Many Americans seem to want to put Marilyn Walker and Frank Lindh on trial along with their son John. However, America could learn more from what John Walker's parents have done right than by what they did wrong.
There are four charges commonly leveled at Walker's parents:
Charge #1: They stood by and allowed their son to become deeply involved in a "violent, anti-American" religion like Islam.
Islam as a whole isn't "violent" or "anti-American" and isn't much different from Judaism or Christianity--all three proclaim similar values, such as charity to the poor, belief in and submission to one God, prayer, etc. Walker's parents no doubt valued the salutary effects the religion had upon their son--how it gave him a sense of purpose and self-discipline, and helped to keep him away from teenage scourges like drugs and alcohol.
I taught high school and I know a lot of parents who would have loved to have seen their troubled sons make the same conversion. Are John Walker's parents really expected to have anticipated that Walker would somehow adopt the extreme, pseudo-religious insanity of the Taliban?
Charge # 2: They encouraged and subsidized their son's descent by paying for John's now-infamous 1998 trip to Yemen to study Islam, and later by sending him $1,200 while he was at a religious school in Pakistan.
Let's look at the situation as it must have appeared to Walker's parents in 1998. They probably thought, correctly, that travel is good for young people because it broadens their horizons. Perhaps they understood that young people who can't travel or follow their desires often feel stifled and deprived later in life when they are saddled with families and responsibilities.
Also, it is natural, and even admirable, that John would want to study his religion in some of the countries where the religion was deepest and strongest, first in Yemen and then in Pakistan. Most American parents would be proud of their sons or daughters if they wanted to travel to Rome to study Catholicism or to Israel to study Judaism. No doubt Walker's parents were impressed by their son's dedication and willingness to go to these lengths (including learning Arabic from scratch) to practice his religion. They also probably believed that learning Arabic would be an excellent job skill for him someday.
Charge #3: They caused their son's problems because, like so many Northern California liberals, they were overly "tolerant" and they gave their son no values.
This charge is based on the utterly fanciful notion that if parents firmly implant a moral and political value system in a child, when that child becomes a teenager he or she will always follow it instead of rebelling against it.
Charge #4: Even now, when they see what their son did, they defend him--a clear example of the moral vacuum which caused the problem in the first place.
Marilyn and Frank are trying to protect their son from a populace which has prejudged John guilty and is ready to hang him. What parents wouldn't seek to protect their child?
Walker's parents have weaknesses, like any other parents, but they also have some important strengths. The biggest of these is that, although they're divorced, rather than attacking or carping at each other, they've stood united in defense of the son they love. In so doing, they set a fine example for the millions of American parents who selfishly break their children's hearts by trying to turn their children against the other parent.
At each step along the way Walker's parents have tried to deal with their enigmatic son with intelligence and compassion. Those who vilify them today have forgotten one of life's most important lessons--sometimes you do the right thing and it doesn't work anyway.
This column first appeared in the Los Angeles Times (2/2/02).