Jewish World Review Dec. 14, 2001 /29 Kislev, 5762

Lenoard Pitts, Jr.

Leonard Pitts, Jr.
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Admit it, folks, If you've ever been 16, you can probably relate to Walker -- WHEN it comes right down to it, I suspect most of us find it easier to identify with American Taliban fighter John Walker Lindh than we might admit.

Granted, you and I aren't likely to leave the comforts of home to go traipsing around the mountains of Afghanistan. Aren't likely to turn up hirsute and mud-streaked, fighting on behalf of the Taliban. But 20-year-old Lindh - or Walker, as he is said to prefer - is recognizable in at least one respect. He is reported to have gotten into this mess while searching for truth and spiritual enlightenment.

If you've ever been 16, you can probably relate.

Walker was yet another suburban kid looking for answers: reared in affluent, socially liberal Marin County in Northern California; dad grew up Catholic, mom dabbled in Buddhism. Walker was looking for something HE could believe in.

For a time that "something" was hip-hop. Newsweek reports the young man's fascination with that culture was so deep that in at least one e-mail posting, Walker, who is white, identified himself as African-American. "Our blackness," he wrote, "should not make white people hate us."

Then Walker read "The Autobiography of Malcolm X," which, among other things, describes the fiery black activist's conversion to Islam.

He began to study Islam himself with an obsession that surprised even lifelong Muslims - changed his name, grew his hair, spent every spare moment memorizing the Koran. Eventually, he went to Yemen to study the Muslim holy book in something close to the original language, only to discover that Yemeni Islam was riven by sects. He demanded a religion that was wholly "pure," which is how he wound up in Afghanistan.

Ignore for a moment the uncommon zealotry of it, and the trajectory of Walker's life echoes that of a million others. Teen-age is always a time of trying out new identities and philosophies, struggling to determine which ones fit.

Walker did what kids always do.

That's not to suggest you should feel sympathy for him. If it turns out the young man willingly took up arms against the United States, he should be punished accordingly.

But it seems to me there's a less than obvious cautionary tale here. After all, Walker was out to do more than just feed a spiritual hunger. At least, that's my take on his hunt for a "pure" Islam. He wasn't simply looking for answers to spiritual questions, but for something that would make questions irrelevant, render unnecessary the very act of asking. He was looking for something absolute.

People like that scare me. Oh, I understand the impulse. It's only natural to seek black or white in a world of gray, order in a world of disorder. That's a normal response to the discovery that existence is full of questions - and the questions are hard. They vex and perplex, fluster and confuse, and have no simple answers that are readily understood and applicable in all situations.

For some of us, the solution is simply to foreclose questions, to find something and believe it with literalist fury and white-knuckle force that bespeaks not just faith, but also a willful incuriosity of near superhuman proportions. One often finds such incuriosity in religious fanatics in the Middle East. And in the United States. One finds it, too, in political extremists both liberal and conservative.

I don't mean that to slam politics or religion. I possess both. But I also possess a belief that, while questions may be hard, they are also vital. A prerequisite to life as a truly human being.

It's a prerequisite John Walker seems to have found difficult to meet. And this, as much as anything, is why he finds himself under guard in Afghanistan.

His fate is a stark reminder. Yes, it's hard to live with questions. But in the long run, it's worse to live without.

Comment on JWR contributor Leonard Pitts, Jr.'s column by clicking here.

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