The 'little girl' excuse of a retired terrorists

Posted: Dec 10, 2001 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON--In Southern California, on the shore of the sundown sea, the sunset of the 1960s myth continues. The most telling recent episode was not the much-remarked death of a semiretired guitarist. Rather, it was the little-noticed ``girl excuse`` offered in court by a retired terrorist. That George Harrison's death from cancer at 58 was treated as epochal news is redundant evidence of the baby-boom generation's infinite narcissism. That cohort's mere size made it important, economically and hence culturally, and self-importance has been its defining attitude. Pop music is for boomers what the madeleine was for Proust--an especially powerful trigger of memory. Hence the quintessential boomer movie, ``The Big Chill,'' in which some boomers wallow, to the accompaniment of oldies but goodies, in bewilderment because one of their peers has died. No one had told them their importance would not exempt them from death. Last week, in a Los Angeles courtroom not far from where Harrison died, there was a display of a boomer's sense of entitlement to exemption from life's rules. The aging boomer, bound for prison, is Kathleen Soliah--or Sara Jane Olson, as she has called herself since she became a fugitive 26 years ago. She first became a minor celebrity of the cracked left in 1974 when she delivered a fiery speech in Berkeley's Ho Chi Minh Park, as it then was called, denouncing the Los Angeles police for the shootout that killed six members of the Symbionese Liberation Army, with which she was associated. The SLA's brief life featured an assassination of a black superintendent of schools in Oakland, a bank robbery in which a mother of four was murdered, and the kidnapping--and temporary conversion--of Patty Hearst. Olson hid under her new identity until captured in 1999 in St. Paul, Minn. She was evading prosecution for complicity in an attempt--fortunately incompetent--to kill LAPD officers with bombs attached to two patrol cars. While her lawyers sought repeated delays of her trial, she entertained sympathizers with talks about her persecution. Prosecutors waited their chance to present 40,000 pieces of physical evidence, such as handwriting evidence that she ordered fuses two weeks before the attempted bombings. But after Sept. 11 she changed her tune. Never remorseful and now self-pitying, she said she was eager for a trial but could not get a fair one because Americans were so wrought up about terrorism, and had become pro-government. So she pleaded guilty in a bargain that would mean a milder sentence. Then she walked out of the courtroom and told the media she was innocent. She did not feel guilty. The judge, unamused, set another hearing, at which he told her a guilty plea is not mere prelude to a press conference. She again pleaded guilty, in a pouty way, saying, well, OK, she technically did aid and abet the bombing attempts. But later her tender conscience again told her she must ask the judge to disregard her second guilty plea. At the next hearing her co-counsel, a veteran defender of leftists, failed to appear. He later faxed a letter to the judge, pleading ``bad karma.'' He had missed his flight from Oakland and assumed there would not be a seat on the next flight: ``Therefore in a state of mind of dank frustration, I went home and went back to bed.'' In his absence, Olson's other co-counsel, a woman, told the judge that Olson had been browbeaten by the absent male co-counsel into pleading guilty. One of the prosecutors, a woman, accused Olson of using the ``girl excuse.'' Thus ended the bomber's career, not with a bang but a whimper. The judge said: ``She pled guilty because she is guilty. The facts show she is guilty.`` Olson, who will be sentenced next month, is getting what she deserves. But the 1960s, supposedly the left's salad days, deserve an amnesty from conservatives. The principal political result of the decade in which Olson and kindred spirits were active was the ascendancy of conservatism, partly because of leftists' activism. The greatest political career begun in the 1960s was ignited in 1964 by a nationally telecast election-eve speech supporting one of the decade's first and most consequential dissenters, Barry Goldwater. Two years later the speaker, Ronald Reagan, won California's governorship, partly because of his promise to clean up ``the mess at Berkeley.'' Of which Olson was briefly a part, thereby contributing to rise of the right. Such are the tricks history plays on frivolous dabblers at the making of history.