The criminal charges filed by the U.S. Justice Department against John Walker, the young Talibanoid, finally bring focus and arguably even moral clarity to a situation that has excited a rhetorical uproar.
We have had, at the one end, the "poor baby" school, willing to slough Walker's acts off in an ooze of excuses, and at the other end, in far greater number and at many more decibels, the armchair toughs eager, they suggest, to manhandle Walker up against a wall and riddle him with bullet holes.
But, no, there will be no treason charge. Attorney General John Ashcroft makes the perfectly sane point that treason charges are rare and convictions rarer, and a charge of treason would be untenable here, with the c act.
Justice has nonetheless thrown the book at Walker, charging him with aiding terrorism and conspiring to kill U.S. citizens, charges that carry a possible sentence of life in prison. And what is more, plainly judge-shopping, Justice brought the charges in a northern Virginia district known for swift trials, which favors prosecution and a jury pool heavy on retired military personnel.
That's hardball but, if the case as Justice outlines it stands up in court, not inappropriately so.
With the charges, we have finally, after all the verbal lynching of Walker, fulfilled the old-fashioned standard of first finding out what someone actually did before rushing them to the noose.
According to the attorney general, Walker has admitted to volunteering for training by known terrorists and to being aware he was allying himself with organizations whose open, notorious purpose was to harm America and kill Americans everywhere.
If so, Walker was complicit, even though not directly involved, in the deaths of some 3,000 of his fellow citizens. That's not child's play, and as Ashcroft said, "Youth is not absolution for treachery, and personal self-discovery is not an excuse to take up arms against your country."
That is a shame in such a young life, but it was Walker's own bad judgment that got him into this fix. (But it was his bad luck that he wound up as a hockey puck in the endless left-right culture war that goes back to the campus battles of the 1960s.)
It is essential to keep in mind that all of this is still tentative and unproven. An open trial is necessary for coming to credible conclusions, and President Bush was wise to opt for that, rather than sending the case to one of his dubious military tribunals.
A trial will test whether Walker's reported confession and his waiver of counsel up to this point were truly informed and voluntary. Testimony will decide whether his acts add up to the serious charges Justice has brought against him. Judicial wisdom will weigh what punishment fits the crime, if crime there was.
Far more will be on trial in Virginia that just Walker himself. We will be testing ourselves as a nation there, with the opportunity to show that even after the grievous wound of Sept. 11 we can be firm but fair, open, carefully proportionate and thoughtful. In short, just.
Tom Teepen is a columnist for Cox Newspapers. He is based in Atlanta. E-MAIL: firstname.lastname@example.org