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by William H. Benson

January 3, 2001


     Born on January 3, 106 B.C., Cicero, the Roman orator, politician, and philosopher sent his son, Marcus, to study in Athens, the center of Greek learning.  Soon, reports floated back to Cicero in Rome that Marcus was drinking heavy, typical of college students, and he was failing in his studies.  Incapable of doing anything else, Cicero wrote a lengthy letter to his son which later earned the title of De Officiis (On Moral Obligations).

     Written as a moral guide, Cicero urged his son to consider the ethical teachings of the ancient Greeks and see if he could apply them to his own life, especially the virtues of wisdom, justice, courage, and moderation.

     Information is simply facts and figures, but knowledge is the analysis and the weaving together of those facts.  But wisdom is the application of knowlege to our own personal lives, to teach us how to live.  And justice revolves around the concept that good deeds do not ever go unrewarded and that bad deeds do not go unpunished.  Courage is the stamina required to forge ahead with what is right and true and proper.

      Moderation, Cicero explained, was the Greek’s philosophical gift to the world–that too much of anything is wrong, in either direction.  For example, between the two extremes of total selfishness and absolute selflessness lies a balance, a Golden Mean, the correct posture in this life.

     All of this was obviously good advice, but Cicero’s son Marcus failed to heed much of it; the heavy drinking continued after his college days were over, deeply disappointing his father.

     Now over the past few weeks we have witnessed another strained father-son relationship that has become the focus of international attention–that of Frank and John Walker Lindh, and questions about this case jump out at us.

     How did an American boy from California end up hanging out with a gang of terrorists in Afghanistan intent on killing Americans?  Why was John Walker so attracted first to Islam and then to the most vicious strain of that religion?  What do we do with John Walker now? A Congressman on “Larry King Live” recently said that “this young man certainly deserves more from us than a shave and a haircut.”  Perhaps a bath?  or a change of clothes? or a change in attitude?

     Where were the parents in all of this?  Where was the dad?  Why would he pay his son’s way to go live first in Yemen and then in Pakistan to study and memorize all 6,666 lines of the Koran?  Why did he not cut off the money?  Did he not know that this would end up badly, as it has?

     The words of the dad, Frank Lindh, are revealing, if not disturbing.

     “He was always intellectually coherent, and he had a wonderful sense of humor.  And none of that changed when he converted to Islam.  I never had any major misgivings. . . .  He’s a victim who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. . . . I was proud of John pursuing an alternative course. . . . I wanted to support my son’s passion and his committment to learning. . . . My son’s message [about the attack on the USS Cole] raised my concerns, but my days of molding him were over.”

     Wisdom?  Justice?  Courage?  Moderation?  Both the father and the son committed some very unwise acts.  Participating with a crowd bent on killing innocent people is not seeking justice nor a courageous venture.  “Faceless cowards” is how the President described them.  And at some point both John and Frank threw moderation out the window when the dad watched the Muslim religion overtake his son’s life to the exclusion of everything else, and the dad did not say nor do anything to counter such obsessive behavior.

     Also born on January 3, but in 1892, was the English writer J.R.R. Tolkein.  One of his major characters, Bilbo Baggins, said, “Sometimes it is a dangerous thing to go out your front door.”  Of course it is, but to be easy on yourself, you do not have to go to Yemen, nor all the way to Afghanistan, nor do you have to join up with a crazed madman, such as Osama bin Laden.  After all, stupidity is evil’s dimwit half-brother.