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Letting go of Sara Jane Olson

The former radical has served her time and is going home. Now we have to start moving toward closure.

March 18, 2009

Sara Jane Olson was released Tuesday from the Central California Women's Facility in Chowchilla after serving seven years for murder and other crimes. We'd like to say that this brings a measure of closure to her case, but of course it doesn't.

Olson was a member of the Symbionese Liberation Army, a self-styled urban guerrilla group most notorious for kidnapping heiress Patty Hearst in the early 1970s. Then known as Kathleen Soliah, Olson placed nail-packed pipe bombs beneath two Los Angeles police cars and helped carry out a bank robbery near Sacramento that led to the death of a mother of four who was depositing her church's collection money.

Before she could be brought to trial, Olson vanished. She fled the state, changed her name and married a man who says he knew nothing of her past, raising three daughters with him in an upscale neighborhood in St. Paul, Minn. She was not caught until she was profiled on "America's Most Wanted" in 1999. A tip led to her arrest.

It's now been almost 35 years since her crimes were committed; Olson is 62. But these old cultural battles refuse to go away; they are among our country's great unhealed issues. Just a few months ago, a passing acquaintance with former Weather Underground leader Bill Ayers threatened Barack Obama's presidential campaign.

How should we think about such people today? In recent years, novelists Peter Carey, Dana Spiotta and Hari Kunzru have written not-unsympathetic but nuanced stories of radicals on the lam. Conservative pundits view the Olsons and Ayerses of the world as terrorists whose crimes cannot be expiated. And the 1988 movie "Running on Empty" starred a lovable Judd Hirsch as an old 1960s fugitive trying to hold his family together while living underground.

Our position is simple: Crimes are crimes. No matter what you think of the Vietnam War or capitalism or Richard Nixon, the tiny minority who chose violence in that period were wrong.

Olson was very wrong. Distorted ideals, no doubt, led her to terrible acts. But she's served her time. She's been paroled, like other inmates, and permitted to go home to Minnesota, where her husband and children live.

The L.A. police union wanted to keep her here. But California allows some parolees to move to another state if that state approves (and supervises the parole). Olson met the criteria.

Letting her leave was the right decision. We don't have to forgive her, or even understand her. We don't have to make a movie about her. But she's finished her sentence, and now we're done with her. With luck, closure will come eventually.

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