Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollectionsYemen

Commentary

Heroes and Demons and Just Humans

Judge the Talib and the patriot as people, not parables.

July 19, 2002|NORAH VINCENT | Norah Vincent is a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a think tank set up after Sept. 11 to study terrorism.

Americans love a morality tale, especially one that's been taken from real life. We like facile categories of good and bad, and we like creating fiery male leads to drop neatly into them.

That's why the drama now unfolding before us regarding 21-year-old American Talib John Walker Lindh and 25-year-old football-star-turned-Army-recruit Pat Tillman could have been written for the screen by Tom Clancy.

You can almost see the movie now. Idealistic but troubled teenager raised in a too-permissive home in a morally questionable part of limousine-liberal California sets out for Central Asia to find God, ends up a ragtag foot soldier in a terrorist army. After months of combat, the traitorous ruffian (who now uncannily resembles Charles Manson) comes face to face with our hero, the uber patriot, a scrubbed, All-American football great from respectably Republican Arizona who has given up millions on the professional gridiron to fight a virtuous war in the badlands of Afghanistan.

In a way, it's too bad that Lindh's plea bargain stipulates that he cannot profit from telling his story, because you can bet that somebody else will, and handsomely.

For now, however, we in the media will be content to mythologize both young men for the sake of the battle of wits and morals we've come to know as the culture wars.

Opinion mongers haven't missed a beat. Liberals and conservatives have been taking full partisan advantage of every new development in the war on terror, a war that in the last few months has become a philosophical football at home.

Practically as soon as the towers hit the ground on Sept. 11, pundits of the left like Noam Chomsky and Susan Sontag took advantage of the debacle to trumpet anew their ingrained distaste for American foreign policy.

The most energetic mental war we're fighting is a civil one consisting mostly of unctuous invective and tacky symbolism co-opted for opportunistic mudslinging across the political divide.

The conservatives are no better. They give as good as they get, and the mythologizing of Tillman and Lindh is a prime example of their sniping tomfoolery at work.

In December, when Lindh was captured in Afghanistan, the conservative press bruited the damning details with gleeful opportunism. The cover of the New York Post stamped him "The Rat." Meanwhile, in the Wall Street Journal, Shelby Steele was quick to shovel the conservative consensus on the kid. "I believe a certain cultural liberalism cleared the way for this strange odyssey of true belief.... Walker came out of a self-hating stream of American life. Yes, alone in Yemen and later in Pakistan, he may have been seduced by charismatic people. But he was prepared for this seduction not just by the wispy relativism of Marin County, but also by a much broader post-'60s cultural liberalism (more than political liberalism) that gave his every step toward treason a feel of authenticity and authority."

Coincident with Lindh's plea bargain this week, former Ronald Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan penned a propagandistic enshrinement of Tillman worthy of her former occupation. Where else but in the Wall Street Journal? "We are making a lot of Tillmans in America, and one wonders if this has been sufficiently noted.... Some very talented young men, and women, are joining the armed forces to help their country because, apparently, they love it. After what our society and culture have become the past 30 years, you wouldn't be sure that we'd still be making their kind, but we are."

Like most Americans, I admire Tillman's sacrifice and loathe Lindh's betrayal, but let's not make a parable out of either one of them.

Lindh is a messed-up kid who made foolish decisions, as all young people do in search of ideals. Yes, he committed crimes, and he will be duly punished for them. But liberalism wasn't the cause of his demise.

Likewise, Tillman is no god or Hercules, much less a sparkling jewel of rectitude forged in the salty bowels of family values. He's an individual who chooses, for his own reasons, to fight for his country.

Let's leave it at that, and stop making hyperbolic giants and dwarfs out of mortals.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|