Parents Who Never Said "No"...

John A. Quayle blueoval at SGI.NET
Thu Dec 13 19:42:10 MST 2001

By Jeff Jacoby
The Boston Globe
December 13, 2001
It isn't the case that the parents of John Walker -- the Marin County child
of privilege turned Taliban terrorist -- never drew the line with their son.
True, they didn't do so when he was 14 and his consuming passion was
collecting hip-hop CDs with especially nasty lyrics.
And true, they didn't put their foot down when he announced at 16 that he
was going to drop out of Tamiscal High School -- the elite "alternative"
school where students determined their own course of study and only saw a
teacher once a week.
And granted, they didn't interfere when he abruptly decided to become a
Muslim after reading *The Autobiography of Malcolm X,* grew a beard, and
took to wearing long white robes and an oversized skullcap. On the
contrary: His father was "proud of John for pursuing an alternative course"
and his mother told friends that it was "good for a child to find a passion."
Nor did they object when he began spending more and more time at a local
mosque and set about trying to memorize the Koran.
Nor when he asked his parents to pay his way to Yemen so he could learn to
speak "pure" Arabic.
Nor when they learned that his new circle of friends included gunmen who
had been to Chechnya to fight the Russians.
Nor when he headed to Pakistan to join a madrassah in a region known to be
a stronghold of Islamist extremists.
His parents also didn't balk when he went to fight in Afghanistan -- but
that, at least, they didn't know about: Walker hadn't told them. Perhaps by
that point he had learned to take their consent for granted.
Only once, it seems, did Frank Lindh and Marilyn Walker actually deny their
son something he wanted. When he first adopted Islam and took the name
Suleyman, they refused to use it and insisted on calling him John. After
all, he had been named for one of the giants of our time: John Lennon.
Their refusal must have amazed him. For as long as he could remember, his
oh-so-progressive parents had answered "Yes" to his every whim, indulged
his every fancy, permitted -- even praised -- his every passion. The only
thing they insisted on was that nothing be insisted on. Nothing in his life
was important enough for his them to make an issue of: not his schooling,
not his religion, not his appearance, not even whether he stayed in America
or moved -- while still a minor -- to a benighted Third World oligarchy
halfway around the world. Nothing. Except, of course, their right to call
him by the name of their favorite Beatle.
Devout practitioners of the self-obsessed nonjudgmentalism for which the
Bay Area is renowned, Lindh and Walker appear never to have rebuked their
son or criticized his choices. In their world, there were no absolutes, no
fixed truths, no mandatory behavior, no thou-shalt-nots. If they had one
conviction, it was that all convictions are worthy -- that nothing is
intolerable except intolerance.
But even in Marin County, there are times when children need to hear "No"
and "Don't." They need to know that there are limits they must respect and
expectations they must try to live up to. If they cannot find those limits
and expectations at home, they are apt to look for them elsewhere. Newsweek
calls it "truly perplexing" that Walker, who "grew up in possibly the most
liberal, tolerant place in America . . . was drawn to the most illiberal,
intolerant sect in Islam." There is nothing perplexing about it. He craved
standards and discipline. Mom and Dad didn't offer any. The Taliban did.
Even when it was clear that their son was sinking into Islamist fanaticism,
they wouldn't pull back on the reins. When Osama bin Laden's terrorists
bombed the USS Cole and killed 17 American servicemen, Walker e-mailed his
father that the attack had been justified, since by docking the ship in
Yemen, the United States had committed "an act of war." Lindh now says that
the message "raised my concerns" -- but that didn't stop him from wiring
Walker another $1,200. After all, says Dad, "my days of molding him were
over." It isn't clear that they ever began.
It undoubtedly came as a jolt to his parents when Walker turned up at the
fortress near Mazar-i-Sharif, sporting an AK-47 and calling himself Abdul
Hamid. But the revelation that their son had enlisted in Al Qaeda and
supported the Sept. 11 attacks brought no words of reproach -- or
self-reproach -- to their lips.
Walker deserved "a little kick in the butt" for keeping them in the dark
about his plans, his father said, but otherwise they just wanted to "give
him a big hug." His mother, meanwhile, was quite sure that "if he got
involved with the Taliban he must have been brainwashed. . . . When you're
young and impressionable, it's easy to be led by charismatic people."
Yes, it is, and it's a pity that that didn't occur to her sooner. If she
and Lindh had been less concerned with flaunting their open-mindedness and
more concerned with developing their son's moral judgment, he wouldn't be
where he is today. Walker is responsible for his own behavior and he will
pay the price the law requires. But his road to treason and jihad didn't
begin in Afghanistan. It began in Marin County, with parents who never said
-- ## --
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe. To receive his columns by
e-mail, send a note with your name and e-mail address to
columns at ).
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