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John Lindh, Patriot

July 16, 2002

I yield to nobody in my regard for patriotism, which is why I’m a bit troubled by the prosecution of John Walker Lindh, the American-born Taliban fighter. Lindh has now plea-bargained, accepting a 20-year prison sentence for the “crime” of defending his country against invaders. Among the charges is that he was carrying grenades and an AK-47 (broken down) when U.S. forces arrived in Afghanistan.

Just as I consider I have the right to defend my country from attack, I consider that Lindh had the right to defend his adopted country. He was no terrorist, by any stretch of that rubber word, and he had no part in the September 11 attacks on American soil.

Many Americans wanted nothing less than a death sentence for Lindh. They consider him a traitor who owed his allegiance to the United States; the press describes him as “a 21-year-old Californian,” never mind that he left California in his teens (having been born elsewhere) and considers himself an Afghan.

Don’t we have the right to emigrate? Is this the Soviet Union? So Lindh skipped the tedious paperwork and inconvenience of changing his citizenship under U.S. law. That’s a technicality that doesn’t affect his moral right to leave. So why all the moral indignation?

[Breaker quote: Punished for defending his country]The angry mob insists that it was treason for Lindh to fight back against an invasion by the government he was born under, even after he had long since renounced it. In fact the U.S. Government considers it criminal even for natives of other countries to resist American invasions.

Once upon a time, when I was a Cold War conservative, I might have been among those hoping Lindh would get the hot seat. I thought it was my patriotic duty to support American military action, on grounds that it was somehow-or-other “defending freedom.” I didn’t want to know the details of this defense; if innocent people sometimes got killed, well, that was accidental, unavoidable, unintended. We meant all for the best. We mustn’t “handcuff” the brave men who were fighting for our liberty against the evil forces in this world.

When liberals talked of “bloated military budgets,” I retorted that too much defense was better than too little, which might be fatal. In short, I was willing to give the military a blank check. Not that this stopped me from complaining about high taxes. I blamed those on the welfare state.

Liberals tend to do the same thing from another point of view. They support the welfare state without looking too closely at the details. Waste? Fraud? Excess? Small prices to pay for “compassionate” government. They blame high taxes on the military.

Both sides, liberal and conservative, loyally support a limitless government as long as they feel that the government has its heart in the right place and is an instrument of the principles they believe in. The details hardly matter. And each side grudgingly accepts the package deal of a mammoth state that does what they disapprove of, as long as it also does things they approve of. Liberals accept militarism as the politically necessary cost of socialism; conservatives accept socialist programs as the politically necessary cost of militarism. It’s a very expensive symbiosis.

Today the militarists have the upper hand. September 11 decided that. The great majority of patriotic Americans are willing to let the government do what it thinks it must militarily, including curtailing freedoms at home. Sometimes you have to abridge freedom in order to preserve it, don’t you?

We have heard this argument since Lincoln’s presidency. And it still works. The U.S. Government has grown incomprehensibly vast because it’s so much easier to wave the flag than to read the Constitution. We have hypnotized ourselves into a state of mind that believes that when our government is rifling through Granny’s suitcase or prosecuting an eccentric kid, it’s defending our freedom.

These hypnotic slogans recall the words of William Blake: “To generalize is to be an idiot.” Who needs facts when you have such compelling generalizations to keep the herd in line?

John Walker Lindh has learned the perils of living outside the herd. He went his own way, even if it was only to join a different herd in which his individuality was submerged.

His original herd still claims his soul. It doesn’t mind that he renounced Jesus Christ, his Savior — but to renounce his government! Now that’s a mortal sin.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2002 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
a division of Griffin Communications
This column may not be reprinted in print or
Internet publications without express permission
of Griffin Internet Syndicate

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