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In the Crossfire

The voice behind 'John Walker's Blues'

Singer-songwriter Steve Earle says he had to do "John Walker's Blues" "because no one else was going to write this song but me."

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- There are tunes associated with just about every U.S. war, except the war on terrorism.

Singer-songwriter Steve Earle attempted to fill that void with "John Walker's Blues," a ballad about John Walker Lindh, the American who is serving a 20-year prison sentence for his association with the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Earle stepped into the "Crossfire" with hosts Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson to discuss his motivation for writing the controversial song, which is on his "Jerusalem" album.

BEGALA: Let me begin. You got a lot of grief for this song because it takes the first-person narrative of John Walker Lindh, the American Taliban. Did Johnny Cash get a lot of grief when he sang in "Folsom Prison Blues" that "I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die?" Did that make country fans around the country shoot people in Reno for no good reason?

EARLE: Well, I didn't think for one second that this was exactly the same thing. I mean I knew I was going to get a lot of grief. In fact, I got grief, most of it from exactly the people that I expected to. I mean ...

BEGALA: Who were they, and what did they say?

EARLE: The New York Post and the local talk-radio host, who actually was my lawyer for about 30 seconds back in the 1980s. ... You know, most everyone else has at least acknowledged, No. 1, that I actually have the right to write anything that I want to. And that's part of what a democracy is about. And they understood that when you assume a character, you're writing in the first person. You are assuming character. It doesn't really have anything to do with my views. It's lending someone else a voice.

CARLSON: Well, I mean, nobody here in Washington would contest your right to write whatever you want, and if it's a good tune, I hope it's judged on the basis of that rather than on the politics, but my question was, why John Walker Lindh? This kind of annoying rich kid from Marin County [California], of all the people you could pick?

EARLE: Because I got a 20-year-old son and I guess I reacted to it differently. When I first saw him, which was probably on CNN like everybody else did, I saw an underfed 20-year-old, and I have got a 20-year-old. I have a son that's about four months younger than he is and who looks underfed even when I feed him. So I reacted to it as a parent. I realized that he probably had parents and that they were probably sick.

BEGALA: It's interesting you say that, that's how our president reacted at first. President Bush's first comments about this were, "[He] looks like a troubled young man." I suspect his girls are right about that same age, and maybe he too first began looking at this as a dad. Law enforcement had to do its job.

Did you ever read the Eudora Welty short story about the man who murdered Medgar Evers? She wrote it in the first person. And it is one of the most chilling stories I've ever read. She wasn't trying to praise the man who murdered Medgar Evers like a dog, but by taking his voice, it gave us an enormous insight into the kind of person [he was.]

EARLE: Yeah, I mean, I don't condone what John Walker Lindh did because the older I get, I don't even [like to] hunt anymore. I occasionally humiliate a fish before I put it back in the water. [That] is about as violent as I get, and I have a problem with anybody who takes up arms against anybody for anything, and for any reason, and especially when it's supposed to be for spiritual reasons. You know, jihad and crusade are words in different languages that mean the same thing.

CARLSON: But you say you have a problem with people who take up arms -- in your liner notes, I think, in this album, you talk about who some of the real American heroes and patriots are, in your opinion. Here are some of the names you list -- John Reed, Emma Goldman, Abbie Hoffman, Bobby Seal, Malcolm X. Now, whatever else they were, leftist of course, but apart from that, these are all people who espoused to one degree or another violence.

EARLE: Well, I mean ...

CARLSON: Every one of them.

EARLE: Yeah, I think most of them, but I think at one period or another is the key term here. You know, I I grew up during the Vietnam War, and I'm a product of that. I grew up with that war on television, and it went on for so long that I actually was old enough to be drafted before it was over with, and I don't remember a time that I didn't hear about it.

And so I come from that background, and I'm not an apologetic lefty, but I don't think any of that has anything to do with why I wrote this song. ...

There are plenty of people vilifying John Walker Lindh, and I felt, I've done it before, I've done it with other characters and other songs, some fictitious, some people that actually lived. And I felt like it was necessary because no one else was going to write this song but me.

BEGALA: That's true. You wrote a song called "Billy Austin," about a murder, which is another terrific song. I'm a big fan as you can tell. You wrote a song called ["Over Yonder (Jonathan's Song)"] -- not about a fictitious character.

EARLE: That was more of me processing what I witnessed. I witnessed an execution in Texas a few years back, and that was really more me processing that. I didn't mean to put myself in that position. There were a lot of guys on death row that I wrote to. If guys in prison wrote me, I would write them back.

And this guy asked me to witness his execution. I didn't really know how to say no. I spent a lot of time trying to avoid ending up in this. And it's no secret I'm opposed to the death penalty -- that's where my major activism [is]. It's where I do most of the work outside of my day job that I do.

It was a pretty horrific thing, and it took me a long time to process it. But that was the same thing. Jon was guilty. Innocent guys don't write me for some reason, and my opposition of the death penalty ... is spiritual. I'm opposed to it politically. But also, if this is democracy, if the government kills somebody, then I'm killing somebody. And I object to the damage that does to my spirit. It's really that basic for me.

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