Since 9/11, the Department of Justice has prosecuted more than 500 terrorism cases, yet there remains scant public understanding of what these federal cases have actually looked like and the impact they have had on communities and families. Published by The Nation in collaboration with Educators for Civil Liberties, the America After 9/11 series features contributions from scholars, researchers and advocates to provide a systematic look at the patterns of civil rights abuses in the United States’ domestic “war on terror.”
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In December 2001, my 20-year-old son John was discovered, wounded and nearly dead, among a ragged band of Taliban prisoners of war in northern Afghanistan. John had survived a massacre of prisoners at an ancient fortress called Qala-i-Jangi—the “House of War.”The blood-letting at Qala-i-Jangi was overseen by General Rashid Dostum, a notorious warlord who had opportunistically aligned himself with US Special Forces during the invasion by Coalition forces; The New Yorker’s Jon Lee Anderson called him “among the worst war criminals in the country.”
From the moment the story broke,“John Walker Lindh, the American Taliban,” was denounced by public officials and the news media as a “traitor” and a “terrorist.” Wounded and desperate after being rescued at Qala-i-Jangi, John was brutally mistreated by US soldiers, photographed naked, bound and blindfolded in the freezing Afghan desert. He was falsely called an “Al Qaeda fighter” by President George W.Bush and declared a “terrorist” by members of the Bush cabinet and other prominent government officials.
The outlandish accusations against my son by the most powerful politicians in our nation were completely outside the normal protections afforded a citizen under the Constitution.These statements were not only prejudicial but deliberately falsified.They were made despite an internal assessment by the Department of Justice, just days after John’s capture, that “we have no knowledge that he did anything other than join the Taliban.” He was never a member of Al Qaeda or any terrorist group, and he never fought against Americans.
In normal times, the free press protected by the First Amendment might have rallied against such sensational and unfounded charges against a 20-year old citizen. But, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks,the protections we think are secured by the Constitution did not protect John. Ultimately, John was forced to accept a harsh and unjust twenty-year prison term.
Today John remains a prisoner of the American government, effectively cut off from all but his immediate family, in a special prison unit in Terre Haute, Indiana. With the passage of time, however, I am confident the narrative around John Lindh will shift. His case will come to exemplify the brutal excesses and manifest injustices perpetrated by the American government in its ““War on Terror.”
How John Got There
John was only 20 years old when he was found in Afghanistan. John was—and remains today—a devoted convert to Islam. He is a spiritual seeker. Raised Roman Catholic, my own faith, John converted to Islam when he was 16. His quest to embrace and understand the true meaning of Islam drew him, first, at age 17, to the Arabic language and religious academies of Sana’ain Yemen, and then, at age 19, to the Madrasa system in Pakistan, where the centuries-old discipline of Quran memorization is still practiced.
In May 2001—without telling me or others in our family of his plans—John boarded a bus in Pakistan and traveled over the Khyber Pass into Afghanistan. He went with the intention of volunteering for the national army of Afghanistan, which was then under the control of the Taliban government and immersed in an ongoing civil war.
John’s motivation was based on youthful idealism: he felt it was his religious duty to help defend civilians against Russian-backed warlords, the so-called Northern Alliance, which was seeking to displace the Taliban government. He was deeply moved by stories of horrific human rights abuses by the Northern Alliance.
The atrocities John heard about were not imaginary or exaggerated. The US Department of State 1999 Human Rights Report for Afghanistan described “violence against women”as“a problem throughout the country,” concluding that, women and girls were especially vulnerable to “rape, kidnapping, and forced marriage.” The report makes clear that the worst abuses against women and girls—particularly rape—were “in areas outside of Taliban control.”
Although it was later reported that John had been captured in Afghanistan “fighting against Americans,” this was far from the truth. John was trapped behind the lines, wounded and disarmed before he ever encountered any Americans.
In the spring of 2001, when John went to Afghanistan, no one could have predicted that the United States would invade the country five months later to topple the Taliban government. In fact, in May 2001, Secretary of State Colin Powell announced that the Bush administration had made a $43 million grant of aid to the Taliban, to help with opium eradication. “We will continue to look for ways to provide more assistance to the Afghans,” Secretary Powell said on behalf of the American government. All of this was forgotten after the 9/11 attacks. When John was found in Afghanistan, it was simply assumed that he somehow had aligned himself with America’s enemies. He was condemned as a “traitor” without any facts to support the allegation.
