Editorials

Should parents take blame for actions of John Walker Lindh?

By Michelle Locke, The Associated Press
Friday January 18, 2002

BERKELEY — The first question for many people after young American John Walker Lindh was found fighting with the Taliban in Afghanistan was: What was he doing there? But the next question was: Where were his parents in all of this? 

What were they thinking when they bankrolled their son’s travels in search of an Islamic ideal, first in Yemen as a 17-year-old and later in Pakistan and Afghanistan as a young adult? 

After practically every school shooting or other act of wrongdoing by a teen-ager, the sins of the children are visited on their fathers and mothers in sometimes fiercely critical post-mortems of their parenting. 

“People assume that there’s a very direct correspondence between what kids do and what their parents did for them or to them,” said James Garbarino, who talked with the parents of one of the Columbine High School gunmen for his recent book, “Parents Under Siege.” For his part, Garbarino says that parents are not necessarily to blame for what their children do. 

In recent weeks, the spotlight has been put on the parents of Charles Bishop, the 15-year-old who crashed a small plane into a Tampa, Fla., high-rise, leaving a suicide note expressing support for Osama bin Laden. Also in the news were the parents of Richard Reid, the 28-year-old accused of trying to detonate explosives in sneakers during a trans-Atlantic flight. 

The criticism of Marilyn Walker and Frank Lindh, Lindh’s estranged parents, has been scathing, and has been aimed at both their actions and their environment — liberal, wealthy Marin County just north of San Francisco. 

There has been speculation that Lindh lost his moorings amid the confusion of his parents’ separation and his mother’s own spiritual wanderings, which ultimately led her to convert to Buddhism. 

It didn’t help when his parents said immediately after their son’s arrest that he is a “good boy” and that they had supported his pilgrimage to world trouble spots. 

Lindh’s “road to treason and jihad didn’t begin in Afghanistan. It began in Marin County, with parents who never said, ‘no,”’ columnist Jeff Jacoby wrote in The Boston Globe. 

The 20-year-old Lindh, who was captured in November, was charged Tuesday with conspiracy to kill U.S. citizens and could get life in prison. The Bush administration decided against a military trial or charges that carry the death penalty. 

His parents, after weeks of silence, said through their lawyer that they still love and support their son. 

Lindh’s parents had paid for his solo trip to Yemen, one of the world’s most dangerous places for Westerners, despite misgivings that prompted Marilyn Walker to repeatedly call representatives of the Yemen Language School, seeking assurances that he would be OK. 

Lindh repeatedly got in trouble with authorities there. He considered himself a more pious Muslim than most Yemenis, and made illegal attempts to meet with militants, according to those who encountered him. 

During a second trip to the Middle East eight months later, he sent an e-mail from Pakistan asking for more money. His father wired him $1,200, and Lindh was off to meet bin Laden. Lindh’s parents did not see him again until he appeared on CNN, a wounded and disheveled prisoner. 

“Clueless,” is one of the milder epithets that has been aimed at Lindh’s parents. 

The parents of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the teen-agers who in 1999 killed 12 students and a teacher at Columbine High School and then committed suicide, were similarly criticized. In that case, the criticism was not that the parents were too tolerant, but that they were ignorant — they should have known about their boys’ dark fantasies and weapons cache. 

Phyllis York, co-founder of Toughlove International, which urges parents to set limits on unruly offspring, said she is not surprised at the criticism. “We live in a culture where parents don’t count, yet they’re blamed as scapegoats,” she said. 

Child psychiatrist Dr. Elizabeth Berger sees fear behind the outrage. 

“When a person in an unexpected way does something grotesque, it is terrifying,” she said. “Everyone says, ‘Lord, there but for the grace go I.’ Rather than tussling with that humbling and humanitarian idea, frequently they push that away by asserting — ‘This could not possibly be me.”’ 

Child experts agree: Teens are good at fooling their parents. 

Garbarino asked freshmen at Cornell University, presumably a group of high-achievers, if they had hidden anything scary from their parents.  

They had, everything from suicidal leanings to drug busts. 

Berger, author of “Raising Children With Character,” would not comment on the Lindh household and said no outsider can deliver a clinical analysis of what is surely a complex situation. 

She said she does not absolve parents from all responsibility, but in general, “one cannot work backward from a troubled offspring and assert that the parents zigged when they should have zagged.” 

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On the Net: 

Toughlove: http://www.toughlove.org 

Berger’s site: http://www.parentingbyheart.com