American terrorists, California boys, and how the press thinks about treason.

By Julia Rabig

In the wake of the FBI’s public appeal earlier this week for help locating seven alleged terrorists, the Los Angeles TimesNew York TimesWashington Post, Newsweek, and MSNBC – not to mention theOrange County Register – responded with profiles of Adam Yahiye Gadahn, the only American citizen among the suspects. Although none of them explicitly links Gadahn to John Walker Lindh (the “American Taliban”), most of these stories try to fit him into the taxonomy of the impassioned California seeker gone awry, an archetype of American journalism.

According to Newsweek, “Young Gadahn’s life has been one of those strange trips that only an odd melding of ’60s and ’70s counterculture and the modern Internet culture could produce.” This narrative captures some truth about Gadahn’s life, but the consistency with which it is applied drains California’s religious landscape of its complexity and underplays its significance.

The Los Angeles Times coverage leads the pack admirably by delving into the process of Adam Gadahn’s conversion and eliciting thoughtful observations from Gadahn’s father, Philip, on the family’s idiosyncratic beliefs. The son of a prominent Orange County doctor, Philip changed his name from Pearlman to Gadahn as a young man, and moved to rural California, where he avoided technology, home-schooled his four children, and raised goats. He became a halal butcher, supporting his family for a time by supplying meat to Islamic markets in Los Angeles. Evident in the Los Angeles Times article is the elder Gadahn’s own lifelong attempt to articulate a religious identity and the journey of his son, Adam, from “demonic” heavy metal fandom, to fascination with fundamentalist Christianity, to Islam — a conversion he describes himself on a site dedicated to helping others make that leap of faith.

The level of detail in the LA Times article suggests that its correspondents established a better rapport with their source than reporters for The New York Times, for whom Gadahn seems to have provided only perfunctory, somewhat defensive, answers to questions about his life. Both articles tell us that Philip Gadahn calls the belief system he and his Catholic wife arrived at “universalism”—a seemingly peaceful concoction of the religions he had studied over the years. But The New York Times attributes a Christian gloss to Philip Gadahn’s beliefs (perhaps because he home schooled his children, a practice associated in much of the press exclusively with Christian conservatives), while The Los Angeles Times asserts that Philip found the teachings of Islam “closest to his heart (he is, after all, a halal butcher).

Of course, these inconsistencies could have less to do with reporters’ carelessness and more to do with the fact that Philip Gadahn is an unusual character in particularly stressful circumstances. The federal government has accused his son (believed to be in Pakistan) of collaborating with terrorists; and Philip’s isolated, rural life is suddenly under scrutiny by the media and FBI officials. He is asked to explain the beliefs of a son he has not spoken with in years, and implicitly expected to justify the decisions he has made about religion and parenting. Imagine the confusion that would result if every parent of an alleged criminal were asked to produce a detailed religious history.

And yet, the Gadahn articles leave unanswered many compelling questions about the three-generation trajectory of religious belief that produced Adam Gadahn. So what, readers might reply. The minutiae of the twenty-five-year-old Southern Californian’s philosophy are less important than the fact that he allegedly dressed like Osama bin Laden, trained in a terror camp, and offered translation services to Al Qaeda leaders. These details, however, offer a subtle, but significant link to the larger role of Southern California’s religion and politics, particularlyOrange County’s, in recent U.S. history.

Philip Gadahn’s parents — the Pearlmans –prospered in postwar Orange County. Although they donated reliably to Jewish causes, the Pearlmans were not considered especially religious. Their son, Philip, rejected suburban life, the secular Judiasm of his parents, and the atheism of his youth when he found a Bible on the beach and experienced an epiphany. He renamed himself and moved “off the grid.” When his son, Adam, reached adulthood, he returned to the Orange County home Philip had abandoned, moved in with his grandmother, and converted to Islam.

Adam Gadahn seems to have found in Orange County a belief system that satisfied the same search for meaning that had led his father in the opposite direction, from affluent suburb to dusty goat farm. Both seemed to have sought some kind of purity: Philip Gadahn embraced rural life as a fresh start and an escape from modern technology. His son, upon conversion, gravitated toward a militant group of young Muslims who rejected the moderate, ecumenical stance of their mosque’s leaders.

Reporters need not look far to discover in the Gadahn family’s story — a story that ricochets between liberal ecumenism and enthusiastic orthodoxy — a reflection of Southern California history, particularly that of Orange County, long a bastion of the New Right. In Surbuban Warriors, a seminal work on Orange County, Harvard historian Lisa McGirr describes the creation of the first drive-in churches in the 1950s, which inspired lackluster believers to reject the equation of secularism and suburban life and deepen their commitment to Christ.

At the same time that this mini-revival got underway, Orange County produced a generation of young, fervid, conservative voters who rejected the older, east-coast version of compromised Republicanism represented by Nelson Rockefeller. They fueled Barry Goldwater’s radical right 1964 campaign (brilliantly described in Rick Perlstein’s Before the Storm), sparked the California tax revolt, comprised the backbone of Ronald Reagan’s political career, and provided protest models for parents around the country who tried to rid public school curricula of communist-leaning literature and sex education.

Although Adam Gadahn’s father took a more highly individualized route by withdrawing from surbuban society to home-school his children, he might have found an affinity with many of the Orange County conservative suburbanites who were unsatisfied with secularism, who jealously protected their control over their children’s education, and who fiercely guarded their communities from the high taxes, multiple-family dwellings, and heavy regulations they associated with big-city life.

The omission of this context becomes especially striking in light of the reportage lavished upon another traitorous young Californian – John Walker Lindh. Upon Lindh’s capture in Afghanistan, reporters eagerly sought a clue for his actions in his background, suggesting that the excessive hippy tolerance of his left-leaning childhood homes – Takoma Park, Maryland, and Marin County, California – figured in to his conversion to Islam and decision to fight for the Taliban. To the extent that the press has followed this strategy with Gadahn, they present him as another product of California’s excessive, if well-intentioned,freethinking ethos.

One problem here is that freethinking is a fairly imprecise adjective. But as long as it’s in common use, we should remember that it’s not the exclusive property of West Coast lefties. As Lisa McGirr shows, many of the conservative and liberarian activists of Orange County might have wanted the adjective for themselves as a weapon in their fight against imperious federal bureaucrats, high taxes, and meddling public school systems, all of which they considered part of a lockstep liberalism blind to American realities.

While the assertion that Gadahn’s and Lindh’s parents and communities influenced them is an easy bit of journalistic psychology, it’s nearly impossible for reporters working on a tight deadline to pinpoint where these influences mixed with Lindh’s and Gadahn’s adult identities and the choices they inevitably made for themselves. Success yields a more interesting and nuanced article, failure results in polemical overstatements that rest on creaky logic.

Yet the risks are worth taking. Although the lives of Lindh and Gadahn took extraordinary, violent turns, the questions about faith that led them have deep, familiar roots.

Julia Rabig is a historian working on a book about Newark, New Jersey, after the riots. She has previously written for The Revealer about culture war.