He sits, fidgeting impatiently at the agonizing crawl of the primitive modem, the glare of his mother's computer burnishing his cheeks. He's too small for the chair he swivels in, and is thin and awkward after the classic model of the thin and awkward fourteen-year-old boy. He is mostly, but not completely, friendless, and will transfer to a new school in the fall, where a classmate will later remember him as "invisible." His parents have begun to clash more intensely than ever, casting a weary pall over the household. Obsessed with hip-hop, he feels spectacularly out of place amid the affluence and cultural homogeneity of San Anselmo, a breezy little Marin County suburb. He dials online and quickly finds the rec.music.hip-hop newsgroup, an Internet message board popular in the early '90s when the Net moved sluggishly and its space was still largely undeveloped. It is June 30, 1995.
He clicks the "Post New Topic" bar and, when the blank form finally loads, he cuts and pastes an epic, 228-line rap that he's written. This, his first locatable post on this message board, is an excoriating lyrical tirade against rappers of every variety, from Too $hort to Sista Souljah to Marley Marl. "John Doe," he writes, using his first online pseudonym, "flows like the wind blows," and adds in unforeseeable irony, "Bladders burst when I wreck shop like Patty Hearst." He's especially cruel to rappers he believes have gone pop and thereby compromised their blackness, referring to Dr. Dre as a "sellout house nigga living honkey dory."
He himself, of course, is white.
By the time he enters public awareness, he is in the custody of the US military, snared in the opening strains of the war on terrorism while helping the Taliban secure a starkly medieval regime in Afghanistan. He is emaciated, spattered with sewage, and handcuffed to the cold metal gurney on which he lay. A CNN reporter gains access to the prisoner and conducts a bedside interview with the noticeably frail and disoriented young man. It is December 1, 2001.
The reporter remarks that he has "known very few Americans that have fought jihad," and wonders "Was this what you thought it would be? Was this the right cause or the right place?" As it airs on television, an extended commercial break is inserted into the space between the question and its answer. When the segment returns, the camera lingers on the young man as he replies, "It is exactly what I thought it would be." The reporter fumbles, "And did you enjoy the jihad? I mean, was it a good cause for you?"
"Definitely," the captive concludes.
And it is this image of John Walker Lindh that reverberates throughout the world media: fragile, ragged, and unapologetic -- his skin colored by accumulated muck in an incidental blackface.
How did a quiet, bright young boy from suburban America, asks the customary question on John Walker Lindh's unlikely journey, end up alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan? The published accounts that have streamed through the media in the year and a half since Lindh was captured in US-occupied Kunduz have shown only how elusive a satisfying response to that question actually is.
After Lindh was captured, conservative commentators such as Shelby Steele reflexively portrayed him as a predictable product of "a certain cultural liberalism" native to Northern California. Former President George Bush derided him as a "poor misguided Marin County hot-tubber." Rags such as The National Enquirer blared sensationalistic headlines decrying Lindh as an "American traitor," an assessment even echoed by the likes of Senator Hillary Clinton. Elsewhere, the National Review led the lynch mob in demanding that Lindh be brought up on charges of treason, which carries the death penalty. And according to one Newsweek poll, 40 percent of the country agreed.
Even the Justice Department wielded Lindh's star appeal as a political tool, setting his first court appearance, which nearly monopolized the attention of the mainstream media, on the very morning that Congress began its hearings into the embarrassing Enron scandal. John Ashcroft and his Justice Department further contributed to the upwelling of public condemnation by inaccurately portraying Lindh as a member of al-Qaeda, a disciple of Osama bin Laden, and a holy warrior who had engaged in battle with United States forces. These mischaracterizations were later disavowed when the federal government dropped nine of the ten charges they'd filed against Lindh in a plea bargain. In the end, he was convicted only of violating a Clinton-era executive order forbidding American citizens from providing "services" to the Taliban. But by then, the public's impression of Lindh was already firmly established.
