Gin-Mill Justice For John Walker?

The situation of John Walker, as the Taliban soldier who calls himself Abdul Hamid is known in his homeland, appears straightforward and quite simple.

He joined a foreign army–and perhaps an international-terrorist subset of that army–that initiated hostilities against the United States, including the murder of thousands of innocent civilians. He participated in armed violence against American allies in Afghanistan. Before his ultimate surrender, he took part in a prison uprising against those allies, which resulted in the horrible killing of an American intelligence agent.

Mr. Walker is therefore a traitor who deserves the same fate as Timothy McVeigh or worse, isn’t he? The only questions remaining are what kind of legal formalities should precede his execution, and whether that satisfying conclusion to the Walker story ought to be televised, perhaps with Bill O’Reilly or some other cable gasbag as master of ceremonies.

So much for those quaint, old-fashioned American notions about the presumption of innocence–now junked, amid wartime hysteria and patriotic posturing, along with other antique provisions of the Constitution. When the Attorney General questions the loyalty of anyone who dissents against his actions, who will dare to stand up for the rights of a turncoat caught in the ranks of the Taliban?

It is easy to condemn any young American who turns against his country, as Mr. Walker evidently did, and even easier to condemn his decision to join the Taliban in oppressing their own people. In doing so, he may well have committed crimes against both the United States and Afghanistan.

Yet there are still many questions left unanswered concerning Mr. Walker, beginning with the still mysterious circumstances under which he came to join the Taliban militia and ending with his exact role in the prison riot that led to C.I.A. operative Johnny (Mike) Spann’s death. What did Mr. Walker know about the events of Sept. 11 before his capture? When did he learn that the United States was effectively at war with his Afghan and Arab hosts? What would have happened to him if he had tried to leave? What were his intentions and his mental condition?

None of the reporting so far offers the basis for any fair conclusions–and in any case, he is entitled to a process more rational, orderly and unbiased than trial by sound bite.

The lynch-mob mood surrounding the discussion of Mr. Walker’s fate shows how casually the concept of constitutional rights can be abandoned, even in a country where those ideas have developed for more than two centuries. More than a few people who should know better–who do know better–have leaped to denounce the “American Taliban” as if he had not only been indicted but tried and convicted.

Restraint is not to be expected, of course, from the New York Post , which instantly placed Mr. Walker in the headline category of “traitor” and “rat.” The tabloid’s star columnist has urged authorities to “put him before a military tribunal, get him up against the wall and drill him like a sieve.” This is gin-mill justice, as understood by the flag-flapping foreign recruits of the Murdoch organization.

Nor is it shocking that Trent Lott, the Senate Minority Leader, would inflame mob emotion in the style of his friends at the Council of Conservative Citizens. While admitting on Fox News Sunday that he doesn’t know “all the facts,” the Senate Minority Leader called Mr. Walker “treacherous and treasonous” and said he “obviously is guilty of some really horrible things. He should be tried and at the very minimum, I believe, should be sentenced to jail.” Nobody bothered to ask Mr. Lott what the purpose of the trial would be, since he is ready to send the man to jail or possibly the death chamber.

It was more troubling to hear similar pandering from Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, a person who has herself been subjected to the American media’s version of summary justice. “I certainly consider him to have been a traitor to our country,” she said on Meet the Press , adding that she didn’t mean to suggest what kind of “legal action should be taken.” She might instead have followed the better example of Republicans like Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, who wisely withheld judgment, or her Senate colleague Chuck Hagel of Nebraska.

It was Mr. Hagel, a decorated Vietnam veteran, who listened to Mr. Lott’s remarks and then had the courage to say what needs to be said about John Walker: “No question he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, with the wrong people. And why he was there, the motive behind that, we need to let that play out. We need to talk with him, as we are talking to him. I’m not one who is going to immediately charge him with treason …. I think we need to be a little careful here.”