Entry from October 8, 2002

An editorial in the Wall Street Journal has ridiculed, and with good reason, the statement by the mother of the “American Taliban” John Walker Lindh that “Some people are seekers, and he is one of them. I know that sounds New Age, and some people won’t get it, ” she told People magazine, “but he wasn’t doing this out of a void. He wanted this kind of life out of a pure motive.” A mother’s partiality for her son, whatever he has done, is understandable, but in thus characterizing his behavior, she was clearly offering up an extenuation of it that she knew would resonate with many Americans.

Lindh himself was appealing to the same American superstition — that all that counts in matters of this kind is purity of motive — when in his statement to the court on being sentenced to 20 years in prison he said, “I have never understood jihad to mean anti-Americanism or terrorism”; and, “It’s clear to me now that there were many things of which I was not aware. I made a mistake by joining the Taliban. I want the court to know, and I want the American people to know that had I realized then what I know now about the Taliban, I would never have joined them.” This is like the gang member who says, “If Ida known Mugsy was gonna rub dat guy out, I wouldnta come along on da heist.”

That Mugsy, that is, was just the sort of guy to be expected to rub people out should have been evident to the meanest intelligence. In this case, Mugsy’s victim was Johnny Micheal Spann, the CIA agent who was killed, execution style, in the course of the prison uprising in which Lindh took part. As the Journal editorialized, “If we as a country are to take virtues such as honor and duty seriously — as seriously as Mr. Spann took them — we also must recognize, and punish, their opposites. Lindh may not have pulled the trigger of the gun that killed Mr. Spann. But as a prosecutor’s filing puts it, ‘He was neither a bystander nor, in any respect, can he be described as innocent.’”

But even though I believe Lindh got what he deserved, there was one respect in which he was an innocent. For who ever in the America of the 1990s would have told him that we as a country might be expected “to take virtues such as honor and duty seriously”? When, since the Lindhian spiritual journey towards Islam was launched at age 12 by Spike Lee’s biopic, Malcolm X, has any voice of the official culture even sought to explain what “duty” and “honor” might be — let alone in words that a 12 year-old might understand? This was a period, remember, when the recruiting slogan for the U.S. Army was “Be all you can be” (it has since been changed to “An Army of One” — hardly an improvement). Weren’t Mr. Lindh’s adventures in militant Islam also an attempt to be all he could be?

Old-fashioned people like myself might scoff at the idea, but it must be admitted that we haven’t got a lot of ground to stand on. For if American culture places its highest valuation on personal self-realization, as surely it does, and complete tolerance of everybody’s “choices,” to what higher principle can it appeal when a self-realization like John Walker Lindh’s endangers American culture itself? On what grounds do we hold Mr Lindh accountable to a standard of honor that no one ever bothered to teach him?

The problem is that, as Melik Kaylan wrote in the next day’s Journal, “these days, American culture is all diversity. The legacy of bien-pensant intellectual support for ‘victimized’ minorities over many decades combined with the borderless nature of consumption has left no dominant American culture to speak of.” Mr. Kaylan compares Americans’ shift of cultural focus from their own past to the “diverse” world beyond their borders with what he calls the “venerational culture” of Islam, which despises us partly because we appear to have nothing to venerate of our own. “Fundamentalists are not in the business of diluting their culture, nor do they respect any society that does. Based on past history, Americans continue to believe that immigrants always eventually assimilate. But we forget that we no longer offer anything coherent or redemptive to assimilate to.”

What we have instead of veneration is a rueful combination of comedy and regret over the disappearance of things to venerate. This is what we see in the HBO series, “The Sopranos.” The forlorn belief of Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) in Gary Cooper’s America is mercilessly ridiculed but at the same time is weirdly ennobling. In this week’s episode John, “Johnny Sack,” Sacrimoni (Vincent Curatola) appeals to his capo for “satisfaction” on the grounds that his fellow mob “captain,” Ralph Cifaretto (Joe Pantoliano) has “violated my wife’s honor.” The capo, an older sort of fellow, immediately assumes that Ralphie has been enjoying sexual relations with Ginny Sack and is astonished since she weighs about a ton. But it is no unchastity but Ralphie’s joking about her weight that has made Johnny want to kill him. He severely beats one of Ralphie’s crew on the mere chance that the kid had been laughing about the joke and refuses to be reconciled when Ralphie offers first a denial and then an apology. “I want to avenge her honor, which is my right to do,” he tells the capo. “Is nothing sacred? If this were years ago, would I even have had to ask?”

The point is of course that it is not years ago. As Ralphie says, “Who does he think he is? Sir Walter Raleigh?” Johnny’s sense of honor is too extreme for the 21st century, an embarrassment to the mob that still officially professes the code of omerta but with little real conviction. Tony authorizes a hit on Johnny at the same time as Johnny authorizes one on Ralphie, but neither comes off. Johnny comes home unexpectedly to find Ginny, who has always insisted that she is unable to lose weight in spite of constant dieting, gorging on chocolate. Suddenly his thinking changes. If she has been deceiving him, perhaps her honor does not demand the death of Ralphie. Or is it that, if her weight problem is her own fault and not merely an undeserved misfortune, Ralphie’s laughter is no longer an insult to her honor — or to his? At any rate, Johnny calls off the hit on Ralphie and agrees to accept his apology while Tony calls off the hit on Johnny. The therapeutic culture of self-realization triumphs again.

But if ideas of honor are too much even for the mafia these days, what chance of understanding it did poor, pathetic John Walker Lindh have? When two Democratic congressmen on Iraqi soil say that an enemy leader who has killed American soldiers and is plotting to kill many more is more to be trusted than their own president of the other party, who could he look to for examples of honorable behavior? Ignorance, of course, is no excuse, in honor any more than in law. But if we don’t recover our own “venerational culture,” and seek once again to transmit it, we can expect a lot more John Walker Lindhs.

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