SAN ANSELMO — Even in a community where personal growth is prized above all and wealthy ex-hippies groom their children to be independent thinkers, the spiritual journey of John Walker Lindh is a shocker.
Much of the nation seems outraged that a 20-year-old American was captured fighting for the Taliban. Many see him as a traitor deserving of the death penalty, especially after it turned out that he had been carrying an AK-47 and calling himself a holy warrior, even after U.S. troops were on the ground in Afghanistan.
“He gave us up, he gave up on his country,” said Don Jackson, a butcher at the gourmet Wild Oats Market in San Anselmo who thinks Lindh deserves permanent exile. “I think the young man’s pretty much doomed. There’s no way his parents could save him from this.”
But mercy seems to be the message among many in Marin, a politically liberal county where chain stores, neckties and nonorganic coffee are shunned, and people who aren’t fortunate enough to telecommute disappear into million-dollar homes with priceless views after battling the Golden Gate Bridge traffic from San Francisco each evening.
“I don’t think it’s a big deal for young people to have weird ideas,” said Nahshon Nahumi, who repairs backyard hot tubs in the hills above Lindh’s mother’s house. “My concern is more for his well-being, to help him recover.”
An intelligent but introverted teen-ager who wore full-length robes in high school and asked his family to call him “Suleyman,” Lindh had an intense interest in Islam that was encouraged by his Buddhist mother and Irish Catholic father.
They paid for his trip to Yemen to study the Quran, worried privately when he spoke of searching for a “pure Islamic state,” then lost track of him altogether after he left a religious school in Pakistan to become a “foreign Taliban,” fighting against the northern alliance in Afghanistan.
Now a “battlefield detainee” being held in a shipping container surrounded by barbed wire at a U.S. military camp in Afghanistan, Lindh apparently has been more forthcoming to American authorities than he was in a videotaped encounter with CIA paramilitary officer Johnny “Mike” Spann, who was killed in a prison uprising moments after trying to get Lindh to talk.
Attorney General John Ashcroft hasn’t said what legal actions the government will take against Lindh, and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld declined comment when asked if he’s a traitor.
His parents, Marilyn Walker, who has worked as a nurse, and Frank Lindh, a corporate lawyer, separated several years ago. They released a statement Wednesday through the office of their attorney, James Brosnahan.
“We love John. He’s our son and like any parents, we’re going to support him through this,” the statement said. “We’re asking that people withhold judgment until we know what the facts are.”
But emotions are high among the many people following his story. In response to a question on the San Francisco Chronicle’s Web site, 60 percent of the 2,038 people volunteering opinions said he should be executed.
“Neither his American citizenship nor his small legion of U.S. sympathizers can bail him out of this predicament,” the Chronicle wrote in an editorial last week that called Lindh “the enemy.”
Just how helpful he is to U.S. forces should determine what happens to him, said Chip Gow, an investment manager from Kentfield. Like many Marin County residents, Gow objected to the idea that the community’s values necessarily led to Lindh’s predicament.
“It’s nonsense that the attitudes prevalent here give rise to Taliban warriors,” said Gow, adding that he wants his 5-year-old son to grow up to be open-minded. “I strongly believe in this sort of citizen-of-the-world notion.”
Such notions were fostered at Tamiscal High School, where Lindh graduated early from an independent studies program that involved very little class time. The school was lampooned as a “rotting, stinking left-wing” place by syndicated radio host Michael Savage in San Francisco, who thinks Lindh should be tried in Afghanistan and either executed or jailed for life.
“There’s a mentality of subversion in Marin that the children are generally raised with,” Savage complained Wednesday. “Here’s an extreme example of what can happen with this loose, permissive upbringing.”
But principal Marcie Miller said the highly competitive school remains proud of Lindh as well as its other students, who tend to be highly motivated, self-directed critical thinkers.
Lindh was drawn to Islam as early as 14 years old. In Internet chat-group messages signed by him in 1995, he was quoting Malcom X and ranting about hip-hop lyrics. Gradually, his messages about buying and selling music and computer equipment evolved into questions about Islam.
By May 1997, Lindh was asking “internet Muslims” whether Islam forbids any images of living things. Several months later, he was berating Zionists and signing his posts “Salaam, Prof. J.”
Shortly thereafter, he began attending prayers at the nearby Islamic Center of Mill Valley, one of the few white people at the mosque, according to a friend and fellow worshipper, Abdulla Nana, who knew him as “Suleyman.”
“He was a sincere person, an intelligent person, a quiet person,” said Nana, 23, an Indian-American Muslim raised in Marin County. “It sounded like he had already chosen Islam before, but he came to the mosque to formally proclaim himself as a Muslim.”
The mosque was not a place for political discussions, said Nana, who shied away from questions about the morality of Lindh’s involvement with the Taliban.
“As a friend and as a person who cares for Suleyman, I hope he can come back to his friends and family. Whether he has done something wrong is not for me to say,” Nana said. “Really, God determines. God will judge a person’s actions in the hereafter.”