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Jewish World Review April 26, 2002 / 14 Iyar, 5762

Bill Steigerwald

Bill Steigerwald
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Will the American Taliban go free? | "Ready…. Aim .…"

We interrupt this firing squad to bring you an important constitutional message.

We know most of you want that blindfolded traitor standing over there to be shot instead of merely being locked up for the rest of his stupid life.

But according to Harper's, Johnny Walker Lindh -- aka the American Taliban, aka the nation's psychological stand-in for Osama bin Laden - just may deserve to be set free at his Trial of the Century this summer.

Sure, Lindh ran off and joined the Taliban. Sure, he fought against America's allies in Afghanistan, which earned him 10 felony counts for such things as conspiracy to murder U.S. nationals. And sure, he grew up in affluent, flaky permissive Marin County, California.

But having had the misfortune of being raised in Marin by idiot parents is not why legal experts say Lindh might be acquitted, according to essayist Edwin Dobb.

It's because traitor Lindh is still an American citizen. And that, Dobb reminds the constitutionally impaired war-mongers among us, means he is entitled to be protected from government coercion, torture and inhumane treatment. Even in wartime.

But wasn't he? Let's call some witnesses.

U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft says after Lindh was captured in Afghanistan last year he was read his Miranda rights and signed a waiver saying he didn't want a lawyer.

Prisoner Lindh then spoke and wrote out some self-incriminating statements, which Dobb says constitute virtually the government's entire case against him.

What Dobb is most concerned about - and why he argues Lindh's case puts the integrity of the whole U.S. criminal justice system at stake - are the unsavory and unconstitutional circumstances under which Lindh's initial interrogation and subsequent "confession" took place.

After he was captured, Dobb writes, "Lindh was stripped of his clothes, blindfolded and bound to a stretcher with heavy tape. He was then transferred to a metal shipping container.

"Already severely malnourished, suffering from untreated shrapnel wounds, and still naked and immobilized on the stretcher, he scarcely slept. He experienced continuous pain in his feet and legs, was given little food, and was continually taunted and threatened by his captors."

After three days of this, writes Dobb, who never says where these details come from, Lindh confessed and signed his waiver.

Boo-hoo, tough guys will say. This is war. Who cares if Osama's faithful Boy Scout didn't get to watch MTV or talk to anyone for 45 days?

Lots of Americans, including many who don't subscribe to Soldier of Fortune, will write off Dobb as a liberal, criminal-coddling wuss, not someone concerned about the erosion of personal liberties and law-breaking by government.

Lots of Americans also will hate his long essay, which explains how the dirty tricks of modern psychological coercion have replaced the physical coercion of old in today's police house interrogation rooms. And how the psychological third degree is just as effective in generating false confessions.

And many Americans will never get Dobb's major point - that for our own good we must make extra sure that Lindh, no matter how specially odious and traitorous he is, gets the constitutional protection any U.S. citizen deserves. Even if he walks.

JWR contributor Bill Steigerwald is an associate editor and columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Comment by clicking here.

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© 2002, Bill Steigerwald