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Free John Walker Lindh, Scapegoat Of “War On Terror” – OpEd

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With the death of Osama bin Laden, there is now an opportunity for a huge peace dividend — an end to the occupation of Afghanistan, and an opportunity to close Guantánamo — which will probably not happen, even though it should, because of powerful vested interests. These include the lawmakers intent on using bin Laden’s death as an excuse to further ramp up the “War on Terror” by revising the Authorization for Use of Military Force, the founding document of the phoney war, and to claim, in spite of all the evidence, that George W. Bush’s torture program was a good idea and helped to track down bin Laden (which it didn’t), and that Guantánamo was useful for producing reliable intelligence (which it wasn’t).

I tackled all of these dangerous lies and distortions in my articles, With Osama bin Laden’s Death, the Time for US Vengeance Is Over, Osama bin Laden’s Death, and the Unjustifiable Defense of Torture and Guantánamo and No End to the “War on Terror,” No End to Guantánamo, but although I also implied that it was ridiculous to continue holding people at Guantánamo whose only crime seems to have been that they saw Osama bin Laden from afar while attending a training camp in Afghanistan, what I didn’t reflect on directly were specific victims of the hysteria of the “War on Terror.”

Clearly, this process includes dressing up soldiers at Guantánamo as terrorists to placate those who believe that being strong means being both brutal and stupid, but, as the lawyer Frank Lindh explained in an op-ed in the New York Times last week, it also includes his son, John Walker Lindh, forever tarred as “the American Taliban,” who was one of the first scapegoats of the “War on Terror.”

Seized by the Northern Alliance and transferred to US custody after the horrific Qala-i-Janghi massacre in northern Afghanistan in November 2001, Lindh was never sent to Guantánamo (even though he had been designated as Guantánamo prisoner number 1 — ISN number 001), because the horrors of Guantánamo were only for foreigners, and not for anyone in possession of an American passport.

As part of his sacrifice, after he had been moved to Camp Rhino near Kandahar, where he was stripped naked, blindfolded, bound to a stretcher with duct tape, held in a shipping container ringed with barbed wire and interrogated by the US military and the CIA, who reported regularly to Donald Rumsfeld (and where soldiers scrawled “shithead” on his blindfold and told him he would be hanged), John Walker Lindh was held on two ships (the USS Peleliu and the USS Bataan), and was brought to the US on January 22, 2002, and charged on February 5 on ten charges relating to his alleged involvement with al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

In July 2002, Lindh was persuaded to accept a plea deal, which not only gagged him throughout his sentence and prevented him from challenging anyone in authority about his shameful abuse in US custody prior to his trial, but also led to a punitive 20-year sentence, announced on October 4, 2002, which he is still serving in at the Federal Correctional Institution at Terre Haute, Indiana. He is held in one of the Communication Management Units (CMUs) for mainly Muslim prisoners that have come under intense criticism from human rights activists, as I explained in two recent articles, Guantánamo in America (Part One): NPR Explains How Muslims Are Deprived of Fundamental Rights in Secretive Prison Units and Guantánamo in America (Part Two): The Nation Reveals More About the Secretive Prison Units for Muslims and Other Perceived Threats.

Below is Frank Lindh’s appeal for the US government to free John Walker Lindh after nearly ten years in prison. This makes the still largely unaccepted point — which I wholeheartedly endorse — that supporting the Taliban was not an act of terrorism.

Bin Laden’s Gone. Can My Son Come Home?
By Frank Lindh, New York Times, May 21, 2011

On the evening of May 1, we learned that Osama bin Laden had been killed. The following dawn, I left my house in the Bay Area to catch a bus to Oakland International Airport. I flew to Indianapolis for a scheduled visit with my son, John Walker Lindh, at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind.

I love my son. I enjoy our periodic visits and our weekly telephone calls, but this visit felt different. “If Bin Laden is dead,” I kept thinking, “why can’t John come home?”

