John Walker Lindh

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Courtroom sketch of John Walker Lindh's arraignment

Who is John Walker Lindh?

It's surprisingly hard to say. For someone who has dominated the U.S. media for months, Walker's identity remains markedly indistinct. He is, as both Woody Allen and Winston Churchill might say, a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. It's a public relations trick many professionals would love to pull off so well: we know so little about him — and we're left wanting to know everything.

Walker is, of course, our first real scandal in years. Less salacious than O.J., more emotionally charged than the Chandra Levy debacle, Walker's case pits good against evil (if you believe the New York City tabloids), family against religion and even God against country.

What little we do know of him is vague and open to myriad interpretations. We first learned of his existence back in November, when he was discovered fighting alongside the Taliban at Mazar-i-Sharif. The first images were of a shockingly thin young man, filthy and disoriented. A few days later, he was immortalized on that videotape — pumped full of morphine, in pain, but well pleased with his choice to join the Taliban and above all, remarkably composed.

Now Walker is home again, after more than two years abroad: home again in hostile territory. Wednesday night, scores of photographer scrambled over each other to land a shot of the newly-shorn, puffy-faced perp as he stumbled, shackled, toward the Alexandria detention center. We have almost no idea who this guy is, and yet we can't stop talking about him: we speculate about his privileged upbringing, his parents' divorce, his reportedly rocky relationship with his father, Frank Lindh. Two years ago, Walker traveled abroad ostensibly to study Islam, and somewhere along the way he decided it might be a good idea to join up with a radical Muslim group, maybe get some fighting while he was over there. From that moment on, his life, his choices became public, bound for the records of a federal court in Virginia.

Walker's parents appeared outside that courthouse Thursday morning after John's first appearance there. (The accused stood quietly before the judge, answering politely when asked if he understood the charges against him.) "John is innocent," his father told the assembled press. "My love for John is unconditional and absolute," his mother choked through her tears. It was a bracingly normal display of parental love — utterly devoid of politics or blame. Walker will remain in custody at least until his detention hearing, scheduled for February 6th.

That's pretty much what we know about John Walker. What we don't know, on the other hand, could fill volumes. Did he fire a weapon against the United States? Was he brainwashed by the Taliban? Does he still want to be an American citizen? Could he have issued a warning before the September 11th attacks?

In the end, this is not really about John Walker at all. It's all about us. We are projecting our collective anxieties about that terrible day — and the days that led up to it — onto this 20-year-old. We need answers from him, some key to the mystery of al Qaeda's hatred. Some of us want to believe Walker was sucked into the vortex of a cult, because we need to believe it isn't quite so easy to turn against one's own country. Others insist Walker knew exactly what he was doing, because we are terrified of our own susceptibility to skillful propagandists.

As with any big story, we've taken what we want from Walker and discarded the aspects that are too tough, too scary to tackle. Despite what you may hear on the street, this is a complicated case, one that has the potential to challenge our perception of American citizenship — and all the responsibilities and privileges it implies.