From the streets of Marin to the Taliban

Along the picture-postcard streets of his former hometown, no one has an answer to the question that has vexed a nation: Why did John Walker Lindh take up arms with America's enemy?

This is a place of vintage Jaguars and Volkswagen Beetles, where throngs of giggling children spill into ice-cream shops for an after-school treat. A signpost outside the town hall offers no directions, only a phrase: "May Peace Prevail on Earth." This corner of California's Marin County would hardly seem a breeding ground for future Taliban soldiers.

Yet Mr. Walker, as he is best known, was just that, and his story - so bizarre that no law may adequately cover it - is proving equally as vexing for American officials. Indeed, more than two weeks after his capture, Walker remains a peculiar riddle for his neighbors and for his country.

For the nation, Walker presents a curious conundrum, legal experts say, as the next step in bringing the "American Taliban" to justice is far from clear.

Around here, however, he has become yet another flash point in the decades-old culture war, as this most eclectic of counties once again finds itself fending off charges that its liberal and libertarian traditions lack a moral compass.

Unique suburb

"You can hold two ideas in your mind about Marin County," says Kevin Starr, California's state librarian. "In some ways, it is like ... any of the high-profile suburbs of America. Yet there is another part, and the DNA code of Marin County has always been a little different."

For most Americans, the vision of Marin County is undoubtedly the latter. Perched on the seismic folds of the headlands north of San Francisco, Marin has always had a dreamlike quality - a place where fog off the Pacific rolled in over ancient redwood stands. Here, cultural critics quipped, was where former hippies and members of the "Me Generation" went to steep in hot tubs.

Today, Marin County remains equal parts Birkenstock and BMW. On the community bulletin board in front of the San Anselmo town hall, three flyers announce the latest news of the Arts Commission, the Historical Commission, and the Quality of Life Commission. The main avenue boasts a menagerie of boutiques and cafes, but nary a Gap or a Starbucks.

This is the world in which Walker became a teenager, and to some, it offers a clue into his quixotic tale. Out of this privileged environment, "I could see someone like him easily trying to find some kind of identity," says a lifelong Marin resident who declined to give her name. "There's got to be something more to life than money, and traveling the world, you would find that."

That he would find his answers in Islam is hardly surprising in a place where spiritual journeys seem to be almost a rite of passage and run the gamut from native-American vision quests to Buddhist meditations. That his parents would allow him to attend an Islamic school in Yemen at age 17 has been held up by some critics as evidence that Marin County's permissiveness knows no logical bounds. Even The Boston Globe - hardly a conservative paper - has dubbed Marin County "ultraliberal."

Marin County residents are used to the chiding, and many even acknowledge that the myth of Marin is not wholly groundless. Yet they, too, are mystified at how a spiritual seeker eventually became a gun-toting holy warrior.

Incomprehensible

A woman behind the counter of one local shop merely shakes her head and repeatedly mumbles, "I don't understand it." Another woman in a nearby shop says she has consciously avoided the news about Walker because she's trying to stay "on a higher plane."

For their part, Walker's parents - who are divorced - have stood by John, seeing the soot-smeared man barely out of his teens as a prodigal son who got caught up in events beyond his control. Many here agree.

"They should set him free," says one lifelong Marin County resident, who now works with troubled teens at a youth center in nearby San Rafael. Legal experts, however, are divided over whether that will actually happen.

While most acknowledge that a plea bargain might be the most likely resolution, many also say that the US does have options if it wants to prosecute Walker.

He could face treason charges, be indicted for conspiracy or supporting terrorism in a civilian court or be tried before a military tribunal. Eric Muller, a law professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill points to the case of Tomoya Kawakita, a US citizen who went to Japan during World War II and joined the Japanese cause. He was convicted of treason for mistreating US prisoners of war.

Others, however, suggest that the government doesn't have much of a case: There's no evidence that he ever harmed an American soldier, and without a US declaration of war, it's difficult to maintain that fighting against the Northern Alliance is the same as an act of war against the US.

"If we are a government of laws, there is no way to prosecute him," says Christopher Pyle, a law professor at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass. "If we are a government of resentment, then we can find a way, and the way is to take treason and stretch it beyond all reason."

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