A convert to Islam, John was found, unarmed and wounded, in a warlord’s fortress in northern Afghanistan in December 2001. He was subjected to physical and psychological abuse — a precursor to the mistreatment of many prisoners, in both Afghanistan and Iraq, by the American military during the George W. Bush era. Marines took a photograph of John, blindfolded, bound and naked. It was published and broadcast worldwide.

In post-9/11 America, John became a symbol of “the other.” He was called the American Taliban. A traitor. Detainee No. 1 in the war on terrorism.

President George W. Bush called John a “Qaeda fighter.” Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said, inaccurately, that he had been captured “with an AK-47.” Attorney General John Ashcroft said John had “turned his back on our country and our values.” Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani suggested that John be put to death for treason; polls showed that many Americans agreed.

This was heartbreaking to me and John’s mother. The son we know is intelligent, spiritual and good-natured. He has a wry sense of humor. He is fluent in Arabic, and curious about the history of the world’s languages and cultures.

John was not running away from anything when he first went overseas. He had a passionate desire to embrace all aspects of Islam, including the Arabic language. He embarked on an unusual odyssey of learning and adventure with full support from his parents. He selected Yemen, where he traveled in 1998, at age 17, because it was one of the best places to learn classical Arabic.

In November 2000, John left Yemen for Pakistan, and the next April, he wrote to me and his mother to say he was going into the mountains of Pakistan for the summer. That was the last we heard from him. Throughout the summer, and especially after 9/11, our family became increasingly worried about John’s whereabouts and his welfare. In December 2001 we were shocked to learn from the news that John had been found among a group of Taliban prisoners who had survived an uprising and massacre at an old fortress near Mazar-i-Sharif.

Like Ernest Hemingway during the Spanish Civil War, John had volunteered for the army of a foreign government battling an insurgency. He thought he could help protect Afghan civilians against brutal attacks by the Northern Alliance warlords seeking to overthrow the Taliban government. His decision was rash and blindly idealistic, but not sinister or traitorous. He was 20 years old.

Before 9/11, the Bush administration was not hostile to the Taliban; barely four months before the attacks it gave $43 million in humanitarian aid to Afghanistan. There was nothing treasonous in John’s volunteering for the Afghan Army in the spring of 2001. He had no involvement with terrorism.

I was stunned when I learned that John had gone to Afghanistan. It wasn’t our fight; he put himself in harm’s way without his parents’ approval. He did not go into Afghanistan alone; he took his family with him, and we all have suffered for his impulsive choice.

But John’s case was never about evidence. It was based purely on emotion — shock and anger over 9/11, compounded with a deep frustration that Bin Laden was able to escape from American forces. During the prison raid in which John was captured, another young American, a C.I.A. officer named Johnny Michael Spann, was fatally shot. Mr. Spann’s father has pushed for harsh punishment. I respect his grief, and his son’s heroism. But his belief that John somehow was responsible for, or could have prevented, the death of his son is mistaken.

In fact, in a plea deal in October 2002, the government dropped its most serious accusations against John, including terrorism and conspiracy to kill Americans. John acknowledged only that he had aided the Taliban and carried weapons. For this, he accepted a term of 20 years’ imprisonment. He turned 30 in February.

On May 2 and 3, I had two long visits with John. He remains idealistic and spiritual, and a practicing Muslim. He once told me he thought Bin Laden had done more harm to Islam than anyone in history. As I said farewell, we both felt a sense of closure. I saw grief in his eyes over the pain he has caused himself and his family.

John was a scapegoat, wrongly accused of terrorism at a moment when our grieving country needed someone to blame because the real terrorist had gotten away. Now that Bin Laden is dead, I hope President Obama, and the American people, can find it in their hearts to release John, and let him come home. Ten years is enough.

Note: Readers who wish to know more about John Walker Lindh may be interested in this 2006 story in Esquire, and this April 2009 profile in GQ. There is also a campaigning website that may be of interest, entitled Free John Walker Lindh.


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Andy Worthington

Andy Worthington

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to his RSS feed (he can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see his definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in January 2010, and, if you appreciate his work, feel free to make a donation.

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