John Walker Lindh has become a symbol for every armchair patriot and jingoist – and even many Americans who are understandably wondering how any young man, especially one who received the benefits of a great nation, could voluntarily place himself on the side of a great evil. Some of these questions are entirely legitimate. But, unfortunately, the Walker case is also being used by some people as an excuse for liberal bashing at the expense of a kid who, in all likelihood, is mentally ill. The fact that his mother is a Marin County Buddhist and his father is some tree-hugging “I’m OK-You’re OK” kind of a guy is being used to tar the left – as if the average liberal lives in a million-dollar California house, worships Buddha and sends their kid off to Yemen to “find himself.”

Bluntly put, this Sad Sack of a teenager joined a cult. If that cult had had another name, like Jim Jones or the wacko who thought the Hale-Bopp comet was the stairway to Heaven, everybody would see Lindh for the pathetic kid that he is. Unfortunately, the cult he chose happened to be on the wrong side of just about everything. Nevertheless, a few things need to be said before this country embarrasses itself by taking this case just a bit too seriously.

Start with this kid’s biography. In the beginning, things looked fine – he followed normal teenage pursuits like listening to music. Then he got hooked on the Internet. But instead of using it as a tool to learn or communicate, it became for him a way of acting out his fantasies. He even took on scatological names like Doo-Doo and pretended to be an African American. And it wasn’t just for an evening of role playing. This kid’s net alter-ego became African-American. And this was just the first sign that the wheels were coming off this boy.

I’m certainly not going to defend the parents. They should get an award for something in the “worst of” category. But bad parenting isn’t exactly a political ideology. Fools, abusers, neglecters – in fact, the whole gamut of lousy moms and dads – are pretty well spread throughout the political spectrum. I don’t remember anyone demanding the scalps of Timothy McVeigh’s parents.

The truth of the matter is that every adult in this country has or knows of a kid like Johnny Lindh. Every family has a loner or loser, some kid off the rails, into drugs, or following Phish, or can’t hold a job or has to take a dozen mood pills just to get up in the morning. This kid read one book – “The Autobiography of Malcom X” – and rather than devote himself to social justice or work for better race relations, he goes off on a tear and converts to Islam. This might be one symptom of what is known as “disorganized thinking.” Clearly, he has no sense of self. Indeed, his hyper-religiosity is a classic sign of Temporal Lobe Epilepsy. His transition was positively nuts. He voluntarily left one of the world’s most tolerant communities in exchange for a brand of intolerance that was entirely inconsistent with everything he was raised to believe. He’s no Red Diaper baby, that’s for sure. Say what you will, but the Taliban aren’t exactly Left Coast Multiculturalists.

No, there is something really wrong here. So much good science has demonstrated that mental illness may have less to do with childhood trauma than it does with brain chemistry. If somebody gets stuck with bad chemistry – schizophrenia, temporal lobe disorders, manic depression – the politics of the parents have nothing to do with it.

Remember Forrest Gump? He said that, “Stupid is as stupid does.” It’s sometimes true about mental illness, too. “Nuts is as nuts do.” Anyone you know ever gone to the Taliban? Worked for al-Qaida? Before Walker becomes the cause celebre he doesn’t deserve to be, we need to see him for what he is. Not Tokyo Rose and not Benedict Arnold, either. How about that purple-haired nephew of yours that shows up for Thanksgiving Dinner with a spike collar, a forehead tatoo of Bozo the Clown and a safety pin through every pore? Come to think of it, in many ways, that nephew of yours may be a lot better off in the “upstairs department” than John Walker Lindh.

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