Lindh: a Young Man Caught in Evil's Net

Los Angeles Times/January 25, 2002
By Paul Morantz

In a famous story by Stephen Vincent Benet, a young man is lured into a pact with the devil, only to regret it later. It is left to the great lawyer Daniel Webster to deliver a stirring speech that wins sympathy from a jury of spirits, thus saving the young man's soul.

And now we are faced with the image of a young American, John Walker Lindh, willingly collaborating with the hated Taliban, espousing beliefs alien to American culture and ideals.

Are we to condemn this young man or extend him our sympathy? Is he demon or victim? Certainly, anyone succumbing like this must, we assume, be weak, evil, addled or all three. This lack of sympathy is rooted in the belief that we cannot be "brainwashed" unless we want to be.

The term "brainwashing" was invented by American journalist Edward Hunter after a Chinese informant during the Korean War called the process hsi nao, or "cleansing the mind." People subjected to it function on their own and make their own choices. But choices are based on beliefs. Change beliefs and you change choices.

Americans got their first shocking glimpse of the process in 1953, when military prisoners returning from the Korean War denounced our country and spouted Communist doctrine; more than 20 of them had not wanted to return. How could some of the country's finest military men reject our culture and way of life? Something inexplicable had happened.

Dr. Robert Jay Lifton, who studied the dynamics of brainwashing, concluded that the key was to get someone to open up in a group where his past life could be critiqued by others who were further along the same conversion process. Lifton prophetically predicted that the process causes such polarization as to lead to weeding out spies and enemies and to "holy wars." The most vulnerable, often, were teenagers and young adults whose identities were still taking shape, who were still idealistic and emotionally polarized and who were dissatisfied with large societies. All of which describe Lindh.

History is full of examples of various kinds of brainwashing, from the Inquisition to the Salem witch hunts to McCarthyism, the Manson family, the People's Temple and the Symbionese Liberation Army. Interestingly, Lifton found that brainwashing systems worked only as long as victims remained subject to the environmental influence. Once removed, a person usually self-deprogrammed within 90 days.

One case in which a cult soldier received sympathy involved the self-help drug rehabilitation program Synanon. Synanon grew out of founder Charles E. Dederich's alcoholism. Dederich became a fanatical believer in Alcoholics Anonymous. The insights he believed he gained during a 1956 UCLA experiment on the effects of LSD on alcoholics transformed his AA sermons into intricate psychological and philosophical analyses. He developed his own following and started a storefront club in seedy Ocean Park.

Early on, the process fascinated the media and politicians. One congressman called Synanon the "miracle on the beach." Synanon grew in wealth and political influence. But after Dederich moved his operations to Northern California, he began subjecting followers to 48-hour "training sessions" designed to make the participants break emotionally and see Synanon and Dederich as their savior.

As the group grew more insular, it grew more violent. Dederich converted his best men into "imperial marines" at an Al Qaeda-like training camp, eventually dispatching them on coast-to-coast "missions" against perceived enemies.

That war brought them to my doorstep. In 1978, after I had instituted litigation against Synanon, two of Dederich's followers placed a rattlesnake in my mailbox. Only 11 vials of antivenin saved my life. The police raided Dederich's commune, arrested the men and retrieved a tape recording of Dederich bragging about past attacks and plans for future ones. One of the men arrested, just 20 years old, had been placed in Synanon at age 11 by his band-touring father. At 18, he had volunteered for a vasectomy after Dederich decided children interfered with Synanon's goals. I had no doubt this boy would never have been convicted of a crime if he hadn't been placed there. At my urging, he was sentenced to just one year in jail and forbidden from associating with anyone from Synanon after he was released. He went on to live a normal life.

There are many stories of cults and mass deaths. David Koresh's followers were persuaded to perish by fire, along with their children, rather than surrender during the Waco shootout in 1993. Heaven's Gate founder Marshall Applewhite persuaded followers to submit to castration and ultimately to drink poison cocktails to "shed their containers" and rendezvous with a UFO. The Aum Supreme Truth sect in Japan in 1995 released sarin nerve gas in Tokyo's subway, killing 12 and injuring thousands. And of course there is the murder and mass suicide in Jonestown, Guyana, resulting in more than 900 deaths.

When it comes to death tolls, no one can match Hitler or Stalin, who hooked the downtrodden with promises of greatness. We are all, to some degree, vulnerable to committing horrible acts if we become convinced of a justification. In a 1988 case involving the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church, in which I was appellate counsel, the California Supreme Court recognized that thought reform, brainwashing or coercive persuasion constituted outrageous conduct and said that victims could sue for both compensatory and punitive damages.

So, should we show sympathy for Lindh? While it seems, from his own words, that he aligned himself with Osama bin Laden, there is no evidence that he attacked any American, although, in his presumed state of mind, he may have done so in defense of his new Taliban "family."

But it is also likely that, like the lost victims of other demagogues, he would never have gotten in harm's way had he not been manipulated by evil people.

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