Domestic terrorist deserves swift justice

It’s funny how one event can change a country’s entire perception of which current events deserve national attention. Before the acts of Sept. 11, our major “international situation” merely involved a spy plane crashing in Chinese territory. Before the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the public was critical of our President’s lackluster performance, prominent in his failure to salvage the sagging economy. Now, his approval ratings are skyrocketing.

Likewise, prior to Sept. 11, the conception of “terrorist” wasn’t limited to extremists from the Middle East; it also encompassed individuals such as Sarah Jane Olson.

Things certainly have changed since the Sept.11 attacks. Yet, while the attacks have thrust the classification of foreign terrorist into the international spotlight, the government must not allow small-scale, domestic terrorists in its periphery to slip through its fingers.

These days, the domestic terrorist is known under the guise of Sarah Jane Olson. However, in 1975, she was Kathleen Soliah, a member of the Symbionese Liberation Army, a radical anti-government group based in California. The organization first received national exposure in 1974 when it kidnapped newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst, demanding her parents pay 2 million dollars to the needy as ransom.

The movement’s existence was brief and violent. It was nearly destroyed later that year when six members of the liberation army, including its leader, were killed in a shootout with Los Angeles police. In retaliation, the remaining members of the Symbionese Liberation Army as well as sympathizers to their cause planted pipe bombs (including one of the largest pipe bombs ever built in the United States) underneath Los Angeles police cruisers.

Fortunately for police officers, the bombs failed to explode and no one suffered any injuries. Nevertheless, the motivation behind this perverse act cannot be ignored. This action against local law enforcement ignited the search for Kathleen Soliah, one of the suspected conspirators.

Soliah disappeared and remained cloaked from government detection for over two decades – that is, until 1999 when her face was plastered on “America’s Most Wanted.” She was arrested soon after the broadcast, here in Minnesota, under the alias Sarah Jane Olson.

One might expect her capture would have brought about an end to this great escape novel – which has lasted more than a quarter century – but her capture has only brought about the story’s next chapter, with still plenty of pages to turn before the epilogue.

Olson’s attorneys have jockeyed for delay after delay, ultimately pushing the trial back to October 15, 2001 (a move many in the Minnesota legal community have called idiotic from a defensive standpoint, even before the events of Sept. 11). All of this legal maneuvering was supposed to be to Olson’s

advantage. Her attorneys expected to eliminate any circumstances that would not work in her favor. But the events of Sept. 11 have turned the expected on its head.

Since the attacks, the country hasn’t looked too fondly on extremists who commit acts of violence; in fact, merely being suspected of having terrorist affiliations seems enough to have you burned at the stake. These circumstances spread anxiety among those citizens who happen to fit the profile for fear they might be labeled as such and used as an example of retaliation. This is the exact fear voiced by Olson’s defense team, who maintain conducting the trial now would be unfair because the jury couldn’t help but

be biased against their client.

But this supposed “biased” view actually reflects the birth of a new understanding within the American population, courtesy of Osama bin Laden. Americans have seen terrorism at its worst, and this newfound intolerance of those who would commit such acts is a public opinion long overdue. It doesn’t matter whether terrorist acts are committed by Arab males from the Middle East or a white female from the West Coast; all incidents must be treated in kind to the fullest extent of the law.

The nation’s legal system shouldn’t be put on hold simply because certain events might have affected public opinion. Olson has already dragged out this agonizing ordeal for as long as possible, telling lies and half-truths, blatantly denying allegations only to admit to them later in writing. The latest such incident was her plea of guilty, which she confessed in the courtroom only days ago. Immediately following her plea, she denied her guilt to the host of reporters waiting outside in the hallway.

Whether this disingenuous plea and its subsequent reversal were her own scheme or the work of her defense team, it reeks of nothing more than legal filibustering. Olson hid from justice for more than 25 years – and if given the chance, she would stall for just as long.

It is time for our judicial system to take control of the Sarah Jane Olson fiasco and put an end to this case once and for all. Enough with the delays, enough with the “partial jurors.” Olson has had more than her day in court to plead her case – she chose to stall. Now her evasion of justice is likely to blow up in her face. For Los Angeles prosecutors, it appears good things do come to those who wait.

Chris Schafer’s column appears alternate Wednesdays. He welcomes comments at [email protected] Send letters to the editor to [email protected]