John Walker Lindh Doesn't Deserve the Right to Pray
John Walker Lindh, the estranged American teenager who converted to Islam and joined the ranks of the Taliban in Afghanistan, is suing the federal government. He claims his religious freedom is being violated by prison staff who are barring him from praying with his fellow convicted terrorists five times a day, which Lindh's religion requires. The prison currently only allows one weekly prayer session.
Lindh's lawyer, Ken Falk, the legal director of the ACLU of Indiana, argued "A congregational prayer elevates the magnitude and the importance of the prayer from a religious sense, and by denying him this right, his religious exercise and his religious beliefs are being substantially burdened." While most who read this story will likely roll their eyes, it represents a good opportunity to discuss rights of all sorts and the principles that support them.
What is important to remember, especially in times of war, is that individual rights are not absolute. They are contextual absolutes, existing only within certain conditions. Contrary to the idea that rights are gifts from a god or permissions from a benevolent government, rights are, as philosopher Ayn Rand put it, "conditions of existence required by man's nature for his proper survival," but more specifically, "a 'right' is a moral principle defining and sanctioning a man's freedom of action in a social context." Everything, including human beings, has a specific nature; we need food to eat, water to drink, others to socialize and trade with. These values we cannot pursue in any other context than a free society. We need the right to our own life in order to live free; we need the right to liberty in order to act on our own judgment; we need the right to the pursuit of happiness if we are to build our own destiny. Without these conditions of freedom and liberty, without this proper social context, we cannot enjoy such rights. We are left to live brutish and short lives.
The principles behind this social context are life-furthering action, the respect for the rights of individuals, and the non-initiation of force. It is these principles that make the fertile soil for individual rights. Lindh, in joining the Taliban and taking up arms against non-believers, rejected these principles, and thus set himself outside this context. He can no longer lay claim on the rights that we all enjoy by the nature of our respect for each other.
Lindh doesn't deserve the right to practice his religion with his fellow convicts. Peaceful religious practice in American is a derivative of our right to the pursuit of our own happiness, which itself is a right made possible only in a context of respect for the rights of others. Lindh does not share such respect. He made that clear when he turned his weapon on his own countrymen in the mountains of Afghanistan.
In war, those who threaten our lives, and thus our rights, are no longer benefactors of the rights a free society enjoys. They haven't earned such protection, and in fact have rejected it outright in the clearest of terms. The virtue of justice compels us to judge others and treat them accordingly, and we shouldn't forget that when it comes to dealing with our enemies, including John Walker Lindh.
AUTHOR'S CREDIT: J.K. Gregg is an IT professional in Northern California, a graduate from U.C. Riverside, and an Objectivist. He can be followed on twitter @jk_gregg.