I used to think Paul Theroux was a smart guy whose books I liked. Then I heard him being interviewed somewhere and was surprised at his British accent. “Is this guy a Brit?”, I wondered. “Why did I always think he was American?” Well, yes, he is in fact an American, born and raised in Medford, MA where he went to high school and then on to the University of Maine. After that, he joined the peace corps, and started a life of travel and travel writing, and ultimately settled in the U.K. where he started talking like the people around him, which I guess makes sense.
I suppose the British version of English is kind of like a second language to Americans, and it’s worth learning it if you live there, not only for the challenge but for increased acceptance by your neighbors. But most people are able to live abroad and speak the local language without losing the ability to speak the unaccented version of their first tongue. I have a cousin who has lived in Sweden for decades and doesn’t use English much, but also does not now speak English with a Swedish accent. I have another cousin who’s lived in Australia, also for decades, and does not greet me with “G’Day, mate” when she sees me.
I started to suspect Theroux was kind of a jerk, a self-hating poseur who wanted to appear to be something much more exotic than he actually is. A few months ago, I read an opinion piece by Theroux in the Failing New York Times that really cements this notion. In it, he explains what a naive 24-year old he was when he ran afoul of the Malawi authorities and was kicked out of the country and the Peace Corps as well. He explains that he had become
“…involved with a group of political rebels — former government ministers mostly — who had been active in the struggle for independence.”
And that he
“…performed various favors for the rebels, small rescues for their families, money transfers, and in one effort drove a car over 2,000 miles on back roads to Uganda to deliver the vehicle to one of the dissidents in exile. On that visit he was asked to bring a message back to the country. He did so, without understanding its implications. It was a cryptic order to activate a plot to assassinate the intransigent prime minister.”
So, first let me just say that driving a car over 2000 miles of back roads is not a “favor” – it’s a huge undertaking.
Theroux explained himself to his “de-briefing” interrogators at the State Department back home. He said he was just a silly idealistic kid, had gotten in over his head, and that history and events had “overtaken” him. The government realized they were dealing with a now-terrified moron, albeit one who seemed well educated, and let him go.
This story was prologue to Theroux’s defense of the “American Taliban”, John Walker Lindh, who Theroux sees as much like his own 24-year-old self: idealistic, naive, overtaken by events, and who now surely sees the error of his ways and is remorseful.
In the piece, written in the last days of the Obama administration, Theroux was advocating that Lindh, who has now served 15 years of his 20-year plea-bargained sentence, should be given a pardon by President Obama and have his sentence commuted. As I said, Theroux seems like kind of a jerk, and we really don’t need to listen to his opinions on this. He may be missing the bigger picture here, as he did in Malawi.
Lindh is 36 now, and is scheduled to be released in two years. He will leave prison with an Irish passport, and, according to the U.S. government, “a stubborn refusal to renounce violent ideology”.
This piece in Foreign Policy paints a different picture from Theroux’s young, remorseful, innocent victim who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. It cites a report of the National Counterterrorism Center from January of this year, which says that Lindh continues to advocate for global Jihad and continues to write and translate extremist texts.
The document says intelligence agencies have noted a high rate of recidivism among home-grown extremists, and claims that in March of last year Lindh “told a television news producer that he would continue to spread violent extremist Islam upon his release”.
Soon, it will be up to President Tweety to figure out what to do with “Johnny Jihad” on his release. It’s hard to imagine he’ll be as magnanimous as Paul Theroux would be, but you never know what Tweety might do.
At the time of his trial, Lindh apologized for fighting alongside the Taliban, saying, “had I realized then what I know now … I would never have joined them.” He said Osama bin Laden is against Islam and that he “never understood jihad to mean anti-American or terrorism.”
Lindh’s father said, “John loves America and we love America. God bless America.”
We shall see.