As Adam Liptak describes in this article (TimesSelect, sub. req.), John Walker Lindh, the ‘American Taliban’, is now trying for a commutation of his twenty year prison sentence for serving as a soldier in the Taliban militia. In what must be to Lindh a rather unfunny irony, the folks who ended up in the administration’s alternative gulag justice system actually ended up getting off a lot easier than he did — though of course they had to spend a considerable period of time at Gitmo, which ain’t nuthin’.
Yaser Hamdi, who held both Saudi and American citizenship, was never charged with any crime, though he was picked up along with Lindh. And he was allowed to return to Saudi Arabia in return for relinquishing his US citizenship and agreeing to some travel restrictions. He’s a free man in Saudi Arabia today.
David Hicks, an Australian citizen, recently cut a deal for nine months incarceration after admitting to much more serious charges than those against Lindh. He’ll be back in Australia by the end of the year.
It’s hard for me to imagine any Justice Department or president in the near future lifting a finger for this guy, Lindh. And he’s certainly not the only guy rotting away in federal prison for questionable reasons. But let me just go on the record saying I’ve always found this sentence, in a word, disgusting.
I was surprised at the time that it happened at all. At some point not long after 9/11 I was talking with my friend Juliet Eilperin at what I think was a party for the opening of Salon.com’s new office in Washington, DC. And we made a bet. My wager was that by the time the Lindh case came to a real conclusion he’d end up serving little if any time in prison. She took the other side. And I think we came up with some number of years over and under which she or I would collect.
Clearly, I had no idea what I was talking about. And I can’t remember now whether she ever got a chance to collect.
I was shocked when I later heard that he’d agreed to a twenty year prison sentence. Not that he had much choice, mind you. Otherwise, he looked likely to draw a life term. And I thought I remembered — though Liptak doesn’t mention it, so perhaps not — that the idea of a death sentence was even batted around. (For reasons which remain unexplained, he’s recently been transferred to the SuperMax federal prison in Colorado where the most dangerous and unredeemable offenders are sent to rot into isolation-induced insanity.)
This guy was simply a victim of Fox News justice, a paroxysm of jingoism that the justice system is supposed to resist and counter rather than enforce. This isn’t to romanticize the guy. Like a lot of other losers and goofballs who slip into cults and extremist groups, I’m sure he was a real piece of work, at least at the time. Perhaps he still is. But the evidence that he had ever committed an act that actually transgressed against a real American law was meager at best.
Perhaps a short term of imprisonment was in order for, at least in theory, serving in a paramilitary in active combat against the US military. But not twenty years in prison.