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Village Idiot

Village Voice columnist Cynthia Cotts thinks it's time for the media to stop treating John Walker like a traitor.

11:01 PM, Jan 6, 2002 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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CYNTHIA COTTS waits until the last sentence of her latest column to get to the point.

"It's time for the media to stop treating Walker like a traitor," she argues.

"Walker," as you might have guessed, is John Walker, the American member of the Taliban. Cotts is the media critic for the Village Voice. And the short response to Cotts's plea is: No, it's not.

Cotts makes her case almost exclusively by criticizing some of the reportorial tactics used in obtaining Walker's now-famous confession, which aired on CNN. (Among many other things, Walker admits on the tape to training in al Qaeda terrorist camps.) Specifically, she questions the credentials of the reporter who talked with Walker and rips CNN for airing the interview.

"Even though Walker was being pumped with morphine and did not consent to be interviewed," Cotts complains, "CNN edited and broadcast the footage as if it were a confession that would be admissible in court."

Leave aside for a moment the unknowable--that "CNN edited and broadcast the footage as if it were a confession that would be admissible in court." Cotts, whose "Press Clips" column is on my computer's "favorites" list, raises some interesting ethical issues. Though Walker initially expressed reluctance about an interview, he did eventually give at least implicit consent by talking in front of a rolling camera for nearly twenty minutes. The question, then, involves Walker's state of mind when he began talking. Was he so doped up that he didn't know what he was doing? Perhaps. If so, is it fair to broadcast his confession? Maybe not.

But Cotts should have stopped there. After all, even if you throw out information obtained in the questionable CNN interview, Walker is clearly a traitor. He was found holding an AK-47, fighting for the Taliban, when he was discovered in Mazar-i-Sharif. He had previously told his father that the bombing of the USS Cole was justified because the ship's presence in Yemeni waters constituted an "act of war" by the United States. He adopted a nom de guerre, Abdul Hamid. And he told Newsweek that he "supported" the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Still, Cotts wants the media to give Walker the benefit of the doubt, asking her journalistic colleagues to ignore everything they know about Walker until he can "tell the story his way."

"Is it possible that Walker is just a suburban kid who studied Islam and got caught up in something amazing, sitting under the Afghan moon at night?" she wonders.

Giving Walker a pass on his CNN confession is one thing. Giving him a pass on his own anti-American jihad is quite another. Fighting a holy war is not a passive endeavor. One does not become "caught up" in Islam or any other religion, and end up toting an AK-47 in a war against his country. (Of course, Walker was reportedly a "heavy" hash user, so it's entirely possible we haven't seen the end of the "he didn't know what he was doing" defense.)

Would Cotts have her fellow reporters believe that this young man, who learned to speak Urdu and Pashto in a matter of months, was so dim that he thought his nom de guerre was just a cool nickname?

Cotts's closing argument rests strongly on the fact that Robert Pelton, the journalist who interviewed Walker and gave the tape to CNN, may be having "second thoughts." To support this claim, she quotes Pelton saying that Walker "is a very gentle, sort of unassuming person," and that "he didn't seem like a very bellicose person." (Interesting that morphine--what Walker called "happy juice"--might make a terrorist sympathizer confess to the world, but apparently has nothing to do with his temperament when doing so.)

John Walker may, in fact, be a "very gentle" traitor. But he is a traitor just the same. And to suggest that journalists avoid that simple fact is preposterous.

Stephen F. Hayes is staff writer at The Weekly Standard.