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Lindh charges serve justice

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Credit the Bush administration for its handling of the criminal charges against John Walker Lindh, the American who fought alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Instead of charging Lindh with treason, an offense punishable by death, federal prosecutors have charged him with conspiracy to kill U.S. citizens, providing support to terrorist organizations and engaging in prohibited transactions with the Taliban. If convicted, Lindh could spend the rest of his life in prison.

Proving Lindh committed treason would have been problematic on several levels, mainly because the U.S. Constitution imposes a high evidentiary standard to prove the charge. The prosecution would have to proffer a confession by Lindh in open court or the testimony of two witnesses. The witnesses presumably would be members of the Taliban who would pose security problems and likely would not cooperate with an American court of law.

Moreover, charging the 20-year-old with a death penalty offense would, in some circles, elevate Lindh to martyr status. That could result in its own set of ticklish issues.

Attorney General John Ashcroft is also to be commended for his department's decision to try Lindh in a civilian court, where his actions can be judged in a public forum under customary constitutional safeguards. This should help rid any question as to whether Lindh is afforded a fair trial and competent representation.

Lindh is an enigma to many Americans who puzzle over his transformation from teenage Muslim convert to a Taliban warrior. According to press accounts, Lindh's rifle malfunctioned in battle, he was bombed by U.S. planes before surrendering, then he was shot in the leg during a violent prison uprising.

Perhaps more chilling were court documents that revealed Lindh knew as early as June 2001 of the planned attacks on New York City and Washington and that Osama bin Laden had dispatched suicide squads to the United States. The documents also say that Lindh and a handful of other Taliban recruits had a brief personal meeting with bin Laden during which the al-Qaida leader thanked the men for their assistance.

Lindh needs to account for his conduct, and if government prosecutors prove he aided terrorists and fought against American forcers in Afghanistan, justice demands that harsh penalties be handed down.

As Ashcroft observes: "We may never know why he turned his back on our country and our values, but we cannot ignore that he did.

"Youth is no absolution for treachery, and personal self-discovery is not an excuse to take up arms against your country."