September 11 reminded us of the dangers of religious extremism. But John Walker, the young American captured fighting beside the Taliban in Mazar-e-Sharif, reminds us of the opposite: the risks of open-ended tolerance, absent all conviction.
Before his life took its amazing turn, Walker was a doted-upon son of upscale, anything-goes Marin County, California. At 14, he spent his time listening to hip-hop and surfing the web. As he began what at first looked like typical adolescent soul-searching, his parents stayed lovingly supportive. They sent him to Tamiscal High School, where, the school’s website announces, students pursue “self-directed, independent study.” They endorsed his growing attraction to Islam, bankrolling his study of the Quran in Yemen and Pakistan. Even after his capture in Afghanistan, Frank Lindh remained the devoted dad: “I don’t think John was doing anything wrong.”
But no matter how loving, such tolerance is at the heart of their son’s fanaticism. Certainly there was no cultural wisdom these adults felt impelled to pass on to him. In school, he could study what he wanted, on his own; he reportedly met with his only teacher but once a week. Likewise, in what one paper calls the “Bay Area’s bustling religious bazaar,” John could explore Buddhism, his mother’s adopted creed, or Native American religion, or Islam.
These good people were not overly worried where their son’s spiritual journey took him, because for them beliefs have no intrinsic value or meaning, and the journey is all. As Lindh explained, Islam was as good as his own Catholicism, since “both have strong traditions of scholarship and deep history.” What endows belief with meaning, then, is not its content—Jesus, Mohammad, . . . whatever—but the commitment that one brings to it. This explains why Lindh was “proud of John for pursuing an alternative course.” An alternative rather than a predictable (i.e., Judeo-Christian) course testifies to your individuality and “passion,” a word both parents used to describe their son’s spiritual search. In this world, religion is therapy; its value lies not in truths that come to grips with life’s tragic mysteries but in its ability to fill the hungry soul with feelings of vitality and well-being.
Is it so surprising that Walker—described as a sensitive boy, doubtless made even more vulnerable by his parents’ recent separation and his father’s reported homosexual affair—found in this anemic world an unbearable lightness of being and sought its antithesis? In Pakistan, this alternative-school student, who’d probably never had to memorize a single historical date because such passive learning inhibits independent thinking, wanted to learn the entire Quran by heart. He begged to be told how to hold his hands when he prayed, what to eat, what to think. The precise discipline, the certainty so entirely absent from his Bay Area life, filled a void. “In the U.S., I feel alone,” he reportedly said in Pakistan. “Here I feel comfortable and at home.” His next step into Afghanistan makes perfect sense; his “heart became attached” to the Taliban because they had set up a “pure Islamic state,” the polar opposite of the morally vapid Marin County that had left him empty.
Now that Walker appears to have committed a crime so evil that Dante damned its practitioners to hell’s lowest circle, Marilyn Walker thinks that her son must have been brainwashed. “When you’re young and impressionable, it’s easy to be led by charismatic people,” she said. Family friends defend him simply on the grounds of his youth.
Both explanations only magnify the problem of Walker’s upbringing. It is because his elders left him to define his own moral, spiritual, and intellectual universe that he failed to become an adult who could meet life’s demands with moral seriousness and a sense of self. It is because they told him to follow his bliss that he did not become a man who grasped that his decisions would affect others—his family, his neighbors, and his country—and would define him for life. So Walker remains in a nebulous post-adolescent state, too big to be a child, too lite to be an adult.
The cultural predicament that gives rise to such child-adults, a common enough American type today, is precisely why we can’t let our sympathies get the better of us—even if we agree with President Bush that Walker is “a poor fellow.” Walker’s trial and the punishment that will likely follow it will be essential rituals for a country newly conscious of the need to balance its tradition of tolerance and child-centeredness with moral gravity—and with respect for Walker’s fellow young Americans who are risking their lives for their country in Afghanistan.