Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Does time lessen the crime?

Hard to imagine Timothy McVeigh serving less than a decade for the terrorist attack he helped orchestrate at the Oklahoma City Federal Building. Hard to imagine releasing any of the Guantanamo Bay prisoners for the time the six or so years many have spent there. So where is the outrage over the release of Sara Jane Olson?

Having been a toddler during the period that the Symbionese Liberation Army wreaked havoc on California in the 1970s, there is little in my memory to put the events of those days into context. Were they a disciplined group to be feared or simply a hodge podge of disorganized radicals bent on getting attention? Who was it that defended the SLA’s aggressive tactics and who was it that found their methods repulsive? How did this radical group fit into the political culture and dialogue of the time? Did they have supporters or were they deemed a common enemy of public safety and American life? Hard to know given the scant news coverage that Sara Jane Olson’s parole is generating. There is little to find other than the standard wire story detailing the conditions of her release to her husband, her relocation to Minnesota and an ultra-brief almost clinical recap of her crimes.

But terrorist – domestic or international – is a word that strikes fear in our hearts. And it applies to Sara Jane Olson. Olson was convicted of planting homemade nail bombs under a police car and of participating in a bank robbery and shootout that resulted in the death of an innocent woman. The bank robbery was intended to fund the SLA operation. Serious crimes and the work of domestic terrorists, no doubt. But Olson’s seven-year prison sentence has been determined sufficient punishment for the crimes.

Are Olson’s positive contributions after her SLA days and while she was on the run from authorities swaying opinion in her favor? After all, living a new life in Minnesota she was known to her neighbors as a caring community volunteer, dedicated mother and wife, and regular church-goer. Did this evidence of a changed character make her worthy of a lighter sentence? Or was justice less severe because her crimes were committed decades ago, those memories faded in the public memory?

I have no idea, but it does make me wonder if today’s terrorists will one day be viewed as “harmless” when their hair has grayed and their idealistic passion faded.