I love my son. I enjoy our periodic visits and our weekly telephone calls, but this visit felt different. “If Bin Laden is dead,” I kept thinking, “why can’t John come home?”Just some innocent kid who happened to take up arms against his country. Why is he so misunderstood?
A convert to Islam, John was found, unarmed and wounded, in a warlord’s fortress in northern Afghanistan in December 2001. He was subjected to physical and psychological abuse — a precursor to the mistreatment of many prisoners, in both Afghanistan and Iraq, by the American military during the George W. Bush era. Marines took a photograph of John, blindfolded, bound and naked. It was published and broadcast worldwide.
In post-9/11 America, John became a symbol of “the other.” He was called the American Taliban. A traitor. Detainee No. 1 in the war on terrorism.
President George W. Bush called John a “Qaeda fighter.” Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said, inaccurately, that he had been captured “with an AK-47.” Attorney General John Ashcroft said John had “turned his back on our country and our values.” Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani suggested that John be put to death for treason; polls showed that many Americans agreed.
This was heartbreaking to me and John’s mother. The son we know is intelligent, spiritual and good-natured. He has a wry sense of humor. He is fluent in Arabic, and curious about the history of the world’s languages and cultures.
John was not running away from anything when he first went overseas. He had a passionate desire to embrace all aspects of Islam, including the Arabic language. He embarked on an unusual odyssey of learning and adventure with full support from his parents. He selected Yemen, where he traveled in 1998, at age 17, because it was one of the best places to learn classical Arabic.
In November 2000, John left Yemen for Pakistan, and the next April, he wrote to me and his mother to say he was going into the mountains of Pakistan for the summer. That was the last we heard from him. Throughout the summer, and especially after 9/11, our family became increasingly worried about John’s whereabouts and his welfare. In December 2001 we were shocked to learn from the news that John had been found among a group of Taliban prisoners who had survived an uprising and massacre at an old fortress near Mazar-i-Sharif.
On May 2 and 3, I had two long visits with John. He remains idealistic and spiritual, and a practicing Muslim. He once told me he thought Bin Laden had done more harm to Islam than anyone in history. As I said farewell, we both felt a sense of closure. I saw grief in his eyes over the pain he has caused himself and his family.He should have been excuted.
John was a scapegoat, wrongly accused of terrorism at a moment when our grieving country needed someone to blame because the real terrorist had gotten away. Now that Bin Laden is dead, I hope President Obama, and the American people, can find it in their hearts to release John, and let him come home. Ten years is enough.