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Remembering an SLA Terrorist By: Stephen Schwartz
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, February 20, 2003


The last major figures in the so-called Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) have been sentenced to prison for murder.   They include a man named Michael Bortin, aged 54.

Like most Bay Area leftists who were adults at the time, I remember vividly the explosion of the SLA into public awareness a quarter century ago.   Beginning with the assassination of Oakland school superintendent Marcus Foster in 1974, the ragtag gang of lowlifes and losers continued their terrorist campaign by kidnapping Patricia Hearst.   Most of them died in a fire in Los Angeles, unmourned by even the most intransigent members of the radical Left.  But Patty Hearst and others of their hangers-on survived to commit more crimes.   An obvious airhead dressed like a disco queen, Kathleen Soliah, stood up in a Berkeley park with her silly grin and threatened the SLA dead would be avenged. 

Eleven months after the fiery end of the main terror cell, the remaining conspirators robbed a bank in Carmichael, Calif., with the participation of Hearst.  A 42-year old bank customer, Myrna Opsahl, was killed by a blast from a shotgun held by the visibly stupid Emily Harris, today Emily Montague.

Also like most of the Bay Area Left, in which I was very active, I knew nothing of the SLA or its members.  But all of us knew about the milieu from which it emerged, and nothing we knew was good.  We knew that Venceremos, a splinter from the degenerate Students For a Democratic Society, was a Maoist cult headed by intellectual gangster H. Bruce Franklin.  Venceremos organized military training and assigned its members to spy on other leftists; I was among those surveilled.   We knew that Vietnam Veterans Against the War, aligned with Venceremos, had developed a “lumpen” mentality, emphasizing violent rhetoric and threats to other leftists.   We knew that work with convicts was the focal point of these extremists groups’ agenda, as it is today among the Saudi-Wahhabi agents who use prisons to recruit for Islamist terrorism.  Later we heard that Angela Atwood, who burned to death in Los Angeles, had been tangentially involved in the Socialist Workers Party, the largest of the Trotskyist groups.  But the SLA was fundamentally a byproduct of the Bruce Franklin cult.   Above all, we knew that the trash inhabiting the netherworld of Venceremos and other post-SDS entities considered themselves above all law and all morality.

I took little further notice of these parasites, although I became a friend of William Randolph Hearst III, and accompanied him to the U.S. Federal Building in San Francisco when Patty was arrested in 1975.  But everything changed when I heard that Michael Bortin was involved.  Michael Bortin I knew.  We are the same age, and he had sat beside me at Lowell High School in San Francisco in the mid-60s.

The Mike Bortin I remembered then, and whom I recall now as he appeared when we were teenagers, was the furthest thing from a terrorist, to say nothing of claiming credentials as a revolutionary.   He was a rather unappetizing smartass of no intellectual distinction and no political opinions, who made a point of harassing me for my then-Communist views.  He sat in our history class and spread wide his toothy sneer, pressing me with the argument that nobody could want to be a Communist when one could enjoy the typical teenage pleasure of drag-racing.   His face was fat then.

There were a number of other oafs like him at Lowell High, who made it clear that radical political nonconformity was repellent to them, and some of whom were quick with racial insults, since the young Communists and other radicals of that time emphasized our devotion to the African-American civil rights movement.  Strangely, all three of the worst left-baiters at Lowell turned into leftist fanatics when they left home.  Some, once they got to college, had been transformed by their experience in SDS, an organization that we young Communists of a pro-Soviet variety eschewed.   

I had also heard of Bortin earlier in 1970s, before the SLA horrors, when he was arrested in a bombing conspiracy in Berkeley and was sent to prison for a year.   Perhaps it was there that he lost his chubby cheeks.

But with the emergence of Bortin as a major SLA criminal, I began a long meditation on these topics.   Those of us who had pioneered the leftist upsurge of the 1960s, including David Horowitz and Ronald Radosh, evolved away from Communism, eventually embracing American patriotism and the free market system.   The Johnny-come-latelies of the Bortin variety sank deeper and deeper into the depths of nihilism.   Was this simply a matter of some growing up, and some failing to?

I never thought so.  Rather, I had observed the sudden transformation of the Left from a small, marginal affair into a mass movement in 1968 and afterward.  It was clear that as millions of middle-class kids had come into the milieu, mainly through SDS, the culture of the Left had changed utterly.  With all our errors and weaknesses, those of us who initiated the ‘60s radical uprising were neither uneducated, nor unconscious, nor unaware of the dangers of the “lumpen” mentality.  We were “red diaper babies,” a label some have turned into an insult, but our Soviet-lining parents did not bring us up to believe in the Left as a pretext for criminality.  

We read a lot and thought a lot and, in the first wave, were rather repressed about sexuality and dope-smoking.  Our commitment was terribly wrong, in that we turned against our native land and the liberties it embodies, but we were idealists and intellectuals.   We gravitated to universities like Berkeley and Madison because they represented a high standard, not because they were riot schools, the leftwing equivalent of party schools – although we helped turn them into another, more sinister kind of party schools.

