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Patricia Hearst

Patricia Hearst

by William H. Benson

November 19, 2014

     The Symbionese Liberation Army kidnapped nineteen-year-old Patty Hearst, a sophomore at the University of California, Berkley, on February 4, 1974. For the next 57 days, this small-time urban guerrilla organization detained Patty in a studio apartment’s closet, dressed only in her bathrobe. They beat her, abused her, changed her name to Tania, and brainwashed her. She helped with a bank heist.

     When given a chance to flee, she chose to stay. Long after the core SLA members perished in a gunfight with police, Patty remained underground. When police did arrest her, no one was holding her captive. She weighed 87 pounds, smoked all the time, and had deteriorated mentally. When asked to explain her actions, she said, “I accommodated my thoughts to coincide with theirs.”

     She was tried, convicted, and sentenced to prison for seven years. She remained in prison for the next twenty-two months, until 1979, when President Jimmy Carter commuted her sentence for time served. On Bill Clinton’s last day in office, January 20, 2001, he pardoned her.

     The noted columnist Maureen Dowd said, “Somehow you feel that Patty, deep down, understood that she was involved in something horrifying.”

     Patty herself said, “I keep trying to forget these people, and they keep dragging me back into it.”

     But John Wayne said it best, “It was odd that people accepted that one man, Jim Jones, had brainwashed 900 human beings into mass suicide, but would not accept that a group like the SLA could have brainwashed a kidnapped teenage girl.”

     Patty Hearst came from a wealthy family. Her grandfather, William Randolph Hearst, had pioneered “yellow journalism,” the printing of sensational exposé’s and the rawest of crimes, with the sole intent of publishing more newspapers than did the other major publisher, Joseph Pulitzer.

     Last month, Leah Remini published her book, Troublemaker, an exposé of the Church of Scientology. For nine seasons she had starred with the comedian Kevin James, on the sitcom King of Queens, but for decades she had worked hard at “clearing the planet.” In recent years she clashed with the church’s Chairman of the Board, David Miscavige, over the favoritism he showed for Tom Cruise.

     Leah asked one question too often, “Where is Shelley Miscavige?” because no one has seen David’s wife, Shelley, in public for years. Leah even filed a missing person’s report. The church responded that Shelley is fine, but no official will identify her whereabouts.

     Leah reflected upon her time in the church. “Scientology is great,” she said, “at preparing a person for a life inside the church, but not so great at preparing a person for life outside the church.”

     Last Friday evening, terrorists struck Paris, France, and killed at least 127 innocent people. ISIS claimed responsibility. A sad weekend in what is called the City of Light. A nasty ideology has captured those people-turned-terrorists, and now dozens lay dead. The terrorists had accommodated their thoughts to coincide with their rulers. A sad weekend.

     Last week, the two journalists, George Will and Bill O’Reilly, clashed over O’Reilly’s book Killing Reagan. The feud started when George Will wrote an opinion that bashed O’Reilly’s premise that the assassination attempt slowed Reagan, left him mentally unfit for the Oval Office, and that he “was addled to the point of incompetency, causing his senior advisors to contemplate using the Constitution’s 25th Amendment to remove him from office.”

    Will called the premise “a tissue of unsubstantiated assertions.” Yes, he said, Reagan “was shot on his 70th day of his presidency, and in the next 2853 days he produced an economic boom and the Cold War’s endgame.” Reagan saw the big picture.

     Will appeared on Bill O’Reilly’s show, and the two men bickered. My first thought, “Yellow journalism,” a fight engendered to increase viewer numbers, but I think Will is above such motives. He pointed that O’Reilly and his co-author, Martin Dugard, failed to interview Reagan’s associates during his presidency, because they would have “shredded the book’s preposterous premise.”

     O’Reilly’s book listed only 151 footnotes, “only one of which is even remotely pertinent to the book’s lurid assertions.” Will concluded, “The book is nonsensical history.”

     Jim Jones at Jonestown, the Symbionese Liberation Army, the Church of Scientology, and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, each an ideology gone awry. When people are beaten, wounded, kidnapped, or killed, the ideology responsible is misguided.

     Often it is based upon a false historical supposition. Someone has reached back into the distant past, produced a document, and now insists that others believe their version of the past, and to act upon that version. Historical facts are brutal things. They get in the way of our prejudices, and force us to look at actual events. They force us to think for ourselves, to arrive at our own conclusions, and not to “accommodate our thoughts to coincide with theirs.”

     I agree with Maureen Dowd that deep down people who are swept up in an extreme ideology understand that they are involved in something horrifying.