Most Americans see him as simply a traitor. His mother says he was brainwashed into joining a jihad. President Bush calls him "this poor fellow," a young man who's "obviously ... been misled." He himself told CNN that his "heart" became attached to the Taliban way of strict rule.
But now the Justice Department says John Walker, a bright young man from Marin County, conspired to kill Americans in Afghanistan and supported two terrorist groups, including Al Qaeda. (See story, page 2.)
His trial in a Virginia federal court will serve as a mirror for Americans on how they view the war, Islam, their system of justice, and the ways in which society can somehow let smart kids turn on American values and take up violence.
John Walker isn't just John Walker, a wayward spiritual seeker who became a hapless foot soldier fighting against the country of his birth. His sad tale and his trial will bring out many lessons, not all of them pleasant, but some worth taking to heart.
For starters, Americans can begin to unravel his story in order to understand how someone can embrace both Islam and terrorism. The two must be separated in order to win the war on terrorism. Islam can never justify the attacks of Sept. 11.
Second, the fact he was not charged with treason or tried by court-martial reflects a view that the US may want to showcase the best of its legal system as a way to counter terrorism. He won't be put to death, and he will be tried in an open, fair, civilian - not military - court.
Third, Walker's journey from a seeker for spiritual growth to Taliban fighter should be seen as a lesson in how children need more than just open-ended education where tough questions and tough demands are not asked of them. He went to an alternative public high school in California that didn't even hold classes. Obviously Islam filled a void and gave him a structure that he needed. But what else was missing in his life?
His coming trial should not become a media circus, but a national classroom, with clear lessons written on the blackboard - not just for him, but for all Americans.