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Jewish World Review July 1, 1999 /17 Tamuz, 5759

Mona Charen

Mona Charen
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Econophone

Free Sara Jane Olson?

http://www.jewishworldreview.com --
THE STORIES HAVE TENDED to focus on her quiet suburban life. Here's how Marcia Clark described her on "Rivera Live": "For nearly a quarter century, she was a respected member of her Minnesota community, a good mom who jogged, gardened and acted in local theater, and made casseroles for her neighborhood block parties. But the woman known to all as Sara Jane Olson was really a fugitive named Kathleen Soliah, a former member of the notorious Symbionese Liberation Army."

Soliah was wanted by police in California for participating in a number of criminal acts. She is accused of placing pipe bombs under police squad cars (the bombs were discovered and disarmed before anyone could be hurt) and possibly participating in other crimes. She fled to Africa following her indictment in 1975 and has been a fugitive from justice since.

The chorus of those willing, even eager, to forgive and forget is large and noisy. Ironically, one of them is the son of Myrna Opsahl, who, like Soliah, was a suburban mom and wife of a doctor. On April 21, 1975, Mrs. Opsahl was making a deposit at the Crocker Bank in Carmichael, Calif. Several masked members of the Symbionese Liberation Army burst into the bank and shouted at everyone to get down on the floor. Opsahl apparently didn't comply quickly enough and paid for it with her life. She was shot in the abdomen and bled to death. She was 42 -- the mother of four children.

One of her children, Dr. Roy Opsahl, says the past should be past. "I look at it as a total waste of money," he told the Associated Press. "Nothing's going to come of it. What's justice now? You're going to ruin the lives of her three children?"

Opsahl should be something of an expert on the subject of having one's childhood destroyed by the loss of a mother.

But still, his response is strange. After all, Soliah, at least indirectly, contributed to his mother's murder. He asks, "What's justice?" -- but his question seems to imply that justice is unobtainable.

Soliah
The defense attorneys who crowd cable TV and excuse every criminal they discuss took much the same tack on Rivera and other shows. When Marcia Clark asked whether they weren't in fact rewarding Soliah for fleeing justice (she had been indicted in California in 1975), one, attorney Michael Sherman, was blase. "You've got to weigh in the crime here too. She didn't kill anybody. She made some bad mistakes. ... Are you the same person you were 25 years ago? Forget about it."

Actually, while Soliah is likely to argue "youthful indiscretion" as she fights extradition to California from Minnesota (though Gov. Jesse Ventura takes a dim view of her case), she was not a baby when she joined the SLA. She was a 28-year-old college graduate who moved to Berkeley to get involved in radical politics. By the time she joined the SLA, the group had already kidnapped and converted (or brainwashed, take your pick) Patty Hearst, extorted money from William Randolph Hearst and engaged in a deadly shoot- out with Los Angeles police.

Hearst gave herself up and offered evidence against other SLA members, but Soliah fled the country, moving to Zimbabwe for seven years and then returning with her husband to Minnesota.

"We send people to prison to rehabilitate them so they can become the kind of person Sara is today," a neighbor told Time magazine. "It would serve no purpose to incarcerate her."

Well, perhaps prison is not the ideal punishment for this particular defendant. But there are other punishments. The strange thing is the willingness shown by so many to disregard her crimes entirely. Is it because so-called '60s activism is still shrouded in a romantic haze? Suppose, instead of trying to kill police officers (who usually have families, by the way), she had tried to blow up black churches in her 20s? Would the same people be saying "Forget about it"?

It is only an accident that Soliah's bombs didn't kill anyone. The crime remains attempted murder. A large fine would be the beginning of justice. But so would some creative community service --- perhaps spending every weekend for the next several years cleaning the bathrooms at the local police stations.


JWR contributor Mona Charen reads all of her mail. Let her know what you think by clicking here. Please bear in mind, though, that while all letters are read, due to the heavy amount of traffic, not all letters can be answered.


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©1999, Creators Syndicate