When he was a college student, Michael Kleinman ’03 shared a room in Yemen for five weeks with a fellow American. But they never had the “what’s your major, do you have a girlfriend, where are you from, what music do you like” chat.
“It’s hard,” said Kleinman, “to small talk with somebody who’s an aspiring fundamentalist.”
That roommate was John Walker Lindh, only 17 at the time but already on the path that would lead him to fight alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan and become, for many Americans, the embodiment of a traitor. Kleinman knew him then, however, only as a quiet, serious student who sported a black beard and wore flowing white robes. They both had enrolled in a summer program of the Yemen Language Center in 1998 to learn Arabic but otherwise had absolutely nothing in common and barely saw each other, said Kleinman.
He hadn’t thought about Lindh until his former roommate was captured by American troops. Like many other Americans, Kleinman wonders how a young man from California could apparently go so terribly astray.
“He seemed like someone who was lost and had found a set of answers,” he said. “So if it hadn’t been militant fundamentalist Islam, it could very well have been a different religion or any other avenue people go down when they feel lost.”
Kleinman spent significant time with Lindh outside their room only once. Walking the streets of Yemen, they attracted a large crowd when Lindh began to give away money “like a human ATM.”
“On the one hand [it was] totally admirable, but there was no restraint. There was no thought-out process behind it,” said Kleinman. “It seemed if he was going to do it, he was going to do it all the way.”