Faceoff: What to do with Walker?

By PETER ROFF and JAMES CHAPIN, UPI National Political Analysts  |  Dec. 7, 2001 at 1:07 PM
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WASHINGTON, Dec. 7 (UPI) -- Sooner or later, the fate of John Walker, aka Abdul Hamid, an American who fought with the Taliban against the West, will have to be determined. What should be done with him? UPI National Political Analysts Peter Roff, a conservative, and Jim Chapin, a liberal, face off on opposite sides of this critical question.

Chapin: Fuzzy Wars; Fuzzy Nationalities; Fuzzy Laws

President George W. Bush told Barbara Walters that Johnny Walker was a "poor fellow," which brought an explosion of rage from many on the right wing. The New York Post headlined the comment: "'Poor Fellow' or Traitor? ... It IS A RAT."

For most of American history, the mere act of joining a foreign army would have entailed an automatic loss of citizenship. This president and the last president, however, with support from Congress, have allowed the common use of dual citizenship, including acts such as voting in foreign elections and joining foreign armies, which once entailed automatic loss of citizenship. Of course, the bipartisan lobby pushing this policy was mostly thinking about the Hispanic vote, although such policies invited immigrants to think of America not as a new home, but just as one of several homes.

At the time, except for some campaigners in last year's elections, it is safe to say that those pushing these laws weren't thinking about any consequences further than helping their own side get Mexican votes in the next election.

Now, the case of Walker shows a number of the difficulties with this program of allowing, and, indeed, encouraging dual nationality.

Since apparently there is no longer an immediate loss of citizenship for joining a foreign army, and Walker joined that army before it became engaged in conflict with the United States, thereby falling under ITS rules, under which he would have been shot for desertion, he can make a case that his "treason" was forced, not planned.

Ironically, if joining the Taliban indeed meant that Walker forfeited his citizenship, then he could be tried and executed by one of Bush's military courts.

Since it appears that the administration wants to be cautious in actually using the expanded powers it has claimed for these courts, it is unlikely to use them even against such a miserable specimen as Walker.

The constitutional definition of treason is "levying war against or adhering to their (the United States') enemies, giving them aid and comfort," and Walker's actions clearly fall under the definition of treason. The case would be clearer, however, if the United States was legally at war with Afghanistan, instead of acting under a rather unspecific congressional mandate against "terror."

In fact, the Walker "case" is an embarrassment, because it is obvious that a treason trial in federal courts would be the primary subject of Court TV, not to mention all the other 24-hour channels, for weeks on end.

It's probably the awareness of the practical difficulties involved in prosecuting such a case, and of the distraction that it would provide to the war effort, which made the president call him a "poor fellow."

The implicit bargain in the works would be to tell the family that the only way to avoid a treason trial in which their son, not yet 21, might end up dead, is to judge him irresponsible on mental grounds, and put him away in some asylum for several years until everyone has long since forgotten the case. Then he could be released without setting any bad precedents on either side. "Hard cases make bad law," after all.

Roff: Leave him there

John Walker is not the first American to go overseas and join the military of a foreign power.

In the Second World War, many Americans enlisted in the armed forces of Canada or Great Britain in order to fight Nazism before America entered the war.

In China, the Flying Tigers, a group of American pilots, helped the nationalist government fight the Imperial Japanese military long before Pearl Harbor.

In World War I, a group of American pilots formed the Lafayette Escadrille to fight along side the French before Woodrow Wilson brought America into the war.

These were not controversial acts. Later generations of Americans have been taught they were highly patriotic and selfless endeavors.

And then there are more questionable examples. In the 1930s, American leftists formed the Abraham Lincoln brigade to fight alongside the Communists against the Fascists in the Spanish civil war, in what amounted to a war of evil against evil. They should not be condemned for it necessarily, but neither should they be praised -- as was recently tried in the state of New Hampshire.

Then there is Jane Fonda, who, while touring North Vietnam during the war, allowed herself to be used by Hanoi as a propaganda tool. She never fired a shot as far as we know, but she did give aid and comfort to the enemy.

In the Cold War, Alger Hiss, Julius Rosenberg and others served as agents of a foreign power, providing sensitive and secret information to the Soviet Union that, in time of a declared shooting war, could have badly compromised the ability of the United States to win. As the stated Soviet objective was to win not through armed conflict but through subversion, it could be argued that Hiss and Rosenberg and the others had, like John Walker, joined the army of a foreign power.

Fonda has taken flak for years for her actions and it may have cost her some movies roles. On the other hand, given the leftward nature of much of the Hollywood creative community, it probably helped.

Hiss went to prison, but for perjury, not spying. Julius Rosenberg went to the electric chair for his part in the plot to steal U.S. atomic secrets. And in the process, both men became martyrs, whose guilt or innocence is still a subject of debate more than 40 years later, in spite of very strong evidence acquired since the fall of the Berlin Wall that both had in fact been working for the Soviets.

If Walker took up arms against U.S. forces, then his actions are somewhat more serious then simply joining the army of a foreign power. Nevertheless, by simply joining the Taliban military and committing to defend Afghanistan against invaders, he foreswore his allegiance to the United States, as America was probably the country most likely to engage in military action against the Taliban.

America could put him on trial, send him to prison for 100 years or execute him. But, honestly, justice would not be well served by this. The best punishment the United States could visit on Walker is to make him stay in Afghanistan.

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