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In Defense of John Walker Lindh's Parents

February 02, 2002|GLENN SACKS | Glenn Sacks is an adjunct professor of English as a second language at College of the Canyons.

Many Americans seem to want to put Marilyn Walker and Frank Lindh on trial along with their son John. However, America could learn more from what John Walker Lindh's parents did right than by what they did wrong.

There are three charges commonly leveled at Lindh's parents:

* They stood by and allowed their son to become deeply involved in a violent, anti-American religion. Islam, as a whole, isn't violent or anti-American and isn't much different from other mainstream monotheistic religions. Practitioners believe in giving charity to the poor, submit to one God, etc. Lindh's parents no doubt valued the salutary effects the religion had on their son, how it gave him a sense of purpose and self-discipline, and helped to keep him away from teenage scourges such as drugs and alcohol.

I taught high school and I know a lot of parents who would have loved to have seen their troubled sons make the same conversion. Do we really think his parents should have anticipated that their son would somehow adopt the extreme, pseudo-religious insanity of the Taliban?

* They encouraged and subsidized their son's descent by paying for John's 1998 trip to Yemen to study Islam and later by sending him $1,200 while he was at a religious school in Pakistan.

Look at the situation as it must have appeared to Lindh's parents in 1998. They probably thought, correctly, that travel is good for young people because it broadens their horizons. Perhaps they understood that young people who can't travel or follow their desires often feel stifled and deprived later in life when they are saddled with families and responsibilities.

Also, it is natural, and even admirable, that John would want to study his religion in some of the countries where it is deepest and strongest. Most American parents would be proud of their sons or daughters if they wanted to travel to Rome to study Catholicism or to Israel to study Judaism. Perhaps they were impressed by his willingness to learn Arabic and hoped that one day this would be an excellent job skill.

This criticism is based on the utterly fanciful notion that if parents firmly implant moral and political values in a child, when that child becomes a teenager he or she will follow them instead of rebelling.

* Even now, when they see what their son did, they defend him--a clear example of the moral vacuum that caused the problem in the first place.

Marilyn and Frank appear to be trying to protect their son from a public that has prejudged him guilty. What parents wouldn't?

Lindh's parents have weaknesses, like any other parents, but they also have important strengths. The biggest of these is that, although they're divorced, rather than attacking or carping at each other, they've stood united in defense of the son they love. In so doing, they set a fine example for the millions of American parents who selfishly break their children's hearts by trying to turn their children against the other parent.

At each step along the way Lindh's parents have tried to deal with their enigmatic son with intelligence and compassion. Those who vilify them have forgotten one of life's most important lessons: Sometimes you do the right thing and it still doesn't work.

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