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Echoes of 1970 in Lindh case


LOS ANGELES - A 20-year-old man from California takes up arms in a cause counter to U.S. military operations in Asia. When his situation becomes known, it makes banner headlines and is the lead story on TV news shows.

Members of the young man's heartbroken (and broken) family give interviews; they're sure that their loved one could not have committed such acts. Some say that he's a traitor and should have his U.S. citizenship taken away. The crime is discussed in such serious terms that many think the death penalty is the appropriate judicial outcome.

John Walker Lindh, the American Taliban? No.

This is about an incident that took place nearly 32 years ago. If we look at what happened in that case, it may give us a preview of what might take place with Mr. Lindh.

In March 1970, Alvin Glatkowski, along with Clyde McKay, 25, seamen working on a U.S. merchant vessel carrying napalm to Southeast Asia, hijacked their ship at gunpoint to protest the Vietnam War. The mutineers took the ship and its ammunition to Cambodia, where they were given political asylum by Prince Sihanouk's government. Two days later, the prince was overthrown and Lon Nol, who was aligned with the U.S. cause in Vietnam, was put in power. The mutineers were prisoners of Lon Nol's regime for nearly a year.

Eventually, Mr. McKay escaped into the countryside, never to be heard from again. Mr. Glatkowski, after suffering a breakdown, turned himself in to U.S. authorities and was flown back to California for trial. He pleaded not guilty. In media interviews, his attorney, Michael Hannon, said that he intended to put the Vietnam War on trial.

On the day before the trial, the U.S. attorney offered a deal, which surprised Mr. Hannon, who advised Mr. Glatkowski to accept it. The only person in U.S. history to be indicted for mutiny on the high seas, Mr. Glatkowski was sentenced to 10 years and served seven.

Comparing this case with Mr. Lindh's, there is one huge difference. What probably helped Mr. Glatkowski was that by 1971, many Americans had grown weary of the war. Mr. Glatkowski's attorney knew that it would be no great risk to his client if the defense strategy questioned American policies in Vietnam.

In contrast, there is virtually no sympathy for Mr. Lindh's cause - not in this country.

His lawyers are not likely to put America's terrorism war on trial, and they will make every attempt to separate their client from the events of Sept. 11.

It appears, however, that many, including administration officials, are working hard to ensure that Americans make that connection. At the Feb. 13 hearing at which Mr. Lindh pleaded not guilty, U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III said that the proposed trial date of mid-November was "way too far off."

Presumably, the judge is pushing for a trial that would be in progress on Sept. 11. If that's his intention, then it's one of many attempts to give the Lindh case enormous patriotic resonance.

In an odd way, the massive weaponry aimed at Mr. Lindh may end up backfiring. If there is a growing perception that the government's legal and emotional machinery has been pulled together in order to bully a jury into sentencing one skinny, confused 20-year-old to life in prison, or worse, it could lead to public sentiment that Mr. Lindh is a convenient Osama bin Laden surrogate.

And there's something else.

In 1971, Mr. Hannon, Mr. Glatkowski's lawyer, believed that one of the reasons his client was offered a deal was that the Nixon administration did not want to examine the Vietnam War in open court. If current government officials fear that Mr. Lindh's trial could expose American intelligence-gathering and adversely affect the war on terrorism, that, too, could help Mr. Lindh.

In spite of calls for the death penalty, I suspect that before Mr. Lindh's trial begins, a deal will be offered.

Like Mr. Glatkowski, Mr. Lindh might well plead guilty to crimes that would net him less than 10 years in prison.

During his incarceration, he would be largely forgotten. Then, like Mr. Glatkowski, long after his 15 minutes of fame had passed, Mr. Lindh would get out of jail while still young and melt back into anonymity. And also like Mr. Glatkowski, John Walker Lindh would probably turn out to be no more than a strange footnote in a long American war.

Roberto Loiederman, who grew up in Baltimore, is co-author of The Eagle Mutiny (Naval Institute Press, 2001).

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