Frame Game

Walk the Walker

Sometimes, when two people disagree about the nature of their dispute, logic can’t clarify who’s right but events can. Suppose I’m for the death penalty, and you’re against it. I say it’s about fighting crime. You say it’s about race and class. As long as we’re talking about black killers from bad neighborhoods, neither of us can prove the other is wrong. But suppose I’m summoned for jury duty in a capital murder case. The defendant is a charming young white man from a fine family. The evidence proves his guilt. If I don’t have the stomach to sentence him to death, then my description of our quarrel was false. I’m not the race-neutral crime-fighter I claimed to be.

Such a moment of truth now faces President Bush and the United States. We’ve said all along that the war in Afghanistan is about fighting terrorism. Osama Bin Laden and his sympathizers have said it’s about race and culture. As long as Americans were on one side and al-Qaida and the Taliban were on the other, we couldn’t be proved wrong. But now we’ve run into John Walker, a young, well-heeled Californian who trained with al-Qaida, went to Afghanistan, and fought with the Taliban against the Northern Alliance and the United States. Will we treat Walker the way we’ve treated al-Qaida and the Taliban? Or will we cut him slack because he’s American?

Bush has laid out clear standards for judging the Taliban, al-Qaida, and governments that go easy on them. On Nov. 15, he said, “The Taliban government and al-Qaida—the evil ones—use heroin trafficking in order to fund their murder.” On Nov. 21, he added, “If you harbor terrorists, you are terrorists.” On Dec. 5, he demanded that Yasser Arafat bring terrorists under Palestinian jurisdiction “to justice.” On Dec. 7, he repeated that the war in Afghanistan is “not between religions or cultures, but between civilization and barbarism.” In short, the Taliban and al-Qaida are murderers, and governments must bring such killers to justice, regardless of nationality.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has been even clearer. When foreign fighters—including Walker, unbeknownst to the U.S. government—were holed up in Kunduz with Taliban troops, Rumsfeld said, “Any idea that those [fighters] should be let loose on any basis at all to leave that country and to go bring terror to other countries and destabilize other countries is unacceptable.” He applied this rule to members of al-Qaida at “all levels” and insisted that they “be imprisoned and dealt with as people who have engaged in mass murder.” Yesterday, he defined virtually all non-Afghan Taliban fighters as al-Qaida, explaining,

With respect to al-Qaida, from the top to the bottom, they’re bad folks. They have been doing perfectly terrible things in Afghanistan and around the world, and it would be just a crime if they are let loose in any way to go to the neighboring countries or to other countries, our country, or anywhere in the world to continue the terrorist acts that they’ve been engaged in. And so they ought to be stopped and they ought to be imprisoned.

As for Taliban troops, Rumsfeld said that U.S. forces would “take every opportunity” to wipe them out, even as they retreated. When asked whether he regretted the killings of hundreds of Taliban and al-Qaida soldiers in a prison uprising in Mazar-e-Sharif (in which Walker was one of the surviving prisoners), Rumsfeld described the scenario this way: “People are about to get out. These are not good people. These are people who have been repressing that country for a long time. They are people who have killed a lot of people. They were in there because they belonged in there, and as they started to escape they were killed. … I don’t regret anything that I now know.”

By these standards, Walker would be lucky to get a long prison term. According to Rumsfeld, Walker “is an al-Qaida member. He was fighting on the al-Qaida side—the non-Afghan forces—against us,” and he “was in the prison uprising where an American [CIA officer] was killed.” Walker says he didn’t participate in the uprising, but Rumsfeld says Walker was found “with an AK-47.”

How has Bush responded to this moment of truth? When asked on Dec. 4 what should be done with Walker, he replied, “We’re just trying to learn the facts about this poor fellow. Obviously he has been misled.” Bush continued: “Surely he was raised better than to know that a government that suppresses women and women’s rights, that doesn’t educate young girls, is not the kind of government worth dying for. … We’re in the process of determining what to do with John.” Bush’s spokesman, Ari Fleischer, explained that “any young American who would fall for Taliban propaganda is a poor fellow in the president’s opinion.” Bush campaign lawyer George Terwilliger argued that Americans are “compassionate” and that perhaps Walker’s “punishment ought to be mitigated.”

Compassion is one thing. Selective compassion is another. Bush hasn’t excused Pakistanis who fought alongside the Taliban as “poor fellows.” He hasn’t spared Taliban soldiers on the grounds that they’ve been “misled.” He doesn’t call young Afghans by their first names or talk about how they’ve been “raised better.” These sympathetic reflections are reserved, in Fleischer’s words, for a “young American.” Such understanding comments are understandable. You can see Walker’s life from his point of view, because he’s like you or your kid. But that isn’t compassion or justice. It’s bias.

Bush will have to take the test again. More than one answer is defensible. You can frame this as a war on terror and demand that all terrorists and those who harbor them be punished. You can frame it as a war on Afghanistan and demand that the United States spare the lives of young Taliban and al-Qaida fighters. But you can’t call it a war on terror and spare—much less harbor—the one al-Qaida fighter known to be an American. That’s not a perspective. That’s a lie.