In America, the wheels of justice turn slowly. By and large, that is a good thing. Human actions and reactions are filled with nuance and complexity. A legal system in the business of passing judgment on past events, of holding individuals to retroactive account at the behest of an accepted system of norms and values, of pronouncing conduct unlawful and prescribing punishment, must necessarily take its time. Establishing the conditions warranting the revocation of human liberty is one of the most profoundly difficult questions a society can face.


The court of public opinion moves a bit faster. Driven before the changing winds of emotion at the mercy of passionate arguments from authority, public opinion can try, convict and crucify before a case first sees the sullen fluorescent light of a courtroom. Public perception is often capricious and cruel, coalescing around first impressions and exhibiting an astonishing hostility towards individuals unlucky enough to be gaveled into guilt by the shouts of the mob. And thus we meet Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, newly released from his five-year captivity at the hands of the Taliban and already damned in the hearts of his countrymen.


The details of Sgt. Bergdahl’s odyssey are operatic, the stuff of well-plotted adventure narratives. Bergdahl grew up in the mountains of Idaho, the lanky, freethinking son of homeschooling Presbyterians. Unconventional by any measure of the word, Bergdahl dabbled in ballet and spent time at a Buddhist monastery while working as a commercial fisherman and fruit picker. Beset by a thirst for new horizons, Bergdahl joined the military in June of 2008 and arrived on the ground in Paktika Province shortly thereafter.


From here, the narrative blurs. Bergdahl’s squad was plagued by discipline issues and cratered morale, earning the scorn of a directionless Army mired in the mountains of Afghanistan.  Bergdahl himself quickly became disillusioned with the American mission in Afghanistan, crafting a series of e-mails to his parents that showcased a battered psyche descending into chaos.


One day in June 2009, Bergdahl vanished from his post. He was captured by the Taliban only hours later.


Fast-forward five years, to a press conference in the Rose Garden of the White House. President Obama announced that Sgt. Bergdahl was coming home, released by the Taliban in exchange for five imprisoned fighters of their own. The deal quickly came under scrutiny, with some critics claiming it subverted the law while others eviscerated the administration for greenlighting the Taliban fighter’s release.


Soon enough, the man himself was placed under the microscope of public opinion. While Bergdahl recovered in a military hospital in Germany, the details of his disappearance and capture were unearthed and trotted out on the world stage. Former comrades-in-arms spoke up, lambasting Bergdahl as a deserter and mourning the lives lost in the search for him. The odd conduct of Bergdahl’s father was analyzed ad nauseam. Voices on both sides of the aisle weighed in both sides of the issue, trumpeting Bergdahl’s guilt or rushing to his defense. The ever-erudite Sarah Palin addressed Bergdahl’s rumored language difficulties by advising him to “call 1-800-RosettaStone” before prattling on about “speaking KickAss against those who would destroy the red, white and blue,” thereby setting something of a benchmark for bad taste on the issue. Bergdahl’s town canceled a welcome-home celebration when the population was inundated by threats and angry protests.


Lost amid the furor is the fact that the Army has yet to charge Bergdahl with wrongdoing. An official report on his disappearance does not actually level formal accusations against the beleaguered sergeant. Desertion is a profound offense under military law, but it is quite difficult to prove. It is legally differentiated from going AWOL (absent without leave) by whether or not the purported deserter ever intended to return to military control. With Bergdahl in such vulnerable straits and the facts of the case cloaked in such mystery, it is unlikely an official verdict will be rendered any time soon.


In the meantime, the American public would do well to reserve its own judgment on Bowe Bergdahl. To so quickly condemn drastically subverts the hallowed concept of “innocent until proven guilty” and turns the struggles of a haunted young man into fodder for ill-informed contempt and hatred. Bowe Bergdahl is, like all of us, only human. Give him that right, and stay your gavel.


What do you think of Sgt. Bergdahl? Are you comfortable pronouncing him guilty, or are you reserving judgment? Start the discussion in the comments below or connect with me on Twitter @aa_murphy