In the media's rush to explain Lindh's motivation, a few disreputable psychological analyses of the young man's behavior appeared, including two or three now-forgotten "instant books" with titles such as John Walker Lindh: American Taliban, A Psychological Study. Meanwhile, a military strategy magazine -- The Journal of Counterterrorism & Homeland Security International published a blundering attempt to explain away Lindh as a victim of Islam's "cult-like aspects." "If John Walker had been personally inspired by a book expressing the beauty of living as a circus clown, identity theory might suggest that he would have wanted to run off and join the circus," its author reasons. "However, he was not inspired by circus clowns, he was inspired by the beauty of Islam."
But neither the easy condemnation spewed by Lindh's right-wing critics nor any of the various attempts at biography -- not even the especially thorough ones published in Newsweek and Time -- brought readers much closer to understanding the actual nature of Lindh's spectacular trespass from well-off suburbanite to frontline Islamic guerrilla. The key to his transgression can be found elsewhere -- specifically, in the store of writings he dispersed throughout a handful of Usenet newsgroups from the midsummer of 1995 to the late summer of 1997, just before his departure to the Middle East. Lindh's trail of Internet writings is publicly available by entering his various e-mail addresses (email@example.com was the one he most frequently used) in the Groups.Google.com search engine. Yet these writings have been referred to only occasionally and have escaped close reading almost entirely.
The most fascinating of these texts feature Lindh identifying himself as an African American in an online hip-hop newsgroup in order to lecture and reproach African Americans for rap lyrics and discussions. Later, Lindh recast himself as "Mr. Mujahid" in an online group devoted to Islam, as he questioned, discovered, and sermonized on the tenets of strict fundamentalist Islam.
Taken by themselves, Lindh's Internet writings amount to visible brushstrokes in a remarkable act of self-creation. Taken in context, they paint a compelling picture of the dramatic interplay between his formative online experiments with identity, his absorption with hip-hop and its diverse visions of blackness, and his eventual conversion to Islam.
Lindh is an exceptionally driven and uninhibited example of the deep-seated conflicts that lurk just beneath the surface of white participation in hip-hop. Unhappily introverted and generally unsettled in his own skin, he nevertheless understood two things implicitly: that to talk about hip-hop is to talk about race, and that race does not cease to matter at the borders of the Internet.
Critics who have portrayed his behavior as the inevitable result of being reared in tolerant Marin County seem to have missed the obvious: Lindh's actions were themselves a rebuke of clichéd Marin liberalism. He not only implicated it explicitly, but determinedly chased its apparent opposites. In the end, Lindh himself is the most virulent critic of his permissive upbringing, and his critique is far more vehement than the stale arsenal of gibes about the '60s wielded by his conservative commentators.
In an online bio for an old Internet chat room, Lindh, under the name Mustafa Naim Mujahid, wrote that he was "born in Chocolate City," or Washington, DC, and "raised in its vanilla suburbs" of Takoma Park and Silver Spring, Maryland. His father, Frank, attended law school at Georgetown, and his mother, Marilyn, dropped out of college when John's older brother was born. Frank did a stint at the Federal Regulatory Commission for two years, and eventually landed at the law firm LeBoeuf, Lamb, Leiby & MacRae, to whose San Francisco offices he would transfer when John was ten. Frank forcefully and eloquently defended his son in the media in the time between his capture and his sentencing, and by all accounts he and Marilyn were gentle, astute parents.
Family life deteriorated, however, after the move to San Anselmo in 1991. A rift steadily widened between Frank and Marilyn, although it wouldn't culminate in divorce until 1999. John shuffled back and forth between tutors, homeschooling, and public, private, and independent-study schools. He was a gifted student, but school inevitably presented a social minefield for the awkward, sensitive boy. The accumulated tensions of his parents' separation, an embarrassing intestinal disorder, and the various disappointments of school drove the already introverted Lindh even further inward.
His personal conflicts culminated in many ways in his passion for the figure of Malcolm X. He first became enthralled with the civil rights leader when, as Time reports, "His mother took him, then twelve, to see Spike Lee's film Malcolm X, and she says he was moved by a scene showing people of all nations bowing down to God." One of Lindh's lawyers, Tony West, told People in 2002, "When he talks about that last scene, his face still lights up. He says that seeing all those people in humbleness and equality all praying together really inspired him."