David Horowitz’s Archives: Mercy for a terrorist?


This post first originally appeared at Salon, on August 2, 1999.

Who in America today could be associated with a gang that carried out an execution-style murder of a prominent public official and the murder of a pregnant woman during a bank hold-up, and then, when finally arrested, be championed as an “idealist” by church officials, Democratic Party legislators, columnists and local activist groups?

The answer: a progressive activist who remains faithful to her leftist faith.

Twenty-five years ago, Kathleen Soliah went underground as a fugitive. She was wanted by police as a suspect in the planting of pipe bombs under two randomly selected police cars that would have killed the occupants had they not failed to explode.

During this and other episodes, Soliah was a member of the Symbionese Liberation Army, a group led by ex-convict Donald DeFreeze in the early 1970s, whose defining slogan was “Death to the fascist insect that preys on the life of the people.”

After DeFreeze and five other SLA members were killed in a shootout with police in Los Angeles, Soliah led a rally for the “victims” in Berkeley’s “Ho Chi Minh Park,” claiming that the six outlaws were “viciously attacked and murdered by 500 pigs in L.A.”

Soliah singled out her best friend Angela Atwood, one of the dead SLA members, saying: “I know she lived happy and she died happy. And in that sense, I’m so very proud of her.” Soliah was finally apprehended in St. Paul, Minn., on June 16, where she was living under a pseudonym, Sara Jane Olson, with her doctor husband, Fred G. Peterson. Soliah has subsequently been released on $1 million bail raised within a week by 250 sympathizers and friends.

The Minneapolis Star-Tribune describes the attitude of the liberal community in St. Paul after learning of her past in these terms: “In the days since her June 16 arrest, Olson [Soliah] has been almost canonized: reader of newspapers for the blind, volunteer among victims of torture, organizer of soup kitchens. The office manager of the Minnehaha United Methodist Church, where she is a member of the congregation, called on its members to build a “contingent of support.” Twenty of them were said to have been in court in California on the day she was arraigned.

Soliah’s brother-in-law, Michael Bortin, was a Berkeley radical and with his wife, Josephine (Soliah’s sister), was also an SLA member. Recently, Bortin attempted to explain to the press the relationship between the radical gangster Soliah and the St. Paul housewife “Sara Jane Olson,” who was such an upstanding member of the progressive community: “There’s not this dichotomy between what Kathy was and what she is now. She was doing the same things in the early ’70s.”

Bortin claimed that it was the assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King Jr., the presidency of Richard Nixon and the war in Vietnam that changed their attitudes to make them SLA members. “We lost our faith in the country, in due process. In law and justice.”

Maybe so. Back then, I was one of the editors of Ramparts, the largest publication of the New Left. Like Bortin and Soliah, I would have described myself then as a “revolutionary” who had “lost faith in my country.” But along with many other leftists at the time (and unlike Bortin and Soliah), I hadn’t lost my mind or sense of decency as well. I wrote an editorial for Ramparts condemning the SLA as a criminal organization. It was the first editorial I wrote that I didn’t sign. I was concerned enough that the SLA might come and kill me.

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