passage to Pakistan, but reneges, shepherding the Taliban soldiers into the Qala-i-Janghi fortress, where CIA interrogators await.

What happens next is unclear, but the outcome isn't. There is an uprising, American and British forces call in air strikes, and the prisoners are slaughtered.  Some are later found shot with their hands bound behind their backs. Lindh, against all odds, survives.

Taken into US custody, he's maltreated and denied access to a lawyer, though the press later says it's unclear whether Lindh was ill-treated at all.

Astonishingly, The Globe and Mail, Canada's "national newspaper," denies the existence of firm evidence of Lindh being abused and denied his rights, and then goes on to say "there is no question he was held in solitary confinement in an unheated cargo container," "was repeatedly interrogated" without a lawyer being present, and that the US government has accepted a plea bargain "to avoid an embarrassing and possibly comprising series of revelations about the detention, interrogation, and treatment of Mr. Lindh."

You don't have to like Mr. Lindh or the Taliban to see that the US has no legal or moral basis to be in Afghanistan. And it has no legal grounds to kidnap Afghans and lock them away at Guantanamo Bay, to throw US citizens into military brigs indefinitely without charge, or to imprison others because they were issued a rifle and two grenades in a country the US decided to attack illegally in a war that's not all it seems to be.

Moreover, it's clear Washington has exploited 9/11 to advance a far right agenda that bears -- in its muscular militarism, expansionism, contempt for international law, insistence on American global primacy, and crack down on civil liberties -- more than a passing resemblance to fascism.

What's not clear is what crime Lindh committed.

One critic may have come closest to revealing the real reason Lindh may face up to 20 years in prison: to make an example of anyone who deviates "from the whitewashed mythology of pure American patriotism."
 

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