---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Thu, 24 Jan 2002 15:36:04 -0800
From: radtimes <email@example.com>
Subject: 25 Years And 1 Death Later
25 Years And 1 Death Later
By Richard Cohen
Thursday, January 24, 2002; Page A21
I want to ask a question about Sara Jane Olson, who was sentenced recently
to 20 years in prison for a crime committed in 1975. Is she the same person
who was known as Kathleen Soliah, the self-styled revolutionary and member
of the Symbionese Liberation Army, or is she the Minneapolis housewife of
the past 25 years? -- "the best mother anybody would ever want," in the
words of her daughter.
I ask this question because I know that I am not the person I was, say, 25
years ago. Not only am I less roiled by an internal cocktail of potent
hormones, but intellectually I don't even believe in some of the things I
used to. I am more conservative on some issues while being more liberal on
others. I bet it's pretty much the same with you.
In fact, I can imagine doing something awful in my youth -- something
arising from the times and from my youthfulness -- and now being asked to
account for it. Me? I would say. I didn't do that. Another Richard Cohen
did that. He was a punk and a jerk and was only showing off to impress some
girl. He deserved to be punished. But I am a different person. I don't need
to learn a lesson. I already know the lesson.
More and more, it seems, we are holding people accountable for what they
did many years before. Old cases from the civil rights era, such as the
1963 murder of Medgar Evers, have been revived. New forensic techniques,
DNA analysis for instance, work like bellows on embers. In what seemed like
ash, a flame erupts. The case is still hot.
In a recent essay in The Post, a philosophy professor named Crispin
Sartwell summoned the "ship of Theseus" to discuss the vexing matter of
what determines continuity. The ancient Greek hero Theseus spent many years
wandering the Mediterranean, Sartwell tells us. Suppose that over time,
every plank and board in the ship was replaced. Not a single piece of the
original boat remained. Is Theseus still sailing "the same boat"? Sartwell
Yes, he answers. Theseus's boat remains Theseus's boat because its history
is more important than its planks. Even if another boat were constructed
from the wood taken from Theseus's boat, his would remain the original. For
lack of a better word, the boat had continuity because of Theseus and his
crew. They remained the same.
I suppose something similar could be said about people. Olson is Kathleen
Soliah because they are one and the same. They have a common, identical
history. Yet that doesn't quite clinch the case. Patty Hearst, who was
kidnapped by SLA members and later participated with them in at least two
bank robberies, has somehow been allowed to become a different person.
She's now Patty Hearst Shaw, a suburban mom who recently commented on
Soliah and the SLA on "Larry King Live." It's as if the 21 months she
served in prison changed her identity and reordered her past -- Patty
Hearst once, Mrs. Shaw now.
But if the crime is murder -- or even attempted murder -- then the
trajectory of the accused, the voyage from sinner to saint, from
whacked-out revolutionary to suburban mom, becomes a mere extenuating
circumstance, a virtual irrelevancy. What matters more -- what matters most
of all -- is our obligation to both the victim and his or her loved ones.
This is an obligation not to exact revenge, not even really to punish, but
simply to remember the victim and honor his or her life. This is why no
Nazi is too old to be tracked down.
Olson, in fact, has now been indicted for murder. The victim was Myrna
Opsahl, shot -- maybe by accident -- back in 1975. The alleged killers
were, again, the SLA -- yet another bank robbery. One of those accused
robbers, Emily Harris, allegedly dismissed Opsahl as a mere nothing -- a
"bourgeois pig" whose death "doesn't really matter."
Harris may no longer feel that way -- if she ever did. Over time, she may
have come to cherish life -- her own, of course, but others' as well. But
none of that changes the fact that Opsahl is dead and the only way we have
to show we value her life or, indeed, life itself, is to freeze time and
get her killers.
So now I come to the answer to my question -- the one that works for me,
anyway. In the end, it doesn't matter who Olson really is. It only matters
that Opsahl is dead.
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