Professor Rohan Gunaratna, an expert on Al Qaeda and a consultant to the United Nations and the US government on terrorism issues, conducted a lengthy, in-person interview with John after he was brought back from Afghanistan. In a report to the federal court where John was brought for trial, Professor Gunaratna wrote: “Those who like Mr. Lindh merely fought the Northern Alliance cannot be deemed terrorists. Their motivation was to serve and to protect suffering Muslims in Afghanistan, not to kill civilians.”
Hounded by Presidents, Senators and the General Press
In December 2001, just three months after the 9/11 attacks, President George W. Bush declared that John Lindh was “the first American Al Qaeda fighter we have captured.” His distortions were echoed by a long list of politicians eager to weigh in on a story of apparent battlefield success.
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld announced that John, who was wounded and unarmed, had been“captured by US forces with an AK-47 in his hands.” This statement helped to feed the false narrative that John had been in Afghanistan fighting against America. Attorney General John Ashcroft held two major press conferences, accusing John of attacking the United States. “Americans who love their country do not dedicate themselves to killing Americans,” he declared. Ashcroft’s comments were so extreme that a federal judge wrote a letter to The New York Times criticizing the attorney general for violating Justice Department guidelines designed to prevent government lawyers from releasing information that might prejudice a defendant’s case.
Arizona Senator John McCain weighed in, as did the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Dennis Hastert, who said that John Lindh was a “terrorist” who belonged to “an organization that took American lives and came against the American Constitution.” In December 2001, New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Time magazine’s “Person of the Year,” said about John: “When you commit treason against the United States of America, particularly at a time when the US is in peril of attack and further attack, I believe the death penalty is the appropriate remedy to consider.” Hillary Clinton, then a US senator, said on Meet the Press that she considered John “a traitor.”
John served as a scapegoat. Stunned by the audacity and horror of the 9/11 terror attacks, political leaders from both parties were outraged by the failure of our intelligence agencies to intercept the terrorists and thwart the attacks. And, as the invasion of Afghanistan extended from weeks to months, they were frustrated that Osama bin Laden continued to elude capture. So when US forces found a young American survivor in northern Afghanistan, they simply lashed out. They called John a murderer and a terrorist. There was also a strong undercurrent of hostility against Islam itself in much of what was said about John. It seemed as if John’s conversion to Islam was the real “crime” for which he was being punished.
The public figures who spoke out against John created intense prejudice against him in America. John’s case received saturation coverage in the media, virtually all of it sensational and negative in tone. His picture appeared on the cover of Newsweek magazine, labeled “American Taliban.” In a front-page article, The New York Times said John had been fighting against Americans. On Fox News, Bill O’Reilly declared, “John Walker Lindh was one of the brutalizers. He was fighting to protect the people that slaughtered 3,000 Americans on 9/11. He is a traitor to his country flat out.”
A wily CNN reporter snagged an on-camera interview with John as he was being treated by a Special Forces physician. He kept the camera running even after John asked him to stop, and questioned John as he was being administered morphine. The CNN interview caused a sensation. As The New Yorker later reported, it portrayed John “as a committed traitor.”
A Gallup Poll confirmed that John was almost universally regarded as guilty and deserving of punishment. The only point of debate among Americans, according to the poll, was whether he should be executed or sentenced to life in prison.
American Torture of An American Citizen, in Plain View
There was never any evidence that John was involved with terrorism or had any sympathy for terrorists. He was simply a common infantry soldier in the Afghan army. Unarmed and wounded, he was fortunate to be rescued by American troops after a bloody massacre of prisoners by a brutal Afghan warlord.
These stark facts did not deter US authorities. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld issued an order to “take the gloves off.” John was severely wounded, dehydrated, starved and close to death when he was found among the survivors at the Qala-i-Jangi fortress. He was taken to a US Marines base in southern Afghanistan, where he was subjected to degrading and inhumane abuse. The Marines forcibly stripped him naked, using scissors to cut off his clothing. He was bound, naked, with duct tape to a gurney, his hands tied together with excruciatingly painful plastic straps. It was December and freezing cold. The gurney, with John strapped onto it, was placed by the Marines in an unheated metal shipping container. He trembled uncontrollably from the cold. He cried out in pain. An AK-47 bullet and shrapnel shards were left, untreated, in his lower extremities. A military doctor who later examined him said John’s wounds were left festering and untreated. The Marines taunted him and repeatedly threatened to kill him. He was kept in this condition for two days and two nights. He was then removed from the shipping container and taken into a nearby room for an interview with an FBI agent. His wounds were still untreated.
The Marines took a photograph of John, naked and bound, in the shipping container. The photograph was published in nearly every newspaper in America. The mistreatment depicted in the picture was shocking. I was sure, when I first saw the degrading photograph, that ordinary Americans would find it intolerable, and would demand justice for John.
