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John Walker Lindh and Global Criminal Justice


A few weeks ago, the verdict came in on John Walker Lindh, the 21-year old “American Taliban” who fought with the former government of Afghanistan. Lindh escaped life in prison on terrorism charges by pleading guilty to providing service to a terrorist organization and to carrying explosives (a rifle and two grenades) while performing that service. He faces as many as 20 years in prison, the loss of his young adulthood to America’s massive, globally unmatched mass incarceration state.

It is not clear why Lindh converted to Islam when he was 16 or what role his family circumstances and/or community surroundings in California played in that conversion. It is not clear why his parents supported his decision to move to Yemen or that he was trained in a terrorist camp run by al-Qaeda.

I suspect but do not know that he feared for his life if he tried to escape after the September 11 attacks. It is unclear and but unlikely that he ever hoped to receive financial compensation for books, TV appearances and/or other promotions relating to his bizarre experience – forbidden under the terms of the July 14 plea agreement.

It is unmistakably clear, however, that Lindh’s “terrible crimes” are laughably minor compared to those committed by United States policymakers before and during America’s post-9-11 “War on Terrorism” (WOT), in which he became unwittingly involved. Lindh, a short-term foot solider in a distant rag-tag army, may get as many as 20 years for carrying a rifle and two grenades, with no evidence that he ever actually hurt so much as a flea. How many years behind bars, then, do the guardians of Western Civilization propose for monumentally terrorist US decision- makers like former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger?

Kissinger is guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity in such far-flung locations as Cambodia, East Timor, Cyprus, Chile, and Vietnam (for details see Christopher Hitchens’ excellent Trial of Henry Kissinger – 2001). Among Dr. Kissinger’s victims are 250,000 East Timorese, murdered in a genocidal invasion approved and equipped by the United States under the direction of Kissinger and President Ford in 1975.

Kissinger receives hefty fees for speaking engagements, media appearances, and book contracts, sold to audiences and readers as the wisdom of one of civilization’s great statesmen.

How many years, then, for US Presidents and other military officials for their operation of the United States’ notorious School of the Americas, recently renamed the “Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation” in response to humanitarian protests? “Over its decades of existence,” Rahul Mahajan writes in his excellent New Crusade: America’s War on Terrorism (NY: Monthly Review Press, 2002), the SOA “has graduated hundreds of future military dictators, death squad leaders, tortures and others who have spread misery throughout Latin America.”

It has spawned, to give one among numerous examples, Efraim Rios Montt, “whose reign of terror over Guatemala in the 1980s,” notes Mahajan, “saw the killing of over 100,000 Mayan Indians.” The SOA’s record of death and destruction makes al-Qaeda look strictly minor league though it is worth noting that Bin Laden and his crew got their start with crucial assistance from the SOA’s operator, the United States.

What sentences do the guardians of global justice propose for George Bush Senior and General Norman Scwarzkopf for any number of crimes during the Persian Gulf “War,” including the “Highways of Death” massacre, when US bombers mercilessly attacked thousands of retreating military and civilian vehicles flying white flags? How many years for the Pentagon officials who ordered the destruction of most large water treatment plants and dams in Iraq, creating “an explosion of water-borne disease” (Mahajan) there?

How many years for Bill Clinton, who ordered an August 1998 cruise missile strike on the El Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Sudan, resulting in thousands of civilian deaths? Clinton also continued economic sanctions that claimed the lives of as many as 500,000 Iraqi children between the end of the Gulf War and 1996.

How many for Clinton’s Secretary of State Madeline Albright, who told 60 Minutes reporter Leslie Stahl that “the price” of those US-caused juvenile fatalities were “worth it” to achieve noble US global objectives? For Clinton and Albright in connection with the 1999 “humanitarian bombing” of Serbia, which targeted basic civilian infrastructure, including water treatment and electricity generation?

How many years for top US policymakers who provide essential economic support and advanced US (Boeing and Lockheed-Martin)-made military support for Israel’s illegal, deadly, and racist occupation of Palestinian territory? The most recent example of officially unmentionable Israeli terrorism involved the use of an F-16 fighter to level an entire civilian apartment block in the Gaza strip. This year’s US taxpayer price tag in support of Israeli apartheid is $2.76 billion.

Turning to the current US war on terror to expand empire and government power while serving oil interests at home and abroad, how many years for Bush Junior, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and other top officials for the thousands of innocent Afghan civilians they have cavalierly liquidated? Victims of easily predictable and in fact widely predicted “collateral damage” that US officials and a sickeningly hyper-subservient “mainstream” (really corporate) media have worked to criminally suppress, those civilians died so that the US might maintain proper imperial credibility in the wake of the September attacks.

Listen to the comments of an “unidentified Pentagon official” on the deaths of 93 civilians in the October 22nd attack on the village of Chowkar-Karez: “the people there are dead because we wanted them dead.” The anonymous Pentagon official could have said much the same about more than 600 Taliban-affiliated prisoners slaughtered, many with hands tied behind their backs, in an attack carried out by the Northern Alliance with the help of US bombers and helicopters.

That is the language of a Mafia Don, who wants it understood that nobody touches his operation without getting their legs broken.

It is irrelevant, apparently, that most of 9-11′s culprits were Saudis. There was not a single person of Afghan ancestry on the four hijacked planes. Still, by one rigorously researched estimate, that of business professor Marc Herold, US bombs killed more than 4,000 Afghan civilians, outdoing 9-11′s body count, just between October and January.

There are many more examples, and we look forward to Rumsfeld’s future paid speeches, reflections, and memoirs, returning us to the inspiring days when history’s most powerful nation pulverized pre-industrial villagers and sheep-herders in one of the world’s weakest and poorest states. His official recollections will not pay much attention to the fact that the Bush administration suspended terrorism investigations of the Taliban in the summer of 2001, in the interests of building a US friendly oil pipeline through Afghanistan.

Who, then, is the real criminal these days – Johnny [Walker Lindh] Taliban or Donny [Rumsfeld] Pentagon? The latter’s crimes, of course, along with those of his cohorts, are ongoing and may soon crescendo in a bloody imperialist assault on Iraq.

Of course, merely to ask these questions in the US at least is to indicate one’s status as a member of the lunatic fringe. It is to open oneself up to the charge of “anti-Americanism,” of being on the wrong side of the all-or-nothing division of the world – “either you are with us or you are with the terrorists” – announced by George W. Bush on September 20th. It is also to develop a deepened sense of why the US has worked so hard to undermine the new International Criminal Court, which other nations understandably see as a basic step towards the global rule of law.

You don’t have to join the Islamic Jihad to run afoul of the new world order and global criminal justice state proclaimed by Bush, Rumsfeld, Rice, and the rest. You only have to possess to develop, with good reasons, serious questions about the extent to which the US government is a credible opponent and not in fact a leading practitioner of terrorism. You only have to grasp an unmentionable fact: that America’s war on terrorism is mainly about “the extension and maintenance of US government power, at home and abroad. Other motives,” Mahajan rightly notes, “are strictly secondary.”

Paul Street is a social policy researcher, historian, and freelance writer in Chicago, Illinois. . His articles, essays, and editorials have appeared in In These Times, Monthly Review, Dissent, The Chicago Tribune, Social History, and Z Magazine.

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