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The SLA’s Shame 

Slamming the book on 1960s radicalism gone mad

Wednesday, Nov 13 2002
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The last word has finally been entered on the sordid history of the Symbionese Liberation Army, the paramilitary band that burst into the national spotlight with the February 1974 kidnapping of newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst. Four former SLA members pleaded guilty last week to second-degree murder in the shotgun slaying of Myrna Opsahl, a 42-year-old mother of four, killed during the group‘s 1975 heist of a Crocker National Bank in Carmichael, outside Sacramento.

The SLA may now get a proper burial, interred as a farcical, and homicidal, faction spun out of the worst impulses of 1960s radicalism. Frustrated by the collapse of mass political movements, the SLA developed, above all, a soured and curdled view of justice. Their kabuki-like, carefully scripted extremism helped coax into existence the age of telegenic terrorism, in which we are now mired, as they deluded themselves into believing that they were changing society because their own glamorized acts were being beamed back into their squalid hideouts.

Down through the years, despite convictions for murder, bank robbery, kidnapping and attempted bombings, a righteousness still clung to the surviving members of the SLA. They seemed to lack the capacity to accept the true nature of their misdeeds. Out of all of them -- William Harris, his ex-wife Emily Montague, Michael Bortin and Sara Jane Olson -- the least able to grapple with her past seemed to be Olson, perhaps because she was the first to have it come crashing ruinously in on her. In Los Angeles, she pleaded guilty in January to two counts of aiding and abetting the attempted bombing of two LAPD cruisers, then withdrew the plea, then re-entered it. When I interviewed her after her final plea, Olson could not reconcile the brutally inhuman radicalism that she’d once embraced with the decent impulses -- reading to the blind, feeding the hungry -- she‘d come to embody while raising three daughters in a stylish St. Paul, Minnesota, home during 24 years as a fugitive.

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When I mentioned that the facts suggested her deep involvement in the SLA, including the murder of Mrs. Opsahl, she unburdened herself, almost whispering a prayer, “I sincerely hope not. I sincerely hope not. Because I don’t want to be responsible for that in any way. Not because I am afraid of responsibility, but because it‘s an incredibly heavy burden to bear.”

Last week, Olson, 55, told the Sacramento court that “I never entered that bank with the intention of harming anyone. I am truly sorry, and I will be sorry until the day I die.”

Emily Montague, who had recruited Olson into the SLA after a May 17, 1974, shootout with the LAPD left all but three of the group’s original members dead, admitted that she pulled the trigger of the shotgun that fatally wounded Opsahl. She said the gun went off accidentally and that she was “horrified at the time.” “I do not want them to believe we ever considered her life insignificant,” said Montague, addressing the Opsahl family, who were present to hear the confessions. “There has not been a day in the last 27 years that I have not thought of Mrs. Opsahl and the tragedy I brought on her family.” Asked outside the courtroom why she hadn‘t come forward sooner, she replied, “That’s a long and complicated thing.”

No doubt these expressions of guilt are genuine. But when Montague says that Opsahl‘s shooting was an accident, she is being disingenuous. The SLA did not enter that Crocker branch by accident. The robbery was well planned. Months in advance, getaway cars and license plates were stolen; the bank was cased to ensure that no cameras were present; safehouses were rented; disguises and accents rehearsed. And, if Patty Hearst is to be believed -- and last week’s pleas certainly boost her credibility -- Montague was warned by her co-conspirators against carrying the shotgun because it had a hair trigger, and she could not control it. What is more, Myrna Opsahl, her abdomen ripped open, was left bleeding to death while the SLA carried off the $15,000 robbery.

The ex-radicals will serve prison terms ranging from six to eight years. It‘s unclear whether the same deal awaits 55-year-old James Kilgore, the final SLA fugitive, who was arrested last week in Cape Town, South Africa, where he worked as a researcher and teacher.

What always set this bank robbery apart from any ordinary armed robbery gone bad -- indeed, what set the SLA apart from ordinary criminals -- was the members’ capacity to absolve themselves of shame. Even with the present admission of culpability, some of the SLA veterans remain reticent to acknowledge the abiding ignominy of their acts -- and that rankles. It was their radicalism gone amok that put their fingers on the triggers, that wired the bombs, that justified the slaughter of Oakland schools chief Marcus Foster, who they gunned down with cyanide-tipped bullets. That was the true crime.

A whiff of this -- that the cause was right, but somehow the means went dangerously wrong -- wafted through the Sacramento courthouse last week. At the very edges of the avowals of guilt was the hint that the 1970s were a time of war, and that the inevitable consequence of war is, to use our antiseptic modern lexicon, “collateral damage.” You could just make that out from Montague‘s lawyer, Stuart Hanlon, when he said, “It’s the end of a whole thing that happened in the 1970s. Emily and the others have accepted what they‘ve done, they’ve lived with it for this long, and it really hurt them, and it‘s over.”

Only Michael Bortin had the courage to face the enormity of what the SLA unleashed. “I feel terrible for all the nonviolent people that were really idealistic and well-intentioned in the ’60s,” he said, adding that he was “devastated and very ashamed” -- a sentiment that might help a man leave prison with the past behind him and start to become whole again.

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