It is, to say the least, hard to believe that a young American could have ended up in the Taliban. But saying the least is not the conservative’s discourse of choice. And so it was that soon after John Walker’s dirty, bearded face was beamed worldwide, conservative commentator Shelby Steele appeared on the Wall Street Journal op-ed page with a 1,100-word unified Walker theory, which boiled down to this: The 20-year-old Walker could do what he did only because his formative years were spent in hot-tubbing, wine-loving, liberal Marin County, California. Steele explained that in Marin “there are no external yes’s and no’s, or rights and wrongs … just the fashionable relativism (Islam is as good as the family Catholicism) that makes places like Marin so cool,” and that there, “a little anti-Americanism becomes a sophistication, a mark of authenticity.”
A few days later, the Washington Post’s Richard Cohen, detecting a rash generalization, begged to differ. “I am willing to wager,” Cohen wrote, “that most of the kids born in 1981 (or any year, for that matter) are still in America. In fact, there may be more of them with the U.S. armed forces than with the Taliban. I am way out on a limb on that one, I know.”
How unlike a newspaper columnist to pose such a perspective-inducing question! But how like one not to bother to answer it! Fortunately, enough data exists to show that Cohen has won this bout, if not by a knockout then at least on points. According to the United States Army Recruiting Command, during fiscal year 2001, the time frame during which John Walker cast his fate with the Taliban, a total of not one, not two, but eight people from Marin County joined the Army (three 19-year-olds, two 20-year-olds, and three 21-year-olds). I don’t know how many more Marins are in the Marines, or in the Navy or Air Force—maybe as penance Mr. Steele should have to chase around the Pentagon for those figures. (And while he’s at it, he could find out how, per capita, Marin’s 2001 total compares to the average county’s.) But we now know that whatever moved Walker to take his drastic action wasn’t in the local wine and (sparkling) water. And should that really be a surprise—least of all to a conservative? Aren’t they the ones who relentlessly downplay external circumstances in favor of personal responsibility?