Days after entering CNN’s bbs, “The War on Terror” in late 2001, I was forced to leave as that space began to resemble more a public lynching than a place of dialogue. If anything I learned from my few days on that bbs is that the definition of terrorism is much more a consensus of public opinion than it is a legal vector. Many of us on the Left have recently been maligned as “terrorists’ from various American religious leaders, from Leftist politicians, and as many are discovering, from colleagues and friends as well. Today disagreeing with the government of the United States is certainly considered as “terrorism”, if not even “treason”. Now adding a dimension to this “terrorism”/”freedom of speech” dichotomy, we have a twenty-year old man, John Walker, currently being termed the “American Taliban”, who stands a reasonably good chance of going to jail for a very long time, if not even facing the death penalty. All this because he took part of an ideological and very real battle in Afghanistan seven months ago. A battle which he believed to be one of “justice”, of “truth”, of protecting innocent people from evil. Sound familiar?
John Walker might be the first of a very long string of non-Afghan nationals who will be called up on charges for terrorism, for fighting with the Taliban (though not necessarily having killed anyone). Thus, we must ask ourselves: how are these people terrorists? Or rather, are they terrorists any more than the United States military currently in Afghanistan is a terrorist? It is not that I am trying to toy with the precise legalities of this crisis, but indeed I am concerned that the lines being drawn between those who are terrorists and those who are not are completely ideological ones, a terrain which has in its interest not justice, but control and silencing of antagonistic international voices. For even if Bin Laden is the organizer and/or funder of the September 11th terrorist attacks, does this make every al Qaeda foot soldier who believes himself to be protecting cultural and religious values a “terrorist”? If these are circumstances upon which we judge terrorism, then, this would mean that terrorism is, in fact, not at all about mass destruction, about forcing a political measures with violence, or about coercing people through violence. Current use of the word indicate that terrorism could be just about anything—from the young soldier who takes up arms to defend his country to the person who serves Osama Bin Laden a cup of coffee.
What I ask myself is this: what has John Walker done that the any member of the United State’s military has not done? We might imagine, and I am just speculating here, that he acted in what he believed to be good faith in upholding certain religious and social ideals in going to fight in Afghanistan, that he battled a force he believed to be “evil”, that he sought to preserve justice for his compatriots, or maybe that he fought to right a social and political wrong. He also fought for a political force that commits massive acts of violence upon others as he also had access to the knowledge of his government’s history of violence. Now, what really makes this scenario so different from that of any other American soldier in the other half of this theatre? John Walker may be accused of many possible crimes from treason to assisting terrorists. Both are problematic charges since the United States is not officially “at war” as this has never been declared by Congress, hence treason cannot apply. Proving that he assisted terrorists becomes equally, if not more, complex. How can this be proven really? Maybe he was in the mountains of Afghanistan, plundering through the weather and kilometers. But how did this really “assist terrorists”? I find this difficult to fathom. For if the terrorism in New York was really conducted by Bin Laden and colleagues in their unknown and varying places of meeting, I think it would be quite difficult to prove that one twenty year-old fighter in the mountains of Afghanistan helped them carry out their terrorist deeds.
We must likewise ask if John Walker is being accused of being a “traitor” only because he was on the other side of this conflict. And if it morally correct to charge him with anything after this nonofficial war when all other fighters in Afghanistan who are not accused of war crimes will be likewise set free and even integrated into the future Afghan government. After World War II, many soldiers fighting under Hitler were, in fact, freed and left to live their lives with the rest of Germans recovering from the horrors of that war. And when American soldiers were captured in Kosovo almost three years ago, where the International Committee of the Red Cross spokeswoman Doris Pfister referred to the Geneva Convention regarding these American prisoners stating: “They can be tried if they are accused of war crimes or if they are accused of any crime which is linked to domestic law. But what is important is that the fact of being on a mission for the American army is not a reason to try them”. Following this logic, we can deduce that a prisoner of war can only be charged for war crimes (for which Mr. Walker has not been accused) or for crimes linked to domestic law (which he is not). Most importantly, however, this rationale mandates that Mr. Walker cannot be tried solely for being on the opposing army!
Thus, the very definition of terrorism must be interrogated more assiduously since it seems that John Walker is as much an agent of this “war” as he is a victim, just as every single one of the American soldiers now searching the caves of Afghanistan, bombing villages, hospitals, INNOCENT PEOPLE and other non-military targets, and aiding in the brutal murders of the opposition given that we are supporting the Northern Alliance (a groups whose human rights record is no more praiseworthy than that of the Taliban!). All of this violence was beset upon the Afghan people in order to search for one man, Osama Bin Laden. Now that we are being told the current death toll in Afghanistan which according to conservative estimates (3,767 through 10 September, 2002) exceeds the number of deaths on 11 September, we should feel quite ashamed. To put it quite bluntly, the same horror of September 11th which brought many of us to tears, sleepless nights, anger and confusion, that very same horror, has been taking place in Afghanistan slowly over the past nine weeks with little concern for the victims in this travesty. Meanwhile this entire bombing strategy is made to seem “sanitary” and “necessary” by our government and major media without many questioning the ethics of such actions . Though the mainstream media is consciously eliding these acts of murder, we need to scrutinize who is really guilty of war crimes? The endless “errant bombs”, the thousands of innocent Afghans killed, the thousands more torn away from their villages and food supplies due to the American aggression, are all grounds upon which one might claim that many wrongs have indeed been committed. Champions of this “war” claim that the above casualties are “unfortunate”. But similar platitudes could very well be the thoughts of the terrorist/s who masterminded other “unfortunate” deaths on 11 September. It would seem that everyone involved in this game of violence exonerates their particular responsibility for killing innocent people by listing these humans as “collateral damage” while they continue their very ideologically-based acts of aggression. Nothing has changed from either the American or Taliban side—the words of justice, the ideals of stomping out an evil and the violence are all uncannily similar. Each side chants: “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”
So will John Walker be found “guilty” for having the “wrong” ideology in this great land of freedom? Will be he be tried for having committed the atrocious act of thinking quite differently about the world than many Americans? Is this—in and of itself—a crime really? I would say that instead of recreating the lynch-mob mentality that American culture knows far too well, we should be listening to this American Taliban so as to understand how we might be also be viewed as terrorists by many others on this planet (and hopefully so we change our ways also). For John Walker represents not a weakness in American society, but rather a challenge to which the American people should rise: that we finally begin to listen to the many “whys” of September 11th given that now the ideology which we vehemently oppose is coming home in an American body.
But then, if we look at this whole affair from another perspective, we can readily establish that John Walker did nothing to help the Taliban. Certainly, not any more than George Bush did in supporting the Contras in his famous 1986 trip in which he brought with him to Honduras two baseball players, Nolan Ryan and Gary Carter, to pull in more popular support (and funds) for those terrorists. Yet, we have not seen any trials of George Bush for this. And we might also look back to Iran Contra while we are at it, though the trial for that terror was one long disgrace of justice. And why is nobody discussing how the United States supported the Taliban (and other like groups) from the early 1980’s up through this Spring or how that the Taliban were fighting us with the very money, bullets, and weapons we gave them? Just given this fact, we might say that the United States of America funded the Taliban to include John Walker. So if we try John Walker, we must then go after the very government which assisted the alleged “terrorist assistant”, the United States.
That is if we really do wish to be sticklers about bringing to justice those who fund and support terrorists.