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Disaffection is Metallica's middle name.

Master of Puppets

When shock rock loses its power to offend the parents of the '60s, what's next? John Walker figured out the answer.

By Gina Arnold

THE FACE OF THE CAPTURED American Taliban-warrior John Walker staring pathetically out of a New York Times photograph reminded me of something, but at first I couldn't think what. Then it struck me: with his mud-stained robes and Ted Kazcynski-type beard, Walker resembled nothing so much as a drugged-out hippie, sitting cross-legged on Haight Street and begging for "a miracle" (that's the Deadhead's official name for a free ticket). Indeed, upon reflection, I wondered if the Dead don't have a lot to answer for--for having made spiritual quests, facial hair and an interest in exotic travel an acceptable way for American young men to while away their wild youth. Whatever happened to the Peace Corps, for God's sake?

Meanwhile, Mr. Walker may go down in current history as the first young man to have done something that genuinely horrified his parents since the '60s. Today's parents have all dropped acid and listened to Alice Cooper; they're not particularly easy to shock. Indeed, when you think about it that way, it's surprising there aren't more kids like Walker, since in a weird way, everyone can relate, if not to the exact circumstances he found himself in, at least to the impulse that drove him, first to Yemen and Pakistan to study Islam, and then to the Afghanistan frontier. Walker was wrong--and, let's face it, hella stupid--to embrace the Taliban, who are clearly maniacs whom even most Muslims can't defend on any grounds. And yet there is something about Walker's story that is slightly sympathetic. I picture him as being the kind of kid who is disgusted by the materialism and the injustices that surround him, who wants to protest by being different from everybody else. (Incidentally, this is the subtext of almost every song by Metallica.)

For most teenagers, that impulse to reject the mainstream manifests itself by getting a tattoo and a bad haircut, or listening to Insane Clown Posse, Slipknot or whoever seems most likely to punch one's parents' buttons. The fact that adhering to these groups and behaving in such a manner is just another form of conforming to society's accepted norms always escapes most youths who do it. Walker alone seems to have hit on a better way to express his angst about the frightfulness of modern life, but there's nothing new under the sun: the poet Shelley went off to fight in the Greek Wars; English and Americans joined the International Brigade during the Spanish Civil War; and on and on and on.

The difference is that these idealistic gestures were all on the side of right--where "right" essentially means the side of the oppressed, not on the side of the dictatorship. Walker seems to have missed the fact that the Taliban are dictators, aggressors and oppressors. In a way, he reminds me of Lori Berenson, the MIT graduate who went to Peru in 1995 and wound up in prison for (allegedly) abetting the terrorist organization Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement. Berenson, who claims she was innocent, has served five years of a 20-year sentence and has appealed because she'd like to be sent back to the United States. Her situation isn't exactly comparable to Walker's, since the United States isn't engaged in combat with Peru, but there's a similarity in that both these young people felt perfectly at ease butting in on someone's else's political affairs.

It's pretty sad and also inevitable: after all, how many boys have wanted to do battle for someone or something? It is, of course, the basis of all fairy tales that we're brought up on--and including those 20th-century myths, Star Wars, Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. In the old days, boys could join the Foreign Legion. Now, battles are waged by black kids in South-Central and Bensonhurst and by white kids in the mosh pits of darkened sports arenas and the unkempt grounds of Woodstock '99. All of them are probably aware that joining the Armed Forces merely entails sitting on your butt on a base in Germany that resembles nothing so much as a shopping mall in Kansas.

Meanwhile, opinions differ as to whether Walker should be castigated or pitied, but all indications are that he'll be returned to his parents and the United States, with little or no condemnation. It seems a bit odd, given how bloodthirsty we all are lately, and yet, perhaps not. The sympathy shown toward Walker and the Walker family is just part of the confusion of this war, where no one even dares to form an opinion, for fear of being wrong.

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From the December 13-19, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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