No such outcry occurred, not even from churches, temples and mosques,or the many people of conscience in the United States. The picture was published, but people just shrugged and looked away, or, worse, said John had gotten what he deserved.
A mother of one of the young Marines at Camp Rhino later wrote an essay, expressing her sorrow and dismay. She concluded:
“He cried out to his captors, but his cries went unanswered.… I had sent my son a blanket and warm clothing for the cold nights in Afghanistan. When he told me about Lindh, I asked him if he would give him his blanket. He said flat out ‘no.’… At that moment, I became completely disgusted with the Marine Corps, what had happened with my son, and what our Country was doing.”
As if to ensure a conviction, the judge assigned to John’s criminal case scheduled the trial to coincide with the one-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. He insisted that the trial occur in Alexandria, Virginia, just six miles from the Pentagon, one of the terrorists’ targets.
In July 2002, as the trial date was approaching, the court scheduled a hearing that would have included a presentation by John’s lawyers about the abuse the Marines had inflicted on John. Several of the Marines, a medic and other witnesses were called to testify. On the eve of the hearing, the government offered John a plea bargain, which John accepted, and so the hearing was cancelled. Unlike perhaps any other plea negotiation in the history of the United States, this one was coordinated by the White House itself and the Department of Defense. Under the terms of the plea bargain, John pleaded guilty to violating the economic sanctions the United States had imposed on the Taliban government in 1999. The Pentagon insisted that John relinquish his claim of abuse by the US military. John agreed to a twenty-year prison term. In return, the prosecutors dropped all terrorism-related charges.
My Son, John: The Young Man Himself
John today is held in a federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, in what formerly was the death row wing of the prison complex. It is called the “Communications Management Unit.” It houses approximately fifty inmates, most of them Muslims serving lengthy sentences for political offenses. They are heavily monitored, and they are not allowed even to touch family members and loved ones during visits. For those of us in John’s family who are permitted to visit him in prison—his mother, his older brother, his younger sister and myself—this has meant that we have not embraced John, nor even shaken his hand, since 2006, when he was moved first to a “super max” prison and then to the CMU. Nor have we had a private, unmonitored conversation with him. But the atmosphere is relatively quiet, calm and safe, and for this I am grateful.
John continues his practice of Islam. He spends most of his time studying Islamic scholarly works. He reads and speaks Arabic fluently. Ever since he converted, John’s goal has been to become a scholar in the traditions of Islam. John has told me he has continually pursued this goal, “even though I’m in a place I never expected to be.”
People sometimes ask me what kind of person John is. The answer is, he is quiet, thoughtful, funny, spiritual, well-adjusted and remarkably free of bitterness. He has exceptional resilience. I have every expectation that, when he finishes his prison term (he still has almost five years left to serve), he will become a wonderful husband and father, because he is so patient and kind. He is also very scholarly and exceptionally well read. “I actually have more freedom than people who aren’t in prison,”he once told me, because of all the uninterrupted time he has to read and study.
In August 2012, John testified in a civil case in federal court, on behalf of himself and his fellow Muslim inmates. The case was captioned John Lindh v. Warden. For reasons I never understood, the warden abruptly revoked the right of the Muslim inmates to engage in daily “congregate prayer,” as required by Islamic practice.
In January 2013, the court ruled in favor of John and the other inmates, and directed the warden to restore their right to engage in congregate prayer. The judge found, based on John’s in-person testimony, that his religious faith was both sincere and within the bounds of traditional Islamic belief.
John was 20 when he was captured. He is now 33. His spirits remain quite positive, despite the many ordeals he has endured. In May 2019—seventeen and a half years after being captured in Afghanistan—John will have completed his long prison term. He will be 38.
The Larger Context:
John Lindh is “Detainee 001” in the “War on Terror,” but as this designation suggests, his is only one of a distressingly large number of cases. Tracking down terrorists and rooting out terrorism must be viewed as a core function of the government in these times. It has become an aspect of our national defense. No one who remembers the horror of 9/11 reasonably can think otherwise.
But there is no reason why combating terrorism must involve sweeping into the government’s net innocent young observant Muslims, falsely labeling them “terrorists,” and incarcerating them under harsh prison sentences. These abuses have been chronicled, among other places, in Witness to Guantánamo, an oral history project headed by Peter Honigsberg, a law professor at the University of San Francisco. But the story of John Lindh, a young American, is not just a compelling narrative. It brings sharply into focus the pointless inhumanity of American policy—what then–Vice President Cheney chillingly called “the dark side”—in the wake of 9/11.