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Tale of Two Terrorists

January 1, 2002


This is the story of two terrorists.  Both were raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. One described himself as a convert to Islam and a jihadi fighter of holy wars – and joined the Taliban.  He is John Walker Lindh, the 20-year-old American captured fighting in Afghanistan.

The other was an heiress to the Hearst estate who changed her name to Tania.  She was  kidnapped then became an active member of the Symbionese Liberation Army, an urban guerilla terrorist organization of the Seventies.  Her name is Patty Hearst.  As the government moves to prosecute Walker, we can expect a repeat of the lengthy arguments, psychological explanations, expert witnesses, and a furious legal debate which surrounded the famous Seventies trial of Patty Hearst.  At the core is a fundamental moral question.  Did these two become engulfed within circumstances beyond their control, so much so that they were incapable of making moral decisions?  Were they in effect brainwashed and thus incapable of being judged guilty by normal legal standards?  If the Hearst trial is any indication, Walker’s defense team can expect no mercy from an American jury, or a military tribunal.

The first volley in this legal and moral battle has already been fired.  The mother of John Walker called upon U.S. authorities to show mercy for her son, who, she said, could have been brainwashed to fight on the side of Taliban.  Her comments were reported in Dawn, Pakistan’s leading newspaper. The brainwashing argument involves the question of religious cults, thought reform, coercive persuasion, and mind control.  Anti-cult movements sprung up in response to several publicized religious movements.  It culminated in deprogramming actions sponsored by relatives and friends, in which the subject was kidnapped and exposed to extensive deprogramming in order to release the subject from the control of the cult.  The Hearst trial led to a robust debate in the psychological community for many years after the trial.  The root of the brainwashing defense was the Korean War and the apparent ‘brainwashing’ of American prisoners of war.  Hence, we come full circle with the capture and certain trial of John Walker – the American Taliban.

The idea of brainwashing came out of the interpretation of the Chinese indoctrination program directed at American Armed Forces prisoners during the Korean War.  Many Americans were affronted that some of their soldier prisoners had made anti-American statements during their prison days and that a few chose to remain behind when prisoners were liberated at the end of war.  The Chinese government also began to release a number of prisoners, both Americans and other foreigners caught in China when the Korean War began.  Though not arrested, they instead had been encouraged to attend one of the thought reform institutions set up throughout this period.  When they emerged from captivity into freedom, they made public statements claiming that they had been American spies, that their arrest and detention was just, and that they deserved any punishment they had received.  Some experts concluded they were victims of brainwashing, a sophisticated Pavlovian process of thought reform.

The alleged brainwashing of American serviceman was the theoretical basis of the unsuccessful Hearst defense.  Since that time, there has developed a consensus among psychologists that no “generally accepted theory” of brainwashing exists.  As such, expert testimony carries less weight now than before the lengthy debate that occurred after the Hearst trial.  In fact some who oppose the brainwashing argument hold that the CIA invented the brainwashing concept to counter communist propaganda which claimed that Western POWs in Korea and civilian prisoners on the Communist mainland were converting to Communism.

There are fundamental differences between the two terrorists – Walker and Hearst.  Despite some allegations that Hearst arranged her own kidnapping, it is clear she was subjected to several weeks of imprisonment, abuse, and exposed to psychological torture.  Walker left America for Pakistan freely to study Islam.  Walker’s defense team may still attempt to paint a picture of “coercive persuasion,” once he began Islam studies.  But, the outcome of the Hearst trial looms ominously over such a defense.  She was convicted for her part in the deadly Southern California bank robbery and sentenced to seven years in prison.  What may give some hope to the Walker defense team is the official statement that accompanied a 1979 conditional commutation issued by President Carter:  It is the consensus of all of those most familiar with this case that but for the extraordinary criminal and degrading experiences that the petitioner suffered as a victim of the SLA she would not have become a participant in the criminal acts for which she stands convicted and sentenced and would not have suffered the punishment and other consequences she has endured.  However, the tragic and deadly events surrounding the Taliban are certain to make such a commutation for Walker unlikely. 

This is the clash of two fundamentally different views of human nature.  One holds that individuals can become powerless against the forces of their environment.  The other holds each individual responsible for their actions despite the duress or the severity of their circumstances.  For the former, moral judgment becomes hardly possible; for the latter, moral accountability is demanded no matter the circumstances.  In light of the monstrous mass murder perpetuated by al Qaeda, those who support the brainwashing explanation are left with a tortuous conclusion.  If John Walker is not responsible for his actions because of the world view imposed upon him, then how can we condemn or convict any of the terrorists – each of whom could claim they fell under the spell of bin Laden and his murderous theories.  Perhaps this is partly what led the jury to convict Patty Hearst.  For the very foundation of judicial prosecution is called into question.


Award-winning TV producer, talk show host, and Republican leader Arthur Bruzzone has written over 150 political articles for national and regional media, and has commented on political issues for American and European television and radio networks.  His articles and columns have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco Examiner, Campaign & Elections Magazine, among other publications.

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