Did John Walker Join a Cult?

The country is horrified by the apparent defection of Walker, the "American Taliban." Would our reaction change if it turned out he'd been brainwashed?

Time.com/December 5, 2001
By Jessica Reaves

John Walker, the "American Taliban" whose furry, burned visage has been plastered across our television screens since his capture last week, is becoming something of a celebrity in the U.S. That's not to say Walker should expect a ticker-tape parade if and when he manages to make it back to U.S. soil - this celebrity is more like the kind that sends mob informants hurtling into the shadows of the Witness Protection Program.

It's easy to understand the rage Walker inspires. At a moment when America is experiencing a rare and very real moment of national unity, this guy shows up fighting for the enemy - the same enemy accused of harboring the mastermind of the most horrible terrorist attack in American history.

We can't (and shouldn't) forget that. But even in the midst of our pain and frustration, we need to debate Walker's case, not simply pass judgment. There's a difference between engaging in a discussion about the ignorance of youth, personal responsibility and the power of cult figures and simply waving a white flag to the Taliban. We reserve judgment because we are Americans - other countries hang first and ask questions later.


Tricky questions

Despite his mass media ubiquity over the past several days, Walker remains a mystery. Here's what we know: He comes from a well-to-do home in suburban San Francisco. We've learned that an adolescent fascination with Islam led to his conversion and subsequent embrace of the Bay Area Muslim community. This interest, in other words, was not a passing fancy. After his high school graduation, Walker's passion for his adopted religion spurred trips to Yemen and later to Pakistan, where he was last heard from in May of this year.

Now that he's resurfaced, we're faced with some tricky questions. Is this kid a criminal? Here's the case against him: He converted to Islam, which is not a crime. Traveling abroad to explore an adopted religion and culture? Also not a crime. Expressing support for the September 11th attacks? Reprehensible, but not criminal. Taking up arms alongside Taliban forces? This is where certainty takes a back seat to speculation.

Try him for treason, scream the pundits. Hang him! Rip his limbs from his body! While the charge sounds suitably dramatic, legally, treason is a pretty tricky crime to prove (and is punishable by death). Article III, Section 3 of the Constitution reads, "Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort." Walker may well have fulfilled those requirements, but there's more. A defendant may be convicted only "on the testimony of two witnesses to the same overt act, or on confession in open court." Will two fellow fighters come forward to offer witness accounts of Walker's crime? Will an unrepentant Walker tell his own story to a judge and jury?

It's conceivable that he'll never have to. In the upper echelons of Washington, D.C., where one might expect the most heated of responses to the Walker case, there is a perceptible push to withhold a verdict. This week, President Bush referred to Walker as "this poor fellow," and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld told reporters his fate would be decided "in good time."


Did he join a cult?

Meanwhile, Walker himself remains a total mystery. By most accounts, he seems to be at least slightly unhinged (an observation echoed by a Northern Alliance fighter who, according to wire reports, indicated the young American and made the universal gesture for "crazy"). Whether he's mentally competent to stand trial remains to be seen, but some legal experts suspect Walker will not be tried as a traitor; instead he'll be charged with sedition - a largely unused charge that implies the advocacy of violence against the government - or some other, lesser crime.

But what crime, exactly? Did Walker commit a crime by simply joining opposition forces? While we don't know if Walker ever fired a gun against the anti-Taliban forces, we know he was prepared to fight. Should we make a distinction between carrying a loaded gun and actually firing it?

Then, if we're willing to abandon, just for a moment, the framework of legal retribution, there is another lens through which to examine Walker's situation: The Taliban could easily be considered a cult, and Walker simply one of its brainwashed groupies. That's the take from Rick Ross, an expert on cults who lectures frequently on the topic. "My conclusion," Ross explains, "is that this group is an aberrational cult, and not in any way reflective of Islam in general. I have suspected this for some time now, and Walker's presence and behavior provides a sort of missing link."

Ross speculates that Walker, who by all accounts went through a truly astonishing metamorphosis - from shy, quiet teenager drawn to the peaceful tenets of Islam to armed military man - was sucked into al-Qaeda networks [it seems] during his time in Pakistan. He was taken to Afghanistan, and that's when the trouble really began. "Walker's transformation probably took place in one of al-Qaeda's training camps, which are very similar to some compounds often used by American-based cults. Bin Laden does what every good cult leader does: He isolates these people within an environment he totally controls - everything they see, hear and do is controlled by the bin Laden." The leader presents himself as God's prototype of the "perfect" person, or in this case, specifically, the "perfect Muslim" - dedicated in the way every Muslim should be dedicated, focused in the way every Muslim should be focused.

That's particularly dangerous for impressionable types, says Ross, made worse by the absence of any objective analysis or perspective. [Within such training camps recruits cannot] just ask a string of questions to a group of learned Islamic scholars. "Which is really too bad," says Ross, "because I'd imagine [amongst such scholars] there would be quite a reaction to some of the al-Qaeda's teachings. So it's okay if I commit mass murder and suicide in the name of jihad? Oh, and by the way, I'd like to visit a strip club beforehand.'"

While he's personally sympathetic to Walker's situation, Ross doubts the law will share his view. Generally, he explains, the law will excuse a cult members' behaviors up to a certain point. "Once you cross that line," Ross says, committing rape, for example, or murder, "regardless of the undue influence of a leader, you are held responsible for your actions."

And that's what most of us were waiting to hear, isn't it?

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