Forgetting Afghanistan

And forgiving John Walker.

All red-blooded Americans hate the Taliban. But what did red-blooded Americans think of the Taliban seven months ago? That’s about when John Walker, 20-year-old American citizen, disappeared from sight until he surfaced earlier this month in a prisoner-of-war camp for Taliban fighters who were lucky enough not to have been killed—yet. Now many Americans want Walker tried, punished, executed … nothing is too terrible to say about, or contemplate doing to, this traitor who abandoned his country and joined up with that incarnation of evil, that rats’ nest of anti-Americanism, that oppressor of women, that harborer of terrorists: the Taliban.

All this about the Taliban was about as true seven months ago as it was until last week, when the Taliban’s views on women became irrelevant. But most red-blooded Americans had no gripe against the Taliban seven months ago because seven months ago most Americans of all sanguinary hues had never heard of the Taliban. Most probably had heard of Osama Bin Laden and were happy enough to take him for a very bad guy who looked the part, but few could tell you why. Almost no one could identify al-Qaida—let alone spell it. “Harboring” was still widely considered a benign concept, generally thought to involve boats.

Seven months ago “Afghanistanism” still was—as it had been for decades and soon will be again—journalists’ slang for pretentiously feigning interest in the goings-on of superfluous faraway nations. The Bush administration’s passionate concern about the rights of women in Afghanistan was still being repressed. Even terrorism was not high on its political agenda.

Sept. 11 changed everything. We are all Afghanistanists now. Both sides of this reversal are justified: not just our current obsession, but our previous indifference as well. Although foreign policy fetishists may deplore it (and globalists are right that the world impinges on sovereign nations more and more), the freedom to ignore the rest of the world has always been part of our American Dream. And if you can’t ignore Afghanistan, who can you ignore? You could say that this war is about restoring our right to ignore Afghanistan once again.

Meanwhile, the Taliban is well worth hating. What’s frightening, though, is how quickly people have forgotten that they didn’t always hate the Taliban, and how quickly they will forget about what is now the object of such hatred. (Inevitable Orwell reference, from 1984: “Oceana is at war with East Asia. Oceana has ALWAYS been at war with East Asia.”) Also, how quickly they develop an appetite for heretics.

Newsweek reports that Attorney General John Ashcroft wants to “make an example” of Walker. An example to whom? To all the other young Americans who are thinking about joining the Taliban? Was that a serious problem even before last week? Are there thousands or hundreds or dozens or even two U.S. citizens who are now scouring the globe in search of some other fanatical anti-American militia to join? Or is Ashcroft here confirming his reputation as someone who brings more enthusiasm than reflection to the process of trying people and punishing them?

The only voice of perspective has been that of President Bush, who once said of himself, “When I was young and irresponsible, I was young and irresponsible.” About John Walker, Bush said that “this poor fellow … obviously … has been misled.”

Walker obviously has been irresponsible in ways the young George W. never contemplated. He is obviously a fool and pretty obviously wished his own country harm. But there is no evidence so far that he actually did the United States any harm. As far as anyone calling for his head knows, he had nothing to do with Sept. 11 or any foreknowledge of it. He told Newsweek that he “supported” it in hindsight, which is repellent but not a crime. It is unclear whether he was actually a member of al-Qaida. He played some unknown but small and ineffectual role in defending Afghanistan from an attack by the United States. That attack was justified, but defending a “harborer” is doubly removed from being a terrorist. Walker seems to have played no active role in the prison camp uprising that killed CIA interrogator Mike Spann.

Whatever happens to him now, John Walker will not have avoided his nation’s official wrath. Without knowing of his existence, the United States gave this American citizen precisely the same treatment as the thousands of Pakistanis and other nationals who went to defend the Taliban government. That is, for two months we tried hard to kill him. Then, after he and other surviving fighters surrendered, our pals in the Northern Alliance managed to kill a few more by suffocation while transporting them to prison camp in closed container trucks. Nor was Walker given any special treatment when American planes bombed the prison camp to stop the uprising. All fair enough, or at least inevitable, in wartime.

Walker’s co-fighters from Pakistan and elsewhere face unpleasant futures, or very short ones, if they are sent back to their home countries. Does John Walker deserve any better because he happens to be a citizen of the United States? Should we show mercy even though the Taliban didn’t and Pakistan probably won’t? Should we allow him a fancy lawyer and procedural protections undreamed of in the countries he seemed to prefer to his own? Should we even have a bit of understanding about how a troubled teen-ager might be “young and irresponsible” enough to get himself in this fix?

The answer is yes, of course we should. The superior benefits of American citizenship are “why they hate us,” as the president points out, and what we’re fighting to protect. Now that the Taliban is defeated, even John Walker has the right of every American to forget about Afghanistan.