Bright children blessed with responsible parents learn early on that “But everyone’s doing it!” is no excuse for bad behavior. This is a lesson (one of many) that seems to have been left out of textbooks in life studies published when the baby boomers came of age. Consider the case of Sara Jane Olson, née Kathleen Soliah, the fifty-four-year-old middle-class wife of a doctor and mother of three—as well as long-time fugitive from justice and former member of the radical group known as the Symbionese Liberation Army.
In 1999, after more than two decades on the lam, Ms. Olson (who took her new first name from a Bob Dylan tune) was arrested and charged with a bungled attempt to bomb two police cruisers in 1975. (Other escapades of the Symbionese Liberation Army did not end so happily: in 1975, during a bank robbery near Sacramento, a bystander, a mother of four, was killed. And of course there was the bizarre drama—half comic, half pathetic—of the SLA’s kidnapping of Patty Hearst.) When Ms. Olson’s case came to trial last year, she was prevailed upon by her lawyer to plead guilty to the two felonies (“attempted explosion of a destructive device with intent to murder”) in exchange for having three other charges dropped. The charges could carry a twenty-year sentence, though one of about five years is expected.
Nor many observers, Ms. Olson’s guilty plea was a surprise. But not as surprising as her declaration to reporters immediately following the trial. As The New York Times reported,
Minutes after entering her plea to two felony counts, she renounced it outside the courtroom. Not only did she have no regrets about what she had done 26 years ago, she said, but “I’m still the same person I was then.”
This prompted Judge Larry Paul Fidler to summon Ms. Olson back to court. “The integrity of the criminal justice system is at stake,” he noted, pointing out to Ms. Olson that “A guilty plea is not a way-station on the way to a press conference.” He then asked her, “Do you wish your plea to stand?” Silence for fifteen seconds. Mumbled response: “All right.” “Is that yes?” asked Judge Fidler. “Yes.”
Ms. Olson has complained that, in the patriotic, pro-government atmosphere following September 11, she cannot get a fair trail. But what really seems to irk her is the fact that she is being held responsible for things that a) happened a long time ago and b) were done by lots of other people. Why pick on her? After all, many of her friends were engaged in similar sorts of activities. “It was just in the air,” Ms. Olson said. “It was impossible to not be involved.” Au contraire. It was eminently possible not to be involved. All it took was an act of will. “Just say No.” It is clear that Ms. Olson’s performances in court and with reporters were inept efforts at political theater à la Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. They didn’t work, partly because the times, they are a-changin’, partly because Ms. Olson has no excuse but her guilt. Many of the press reports have oscillated between amusement and pity in their attitude toward Ms. Olson. How silly of her to have been caught! We find the humor pretty rancid, frankly, and as for pity, we choose to expend it on people like that unfortunate mother of four whose life was snuffed out by spoiled radicals like Kathleen Soliah.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 20 Number 5, on page 3
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