Mercy for a terrorist?

Being a radical means never having to say you're sorry for violent crimes against innocent people yesteryear.

Published August 2, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Who in America today could be associated with a gang that carried out an execution-style murder of a prominent public official and the murder of a pregnant woman during a bank hold-up, and then, when finally arrested, be championed as an "idealist" by church officials, Democratic Party legislators, columnists and local activist groups?

The answer: a progressive activist who remains faithful to her leftist faith.

Twenty-five years ago, Kathleen Soliah went underground as a fugitive. She was wanted by police as a suspect in the planting of pipe bombs under two randomly selected police cars that would have killed the occupants had they not failed to explode.

During this and other episodes, Soliah was a member of the Symbionese Liberation Army, a group led by ex-convict Donald DeFreeze in the early 1970s, whose defining slogan was "Death to the fascist insect that preys on the life of the people."

After DeFreeze and five other SLA members were killed in a shootout with police in Los Angeles, Soliah led a rally for the "victims" in Berkeley's "Ho Chi Minh Park," claiming that the six outlaws were "viciously attacked and murdered by 500 pigs in L.A."

Soliah singled out her best friend Angela Atwood, one of the dead SLA members, saying: "I know she lived happy and she died happy. And in that sense, I'm so very proud of her."

Soliah was finally apprehended in St. Paul, Minn., on June 16, where she was living under a pseudonym, Sara Jane Olson, with her doctor husband, Fred G. Peterson. Soliah has subsequently been released on $1 million bail raised within a week by 250 sympathizers and friends.

The Minneapolis Star-Tribune describes the attitude of the liberal community in St. Paul after learning of her past in these terms: "In the days since her June 16 arrest, Olson [Soliah] has been almost canonized: reader of newspapers for the blind, volunteer among victims of torture, organizer of soup kitchens. The office manager of the Minnehaha United Methodist Church, where she is a member of the congregation, called on its members to build a "contingent of support." Twenty of them were said to have been in court in California on the day she was arraigned.

Soliah's brother-in-law, Michael Bortin, was a Berkeley radical and with his wife, Josephine (Soliah's sister), was also an SLA member. Recently, Bortin attempted to explain to the press the relationship between the radical gangster Soliah and the St. Paul housewife "Sara Jane Olson," who was such an upstanding member of the progressive community: "There's not this dichotomy between what Kathy was and what she is now. She was doing the same things in the early '70s."

Bortin claimed that it was the assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King Jr., the presidency of Richard Nixon and the war in Vietnam that changed their attitudes to make them SLA members. "We lost our faith in the country, in due process. In law and justice."

Maybe so. Back then, I was one of the editors of Ramparts, the largest publication of the New Left. Like Bortin and Soliah, I would have described myself then as a "revolutionary" who had "lost faith in my country." But along with many other leftists at the time (and unlike Bortin and Soliah), I hadn't lost my mind or sense of decency as well. I wrote an editorial for Ramparts condemning the SLA as a criminal organization. It was the first editorial I wrote that I didn't sign. I was concerned enough that the SLA might come and kill me.

The SLA had announced itself to the world on Nov. 6, 1973, in a terrible deed that has gone all but unmentioned in the current reportage on Soliah's case. Without warning, three of its "soldiers" ambushed and gunned down the first African-American superintendent of schools in Oakland. Dr. Marcus Foster had no warning when he was met with a hail of bullets in a parking lot behind the Oakland School District office. The bullets had been tipped with cyanide, just so he would have no chance to survive the attack.

His crime, according to the SLA's official death warrant, was that he followed a School Board directive to issue I.D. cards to students, to protect them from drug dealers and gang members wandering onto their campuses intending to do them harm.

The Foster killing revolted me, as it did many, but not all, members of the radical community. Thus Ramparts received many letters like the one by yippee leader Stew Albert, accusing us of "giving a green light" to the police to hunt down and "murder" the SLA warriors.

Leonard Weinglass, the famed lawyer for Tom Hayden, Abbie Hoffman and the Chicago Seven and now counsel for Black Panther and cop-killer Mumia Abu Jamal, then represented the families of the dead SLA members who sought monetary restitution from the city of Los Angeles for denying justice to their offspring.

In my view, however, justice had been done. If anything, the SLA killers hadn't been punished enough.

In fairness to Soliah, it is not clear that she was aware of the SLA's intentions before the murder of Marcus Foster, although she certainly embraced them afterwards. According to Patty Hearst, who was kidnapped by the SLA and then converted to their political agenda, Soliah participated in a 1975 bank robbery the SLA committed in a Sacramento suburb.

An innocent bystander, Myrna Lee Opshal, who was pregnant and had come to the bank to deposit church funds, was accidentally shot and killed by SLA member Emily Harris. Later Harris dismissed the killing to her comrades saying the victim was "a pig," explaining, "She was married to a doctor." (Ironically, Soliah today is herself married to a doctor.)

These were the deeds, and this was the mentality of the gang to which Kathleen Soliah dedicated her radical political life. Now she is once again being defended by progressives, who blame the Vietnam War and Richard Nixon even for the evils they themselves have committed.

If Kathleen Soliah's crimes are excused by Nixon, why would not Nixon's be excused by the crimes his Communist enemies committed? Soliah's attorney, Stuart Hanlon, is a graduate of the William Kunstler-Leonard Weinglass school of radical alibis. He recently helped win the release from prison of convicted murderer and former Black Panther Geronimo Pratt by claiming the FBI and police had conspired to frame Pratt because of his passion for "social justice."

The radical fantasy that turned the Soliahs into paranoid conspirators is very much alive today in the rhetoric of the left, which is unrelenting in its insane picture of America as a repressive, racist, sexist, imperialist empire. It is kept alive in part by the radical rewriting of the history of the '60s in which "noble idealists" like Soliah declared war on government "fascists" and were, whatever they did, always the hapless victims of the greater evil of their adversaries.

There is a whole library of memoirs and histories by aging New Leftists and "progressive" academics dealing with the rebellions of the 1960s, but hardly a page in any of them has the basic decency or honesty to say, "Yes, we supported these murderers and those spies and the agents of an evil empire."

I'd like to hear even one of these advocates of "justice" acknowledge that "we greatly exaggerated the evils of this system and underestimated its decencies and virtues and we're sorry." I'd like to hear that from Soliah and her apologists. I'd like to hear them pay a moment's tribute to Marcus Foster and to Myrna Opshal, and to the brave policemen and FBI agents who risked their lives to protect other Americans, including progressives, from the harm they intended.

I'd like to hear them say, just once, "I'm sorry."

By David Horowitz

David Horowitz is a conservative writer and activist.

MORE FROM David Horowitz

Related Topics ------------------------------------------