Father defends 'Taliban' son in speech
by Matthew S. Bajko
Frank Lindh, the gay father of John Walker Lindh, dubbed the "American Taliban" after being found in Afghanistan in late 2001, lashed out at the mainstream media and politicians on both sides of the aisle in Washington during a fiery, and at times, emotional speech before the Commonwealth Club last week.
Breaking a self-imposed silence about his son's case, Lindh gave the speech in order to reach out to the American public, which he said has been brainwashed by lawmakers, government officials, and sensational news coverage into thinking his son is a traitor to his country and an ally of Osama bin Laden, America's most wanted terrorist. Neither is true, maintained Lindh, who said John met bin Laden and came away "unimpressed."
"I am just a father whose son got into some trouble," said Lindh during his lunchtime talk Thursday, January 19. "Our system broke down in the case of John Lindh."
The timing of Lindh's speech coincides with appeals for President Bush to commute his son's sentence. John Lindh, who turns 25 in a few weeks, is serving a 20-year prison term at a federal penitentiary in Southern California. The government originally charged John Lindh with numerous counts of terrorism, but later had to drop all such charges. In the end, John Lindh struck a deal with the government and pleaded guilty to supplying services to the Taliban.
"Twenty years is a long sentence for someone who did no crime," said Lindh. "John is taking the heat for something he had no involvement in."
His father contends his son should have his sentence commuted because, like other detainees captured on the battlefield in Afghanistan and released by the government, he poses no harm to the United States. Asked what he would say to President Bush, Lindh said, "as one father to another I would ask you please let my son out of jail and apologize for what has happened."
Lindh, who divorced his wife in 1997 and reportedly moved in with his male lover in San Rafael, works in the legal department at Pacific Gas and Electric's San Francisco headquarters. A member of the Metropolitan Community Church, Lindh is active with Out and Equal Workplace Advocates, an LGBT networking group that fights for equal treatment in the workplace.
At the time of his son's capture, some pundits suggested his father's sexuality played a role in the young Lindh's decision to turn to Islam and fight in Afghanistan. During his speech, Lindh did not discuss his sexuality and moderator Adam Tanner, Reuter's San Francisco bureau chief, chose not to ask Lindh a question submitted by the Bay Area Reporter on how he felt at having his sexuality conflated into a reason for his son's actions.
Instead, Tanner asked Lindh if he thought his divorce led to his son's "rootlessness." Lindh dismissed the question's premise, saying his son "was very rooted in his cause. No divorce is easy. It had an effect on the children, but he was already living overseas. I don't see a cause and effect."
Recounting in his speech the story of how his son ended up fighting alongside the mujahedeen, Lindh said, "This is the story of a decent, honorable young man who embarked on a religious quest."
Yet, Lindh maintained that his son's actions when "viewed through the prism of the September 11 attacks caused a young man to be vilified as a traitor and a terrorist."
Born in February 1981 and named after John Marshall, a legendary chief justice of the United States Supreme Court, John Walker Lindh moved to Marin County at the age of 10. At age 12, he saw the film Malcolm X, which sparked his interest in Islam. By 16, he had converted from Catholicism to Islam and joined a mosque in Mill Valley.
He traveled twice to Yemen, between June 1998 and May 1999 and for most of 2000, to attend a Muslim school. Having trouble getting a visa for Saudi Arabia, he went to Pakistan in November 2000 to further study his new found religion and memorize the Koran.
In the summer of 2001, unbeknownst to his parents, Lindh slipped over the mountains into Afghanistan to join the Afghan Army. According to his father he enrolled in a government-run, infantry-training program funded by bin Laden.
His father maintained that his son "never fired his weapon" and after the 9/11 terrorist attacks found himself fighting on the wrong side of the Afghan war. America had switched sides and joined forces with the Northern Alliance, and in October, invaded the country on a mission to wipe out the Taliban.
On the morning of November 25, 2001 a CBS news crew videotaped the young Lindh at a warlord's camp being interrogated but it wasn't until November 30 that the media "storm" was unleashed, said his father, when John survived a massacre at the camp.
"He became an international sensation. Newsweek called him the 'American Taliban.' Most of the coverage was negative and inflammatory," said Lindh, who choked up recalling how the media portrayed his son.
He also attacked the military for its treatment of John. Lindh said officers blindfolded his son and left him naked in an unheated cargo container in Afghanistan.
"They treated him in a way that is shameful to our nation and its ideals," he said. "He did not need to be tortured. He was glad to be rescued and tell his story."
Lindh also choked up recalling the comments and actions of political leaders, from Bush and former Attorney General John Ashcroft to Democratic Senators Hillary Clinton and Barbara Boxer, who called his son everything from a terrorist to a traitor, and in so doing, Lindh maintained, inflamed public sentiment against his son.
"I think – I have reflected on this a lot – we all understand the grief and trauma we experienced because of the 9/11 attacks. I understand John was in the crosshairs of that emotion. People wanted to get someone and blame someone," he said. "We didn't get Osama. He is still out there. We did get John. I understand that, but it isn't right."
While he said he wished his son had never gone to Afghanistan, Lindh said he is still proud of John.
"He is a wonderful kid, has a great sense of humor and spirits. He has shown more integrity and dignity than any politician or any journalist I have ever met," said Lindh.
His mother and father alternate weekend visits, where they have two to three hours on Friday and five hours on Saturday and Sunday to spend with their son.
"We have nothing to do but talk," said Lindh, who due to restrictions imposed by the government is banned from disclosing his conversations with his son.