By 1968 many of the “young pioneers” had personally and professionally moved on from mindless activism.  Horowitz had returned from Britain and became the hardworking editor of Ramparts magazine.  Radosh had published serious studies of U.S. foreign policy.  I was honing my craft as a poet and translator, and had begun my own evolution away from Stalinism to Trotskyism.  

But the tone in the mass movement was increasingly set by the Johnny-come-latelies, which seems to be an inevitable outcome in leftist history.  They were not big readers or thinkers; their intellect was located somewhere between their viscera and their sexual organs.   They were having the time of their lives, and nobody was going to get in their way, as the family of Myrna Opsahl learned, the hard way.

I now believe the speed with which the ‘60s Left turned utterly rotten had more to do with a particular ideology than with inexorable historical laws.  Between the Bolshevik revolution and the surrender of the global Left to Stalinism required the passage of 20 years, the imprisonment and massacre of numerous revolutionary “pioneers” of that time by the Soviet secret police, and the rise of Stalinism’s homologue, Nazism.  Yet with all the moral evil of Bolshevism, its lies were resisted by many radical intellectuals.

Our lies went unresisted.

We told our generation that the Cold War had been created by the U.S. as a scheme to perpetuate an undefined “imperialism” – a lie echoed today by the marching morons who parade in defense of Saddam.

We told our generation that the only alternatives were peace or war, i.e., acceptance of Russian expansionism or a devastating nuclear conflict.

We told our generation that Martin Luther King, Jr. a true man of God and righteous leader in the greatest political transformation of the 20th century, the American civil rights movement, was a weak leader susceptible to surrender.

We told our generation that petty thugs were selfless heroes.  These included Ho Chih Minh, who had murdered hundreds of Vietnamese Trotskyists before attacking his neighbors; like Fidel Castro, a whiter version of Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista, in military dress like Franco or any other Hispanic caudillo;  Ernesto “Che” Guevara, a physician who ordered liquidations in violation of his Hippocratic oath; and Yasir Arafat, who enriched himself by keeping the Palestinian Arabs in a state of abjection and dependency.

We told our generation that the Soviet turn toward support of corrupt Arab regimes did not represent a devil’s deal with anti-Jewish hatred, stirred up in the Soviet camp under the pretext of criticizing Israel.

We told our generation that terrorism was not a crime against humanity.

All lies; and the indoctrination of millions of American young people in such lies could not but lead straight to Emily Harris and her shotgun, killing Myrna Opsahl.

For myself, I believe some guilt in this terrible chapter of world history must be shared by the Stalinist physicists, led by J. Robert Oppenheimer, “the million-killer,” as the anti-Stalinist poet Kenneth Rexroth called him.  They built a bomb in a hurry, to save Russia, and then handed it off, by espionage, to the Russians, guaranteeing that the peaceful and constructive world our parents had believed would follow World War II would be sabotaged by permanent fear.  With the shadow of the bomb hanging over us, how could we be expected to find a moral compass?

Nevertheless, some of us did so.  Horowitz refused to lie to protect the Black Panthers and the murder of one of his acquaintances.  Radosh refused to continue lying to save the reputations of the Rosenbergs, grubby Russian spies who, had they gotten the chance, would have assembled lists of New York Trotskyists for liquidation by an American version of the KGB.  My rejection of Communist lies will be detailed at another time and place.  But all of us ended up as defenders of democracy and the West.

I believe there is a psychological element that unites all of us who have made this journey, and another such factor that unites human dust of the SLA type.

We who pioneered the leftism of the ‘60s were wrong, but we swam against the stream, to use a phrase once favored by the Bolsheviks in describing the socialists who opposed the first world war.    We did not organize or join mobs.  We sought a fresh path, refusing to recognize that it might lead us into a fetid swamp.  And we swam against the stream when we broke with the Left.   Indeed, none of us are predictable functionaries of the “bourgeois regime” today.   We continue to follow our own courses.

Mike Bortin and his SLA “comrades,” by contrast, did what they did to be cool, to be part of the gang.  Just as Bortin spoke for the mediocre majority in high school when he jeered at my Communism, so he spoke for the mediocre majority in college when he claimed the “revolution” would be served by terrorism.  They did not swim against the stream; they were swept along. 

In a sense, none of us changed at all, at least in our hearts, which is what counts.

Bortin and Co. have now been sentenced to prison terms for their involvement in the murder of Myrna Opsahl.  The hysterical Emily Montague got eight years; her ex-husband Bill Harris, babbling incoherently and posturing like the punk he is, acted as if he thought impersonating a homeless person would gain him some form of mercy. But the simian Harris received seven years. Kathleen Soliah, alias Sara Jane Olson, who had the aspect of a lobotomy patient, and got six years, as did Bortin.  The smirk he had worn in high school was finally removed from his face.

There remains a major unanswered question in this depressing affair: who arranged for Kathleen Soliah and James Kilgore to travel to southern Africa?  I have my own sources on these matters, which I am following up.  But will we have to wait for the opening of Cuban archives to learn the full truth about the malign activities of these rotten adventurers?

Stephen Schwartz, an author and journalist, is author of The Two Faces of Islam: The House of Sa'ud from Tradition to Terror. A vociferous critic of Wahhabism, Schwartz is a frequent contributor to National Review, The Weekly Standard, and other publications.


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