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Jewish World Review Jan. 21, 2002 / 8 Shevat 5762

Philip Terzian

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Understanding Sara Jane Olson -- NOT everyone looks back with affection on the late 1960s and early '70s, the epoch that launched a thousand memoirs and made-for-TV movies, a time when we Baby Boomers came of age, and when (to quote Wordsworth) "to be young was very heaven."

Among those for whom nostalgia must be tinctured with pain are the four children of Myrna Opsahl. Who is Myrna Opsahl? She is the 42-year-old nurse who was shot and killed when members of the Symbionese Liberation Army robbed the Crocker National Bank in Carmichael, Calif., just north of Sacramento, on April 21, 1975. Mrs. Opsahl was at the bank to deposit funds from her church. Her husband, a surgeon, was on duty at the local hospital that day, and saw her die.

Mrs. Opsahl's death was not an accident, or misunderstanding, or a robbery gone terribly wrong; she was murdered in cold blood. She was not in the wrong place at the wrong time; she was going about her business, and was killed for it. Nor, according to Patricia Hearst's memoir of the incident, did her death go unnoticed in the SLA family. Emily Harris, one of four onetime terrorists now charged with her murder, dismissed her as a "bourgeois pig" at the time, while Mrs. Harris's then-husband, William, also charged in her murder, referred to her derisively as "Good old Myrna."

The 27-year-old killing of an obscure Californian may not seem like news, but it is. For new forensic techniques have enabled the Sacramento district attorney to draw a connection between the lead pellets that struck Mrs. Opsahl in the abdomen, causing her to bleed to death, and a sawed-off shotgun found at the SLA's hideout. In addition to the Harrises, two other ex-SLA members have been arrested and charged with murder: Michael Bortin, who lives in Oregon, and his sister-in-law, Sara Jane Olson.

Sara Jane Olson is the best known of the quartet, of course: The onetime Kathleen Soliah had been on the lam since 1975 when she was discovered, two years ago, in St. Paul, Minn. Like Mrs. Opsahl, she is the wife of a physician, and a mother, but there the resemblance ends. Having slipped back to her home state from California a quarter-century earlier, she assumed a fictitious name, married, raised three daughters, was active in left-wing politics and community theatre in St. Paul and, according to her lawyers, threw a popular annual Christmas party that attracted "the larger peace and justice community in the Twin Cities." Charged with plotting the (unsuccessful) bombing murder of two Los Angeles cops, she pleaded guilty, twice reneged on her plea, and has now been sentenced to prison.

Unlike Mrs. Opsahl, who was almost immediately forgotten after her death, Sara Jane Olson has attracted considerable attention. Her friends in the peace and justice community in the Twin Cities have largely rallied around her, and there are several web sites devoted to raising funds for her defense. She has even published a cookbook --Serving Time: America's Most Wanted Recipes -- which features a smiling photograph of Sara Jane Olson in handcuffs wielding a spatula.

Nor has Sara Jane Olson been ignored by the press. Many journalists have reported seeing something of themselves in this star-crossed child of the Sixties-turned-progressive Soccer Mom. In a long interview with The New York Times ("A Radical's Tale: Compassion Then Led to Prison Now") Ms. Olson expressed shock and irritation at the charges leveled against her. "When there are so many other important things happening in our country," she said, "this seems -- I don't know -- so unnecessary." And when asked to describe her involvement with the SLA, she explained that "it was just in the air. It was impossible to not be involved."

That, in a few words, nicely summarizes Sara Jane Olson and her brethren in the amnesty-now generation. Radical politics were in the air in the early 1970s, to be sure; but it was possible "to not be involved," and especially possible to avoid the kind of ghastly violence that the SLA practiced.

For it should be remembered that Sara Jane Olson and the Symbionese Liberation Army were not just cooking for the revolution in those days, or participating in guerrilla theatre, or writing letters to the editor, or picketing for peace and justice. They were murdering innocent people. Specifically, they shot and killed Marcus Foster, the black superintendent of schools in Oakland, in the hopes of exacerbating racial tensions. They kidnapped and held for ransom the heiress of a newspaper fortune, Patricia Hearst. They attempted to bomb two policemen in Los Angeles. And they robbed a bank and shot Myrna Opsahl to death in the lobby.

Maybe it's "just in the air" to understand Sara Jane Olson, but how nice it would be to remember Myrna Opsahl.

JWR contributor Philip Terzian is associate editor of The Providence Journal. Comment by clicking here.


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