Radiating ripples from September 11 washed over a Los Angeles courtroom last week when an American pleaded guilty to terrorism. She was charged with attempting, 26 years ago, to kill Los Angeles police officers by attaching pipe bombs to two patrol cars--bombs stuffed with heavy nails. Immediately after pleading guilty she stepped outside the courtroom and said she was innocent but could not get a fair trial in the climate created by September 11. Many "progressives" consider her a martyr.
Although neither the prosecution nor the defense requested it, a judge will hold a hearing this week to consider what, if anything, he can or should do about her disavowal of her plea. Her lawyer says "she meant she is not guilty of holding the bombs and planting them, but that she is guilty of aiding and abetting." If her plea stands, she can be sentenced to at least five years in prison, and perhaps much longer. However, if there is a trial it would usefully reacquaint Americans with a radicalism that is still romanticized by some people.
Kathleen Soliah, a.k.a. Sara Jane Olson, was raised in southern California comfort, but embraced northern California radicalism in the early 1970s. In 1974 she achieved Berkeley stardom with a speech in that city's Ho Chi Minh Park eulogizing six members of the Symbionese Liberation Army who had been killed two weeks earlier in a shoot-out with police in South Central Los Angeles. Prosecutors say Soliah was seeking revenge for that when she conspired to place the bombs. Fortunately, the bombers were incompetent. When one bomb fell off a patrol car without detonating, an examination of all patrol cars revealed another bomb.
Soon after this, Soliah disappeared. By the late 1970s she was living as Olson in St. Paul, Minn., where she married a doctor, raised three daughters and was an activist liberal Democrat. Then at 8:21 a.m. June 16, 1999, near her home, police and FBI agents, acting on a phone tip following an episode of "America's Most Wanted" on the SLA and the Los Angeles bombing attempts, surrounded her white minivan. Ten days later, kindred spirits in her upper-middle-class neighborhood had raised $1 million for her bail.
Since then parts of her life have been something of a lark. She has given many talks to sympathizers about what she considers her persecution at the hands of what she calls "the shadowy" FBI and others. She has hosted "consciousness-raising" groups in her Los Angeles home. She has raised money selling a playful cookbook, "Serving Time: America's Most Wanted Recipes." Until a judge suggested that it might appear to be an attempt at intimidation, her Web site contained the home addresses of the two men who were in the patrol car when the bomb fell off. One is still with the LAPD. The other, unnerved by the attempted murder, left the force.
The SLA first made big news in 1973 by assassinating Oakland's superintendent of education, an African-American. The SLA thought, mistakenly, that he wanted students to be required to show identification, which the SLA considered fascist. The SLA became briefly prominent when it kidnapped Patty Hearst. She soon said, "I've changed--grown. I've become conscious." She became an SLA "soldier" called Tania. After a 19-month hunt, Tania was arrested. When booked by the San Francisco police, she listed her occupation as "urban guerrilla."
Bank robber, too. In her memoir, "Every Secret Thing," Hearst says that Soliah and two other SLA members conducted the robbery of a Carmichael, Calif., bank, during which a customer was killed. Olson denies being there, and denies being a member of the SLA. Prosecutors say they have ballistic evidence that spent shells and bullets found at the Carmichael bank and in the dead customer's body match those found at an SLA hideout Soliah frequently visited. Prosecutors also say they have tapes of Hearst speaking to her family about the SLA and Soliah.
Olson's cookbook chapter on breads features a picture of her clutching $20 bills. (Get it? "Bread.") Prosecutors say this is a joking allusion to the Carmichael robbery, in which $20 bills were stolen. The customer killed during the robbery was a mother of four.
Olson is unconvincing when she says September 11 is the reason she now fears a trial. Although she says she wants a fair trial that post-September 11 America cannot provide, her trial would have begun six months ago if she had not successfully sought six delays. She pleaded guilty as soon as the judge said prosecutors could begin presenting the 40,000 pieces of physical evidence, which they say includes a 9mm pistol and ski mask she used in the Carmichael robbery, and a map of Los Angeles with her fingerprints on it, found in a car bought with the proceeds from the robbery.
Prosecutors say they have handwriting evidence that Olson ordered fuses two weeks before the bombs were attached to the two patrol cars. The Los Angeles Times reports that before her guilty plea, many of her St. Paul supporters "had become increasingly uneasy" about her stalling tactics. In a chilly appraisal of Olson in the Los Angeles Times Magazine, Twila Decker says the word "contrite" does not seem to be in Olson's vocabulary.
Some of Olson's supporters opened an office over a Los Angeles clothing store called Closet Liberal. However, since September 11, "radical chic"--the romanticizing of political extremism (only the left-wing sort, of course)--seems especially repulsive. Soliah- Olson's story has many twists but one constant: she has had two identities but one character, that of a familiar species of radical. She is dishonest, unrepentant, self-satisfied, self-dramatizing, self-pitying--she fancies herself a victim--and contemptuous of her country.
She is pleased to say of herself, "I'm still the same person I was then. I don't have any regrets." People can rise on the steppingstones of their dead selves to higher things, but Soliah-Olson prefers not to.