John Walker of the Taliban
Jude Wanniski
December 11, 2001


Memo To: Website Fans, Browsers, Clients
From: Jude Wanniski
RE: Muslim on the Margin

People I know and do not know are asking me questions all day long, by e-mail, telephone and in person, mostly about war and peace or bulls and bears. Big questions about big stuff. So I’ve been surprised that a representative scattering have been asking what I thought about John Walker, the 20-year-old fellow who turned up in a prisoner-of-war camp in Afghanistan, having fought with the Taliban and was captured by the Northern Alliance. At first I thought I was being asked what should be done about the young man, but I think the great interest in him being shown by the American people is that he is a man on the margin -- the margin being the place where change occurs. Why would a bright 16-year-old raised in an upscale Bay Area family decide to convert to Islam, travel to Pakistan to study in depth with Islamic scholars, and suddenly, last May, decide to make his way to Kabul and join the ranks of the Taliban army? When the American people want to know about things going on inside our national family, they show so much interest in the margin that the press corps and the politicians are forced to feed that interest.

There were of course several politicians quick to announce that John Walker is a traitor to his country and should pay the highest possible price. This reflected the first wave of reporting, with young journalists armed with notebooks and video cameras going into barber shops and delicatessens to interview men with tattoos on their arms and hair on their chest. The more adroit politicians finessed the questions by saying they needed more information before they decided on death by lethal injection. My first response was that "Hey, he is just a kid, fighting with other young kids in an army that meant nothing to us just a few weeks ago. He did not betray anyone, let alone his country." If he got the news that his country had decided to back the Northern Alliance and bring the Taliban down, it could not have been more than a few days before his capture by the Northern Alliance. If I were a 20-year-old living in a cave with some new compatriots, unwashed, bearded religious fanatics with guns, I might think of asking politely if I could leave so I could make my way back to San Francisco, but I doubt that I would get the chance. Now we’re being told he cooperated with our troops in providing information about the enemy as soon as he had that chance, and did not insist on giving only his name, rank and serial number.

I have a friend in California who is now pushing 80 who was born in Germany of German parents, then moved to Chicago with his parents when he was a toddler. Seeking a life of adventure as a teenager, he shipped out of New York on a freighter that was captured by a Nazi gunboat somewhere in the Atlantic. They found from his papers that he was born in Germany, which made him a German citizen as far as they were concerned. He told how they put him in the army and sent him to the Russian front where he remained for three years, unable to escape and make his way back to Chicago because the Russians took no prisoners if they could help it. In the same way, it is hard to fault John Walker for choosing a path out of respectable motives and having to follow it where it went. Our government should probably just give him an honorary discharge from the Taliban army and a one-way ticket to Frisco, where publishers would bid for the book he should write. The worst that can be said about him is that, when questioned, he took the line, albeit a bit hesitantly, that he could understand why the suicide bombers hit the World Trade Center. So could I, and I would guess he also felt as did I that they should not have done it. Anyone who has practically memorized the Koran as Walker has would condemn the killing of civilians to achieve a political end. Then again, the Taliban condemned the September 11 attacks, as did Saddam Hussein in Baghdad.

What makes John Walker so interesting to ordinary Americans is that all these forces were at work on him, from the time he read The Autobiography of Malcolm X in his teens and decided Islam was the way he wanted to go. Perhaps if they can understand him they can better understand what is going on in this new world of political terrorism, suicide bombings, anthrax letters, and the carpet bombing of a country halfway around the world on the grounds that it would not extradite a bearded religious fanatic unless we offered some proof he did what we said he did. These are big questions for our national family to sort out, and it is easier to do when they can focus on a man on the margin. They did this with O.J. Simpson. They did it with Clarence Thomas. They may be trying to do it now with this unusual and interesting American Muslim. As a Judeo-Christian nation that tends to view Islam through a telescope, we do need to pay more attention to it, get closer to it for closer looks, and figure out how they should figure into this new world that we dominate from the top of the global pyramid.

Why the heck did Islam come along anyway? Wasn’t Judaism and Christianity enough? I’ve been thinking about this for several years. So, by the way, has Pat Buchanan, and we’ve been exchanging notes on the topic. I haven’t asked him about John Walker, but my guess is that his take is not much different than mine. He had a very interesting column about “the clash of civilizations” the other day, which informed me that Islam is the fastest-growing religion in Europe. It is something to be seriously reckoned with, he says.