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Jewish World Review July 16, 1999 /3 Av 5759

Elliot C. Rothenberg

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Weekly Standard


The Terrorist Next Door --
SARA JANE OLSON is an exemplary citizen by Minnesota standards. She lives in a tony, upper-middle-class neighborhood of St. Paul. She campaigns for liberal political candidates. She has been prominent for years in African, Central American, and other "peace and justice" causes. She is an activist in a liberal church. She acts in feminist roles in local theater companies.

She runs a bookstore which has a large mural portraying a female factory worker with her fist raised in defiance. Her husband is a doctor who shares her political passions. She is a runner. She is a serious cook.

The only problem with this idyllic picture is that Sara Jane Olson is not Sara Jane Olson. Her real name is Kathleen Soliah, and she has been a fugitive from justice in California for more than a quarter century. As a combat terrorist in what was called the Symbionese Liberation Army, Soliah attempted to murder police officers by placing bombs under their cars, helped kidnap Patricia Hearst, and held up banks. Hearst wrote in her autobiography that Soliah took part in a robbery where Soliah or a partner killed a bank customer with a shotgun. Soliah has been under indictment in Los Angeles since 1976. On June l6, her luck ran out. St. Paul police and FBI agents arrested her.

All this notwithstanding, Minnesota's political-media-cultural elite has closed ranks in support of Soliah.

Democratic party leaders have been unabashedly at the forefront. State senator Sandy Pappas, the Democratic candidate for mayor of St. Paul in the last election, attacked the police for arresting her. "Don't they have any real crimes to fight?" she asked. "We were all going to protests then." In a television interview, Pappas demanded Soliah's release and harped on her talents as a "wonderful gourmet dinner party host." State representative Andy Dawkins -- the Democratic party's candidate for St. Paul mayor in the election before Pappas ran -- and St. Paul City Council member Jay Benanav called Soliah "a great citizen of our community."

The dominant local media echoed the politicians. A front-page commentary headlined "Justice or what's just" in Minnesota's largest newspaper, the Star Tribune of Minneapolis, asked rhetorically, "Should model citizen Sara Jane Olson . . . be tried for crimes committed a quarter century ago?" A popular gossip columnist for the same newspaper said that Soliah has paid any debt she owed society. "She has demonstrated through years of social actions and potluck that she is rehabilitated." The moderator of Minnesota Public Televisionıs weekly Almanac program, one of the state's leading arbiters of political correctitude, snarled on her show at an FBI agent, "Donıt you have better things to do?"

To leaders of her church, Soliah is a saint. Said Rev. John Darlington, "We love Sara Jane. She goes about working for justice in an unjust world."

Another minister, Jolyn Fontaine, said that Soliah "was really a person who was sharing Godıs love in the community."

Macalester College history professor Peter Rachleff called Soliah "quite progressive. She is a model for many of us."

Guthrie Theater veteran actor Stephen Pelinski said that the entire local theater community supports Soliah, "one of our most advanced actors." He expressed disappointment, though, that he was never invited to any of her parties.

A theater director was even more flamboyant in her support. For Lynn Musgrave, Soliah is "a pacifist and liberal Democrat who supports gun control."

Apparently for everyone except herself.

Many of these worthies packed a court hearing to entreat a judge to release Soliah on modest bail. It was reminiscent of a hearing years earlier in Philadelphia where future senator Arlen Specter and others of the best of that city convinced a judge to release on bail Ira Einhorn, the so-called Unicorn Killer, arrested for murdering his girlfriend. After his release, Einhorn fled the country and never returned.

This time, Ramsey County district judge Kathleen Gearin did not make the same mistake. She refused to allow Soliah to become a fugitive once again. Ordered back to her cell, Soliah exited the courtroom, according to the St. Paul Pioneer Press, "in a manner fit for an actress, blowing kisses to her supporters."

Amid all this solicitude for the suspect, none of these people has expressed any comparable compassion for the dead bank customer and other targets of their friendıs crimes. The suffering of these victims and their families does not seem to matter. Perhaps it is because the victims were just ordinary middle-class working folks who did not have the time or inclination to demonstrate in favor of the domestic and foreign causes in vogue from time to time. There is no evidence that any were gourmet cooks.

But what may be the most remarkable feature of this episode is the manifest contempt for the rule of law by those who purport to be Minnesotaıs leaders.

One Minnesota politician these days, however, falls outside the prevailing pattern of political correctness. Governor Jesse Ventura announced that, despite the protests of Soliah's supporters, he would extradite Soliah for trial in California. He called the statements of Pappas and the other politicians "beyond belief. What would Pappas suggest is a real crime?" Maybe "The Mind" is not such a bad nickname after all.

Elliot C. Rothenberg is a Minneapolis attorney. His book The Taming of the Press will be published this fall. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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