Radical Cheek

The legendarily bad timing of violent American radicals

Sometimes success or failure is all just a matter of timing.

Just ask Sara Jane Olson, confessed veteran of '70s guerilla outfit, the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), who recently pleaded guilty to attempting to explode a destructive device with the intent to commit murder. Back in the Me Decade, she was still going by her birth name, Kathleen Soliah, and either aiding-and-abetting (the law's version) or merely innocently palling around with (her version) the gang notorious for kidnapping and brainwashing newspaper heiress-cum-John Waters repertory member Patty Hearst; killing an Oakland school superintendent in the service of the People's Revolution; and robbing banks to further their stated goals of "Freedom and Self Determination and Independence for all... people and races."

Olson, wanted on a 1976 indictment stemming from SLA activities, had managed to hide out for over 20 years in quaint St. Paul, Minnesota, before being caught by the feds in 1999. In the intervening years, she had downshifted her terrorist instincts to merely working in local community theater and sponsoring Democratic Party fundraisers. She married a doctor and raised three daughters and was, by the accounts of her buddies who mortgaged their homes and busted their kids' piggy banks to raise her $1 million bail, living life as a model citizen. Ironically, she had become exactly the kind of person her old SLA comrades wanted to kill as representatives of the "Fascist Capitalist Class."

Olson was accused of helping plant pipe bombs filled with nails underneath the car of two Los Angeles cops who were enjoying dinner at an International House of Pancakes. On the way to trial, her lawyers gained six separate postponements, grasping at such straws as an insufficient number of Latinos on the grand jury that indicted her. Finally, they had a trial date they thought they could live with in September. Then came the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon--events that would doubtless have been considered very groovy by Kathleen Soliah and her SLA comrades back in the day.

After the September 11 attacks, Olson and her lawyers realized the timing was really, really bad for someone going on trial for alleged acts of terrorism against U.S. society. So they fought for a seventh postponement, saying an unbiased jury would be impossible in the current climate. They didn't get it, but Olson handled the setback in a self-justifying manner befitting her generation of would-be Pol Pots: Before the judge, she made a tactical plea of guilty in the hope she'd draw a smaller sentence. Then she immediately marched outside the courtroom to tell the assembled throng of aging radicals and soccer-mom pals that she was oppressed into pleading guilty because Amerikan justice couldn't give an (ex-) radical a fair trial. (She will be officially sentenced in December to a probable 20 years to life, though her attorneys hope she will only serve around five years.) Had the trial proceeded under different circumstances, she would have doubtless used the courtroom to make two contradictory but related points: that she was in fact never a full-fledged member of the SLA and that the only thing they and other revolutionaries wanted was to help America achieve its ideals. (We may still get a chance to find out; on November 28 a judge is scheduled to decide whether Olson should be allowed to withdraw the guilty plea and stand trial, as she now says she wants to.)

Sara Jane Olson isn't the only veteran of the radical guerilla movement in America to suffer really bad timing post-September 11. Billy Ayres, the former Weather Underground bigwig, published his memoir, Fugitive Days, late this summer. The charming peccadilloes of '60s radical leftists remain an easy sell to baby boomer editors and audiences, who long for the halcyon days when bombs going off in public were the sound of their side winning, of bringing the Vietnam War "home," where it belonged. As a result, Ayres scored a long New York Times profile on September 11 whose first line was: "'I don't regret setting bombs,' Bill Ayres said. 'I feel we didn't do enough.'"

In the profile, Ayres said he didn't recall ever actually saying something popularly attributed to him about the goals of the Weather Underground: "Kill all the rich people. Break up their cars and apartments. Bring the revolution home, kill your parents, that's where it's really at." (Perhaps it's merely the embarrassingly dated "where it's really at" lingo that Ayres, now an education professor at the University of Illinois, wants to disavow.) The dramatic and horrifying bringing of the radical Islamic revolution home that happened just as many New Yorkers were reading about Ayres finding "a certain eloquence to bombs, a poetry and a pattern" in their morning paper makes the story an everlasting monument to poor timing. It certainly put more than a bit of a damper on the Fugitive Days publicity campaign, although the Chicago Tribune had no problem running both a fawning profile and a lengthy excerpt from the book in its September 16 Sunday magazine section. What would Col. McCormick think?

The publicity attendant to this tasteless timing brought grief not only to Ayres. It also made things a bit sticky for his beloved revolutionary sweetheart, Bernardine Dohrn, pinup girl of the Weather Underground and inventor of that nostalgic '60s relic, the "fork salute" -- three fingers up in tribute to the Manson Family's stabbing of forks in the freshly murdered belly of the pregnant Sharon Tate. (In those days, you epatered the bourgeois wherever you could.) She and Ayres are now a perfect modern liberal faculty couple, she teaching law at Northwestern University. Since September 11, dozens of Northwestern alums have expressed newfound or newly rekindled outrage at Dohrn's presence on the faculty, with one even demanding his $1,000 back.

But the bad timing of the violent wing of the '60s counterculture long predates September 11 of this year. The Weather Underground managed to capture, then capsize, Students for a Democratic Society just as the '60s ended. Rather than turning a powerful student organization toward a liberating if bloody revolution, they merely provided a last gasp of self-destructive violence to the '60s leftist dream. Hence, the Weather Underground's fabled "Days of Rage" event in October 1969 -- when they tried to gather their armies to the streets of Chicago en masse for violent street demonstrations to Bring the Mother Down--was a huge flop in terms of the number of kids actually willing to break windows in the name of peace. By February 1970, when the Weather Underground killed three of its own when a bomb accidentally exploded at their Greenwich Village safe house, the fervor that made the '60s the '60s was just about over. The SLA, even more of a latecomer to the '60s spirit of revolutionary violence, didn't even arise until '73, more the era of Blaxploitation than Black Power.

What the Weather Underground and SLA had to sell was not, as apologists for '60s leftism in general or Ayres and Olson/Soliah in particular tend to insist, simply idealistic opposition to racism, sexism, and the Vietnam War -- the holy trinity of ends by which all former radicals expiate the sins of their youth. They were violence-for-violence's-sake communist revolutionaries who preferred Mao's China and Castro's Cuba to the admittedly flawed U.S. They envisioned a wave of blood and fire sweeping America and their goal was never peace and freedom, but dictatorial, collective control. Their latest bids at retelling history in their own favorable terms failed due to bad timing. But alas for them and their partisans, even before September 11, there had never been a right time for their message.

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