Ready to Explode

In a way, my idyllic view of the possibility for bipartisanship and rational compromise was blown apart by a pipe bomb. Not those making the headlines this last week, but one that—like those—did not explode. Even so, the device created shockwaves that would resound decades into the future and shatter the life of a mother-of-three soccer Minnesota soccer mom named Sara Jane Olson.
Except that wasn’t her name, her real name.
Kathleen Soliah was swept up as a teen by the radical leftist rhetoric flowing through southern California in the 60s and 70s. She joined, or at least fraternized with, the militant Symbionese Liberation Army. It was a group that did not shy away from violence and engaged in robberies and clashes with the Los Angeles Police. In retribution for the deaths of some of Soliah’s comrades during shootouts with the police, Kathleen Soliah fashioned two pipe bombs and set them beneath two patrol cars of the LAPD. Neither bomb detonated. If they had, however, any police officer unlucky enough to be in the vehicle would have faced almost certain death or grave injury.
Because the devices were intact when they were discovered, police were able to analyze the explosives and linked them to Soliah, which forced her into hiding to avoid the indictments for conspiracy and use of explosives that had been leveled against her by a grand jury. And so, in 1976, Kathleen Soliah disappeared.
Enter Sara Jane Olson: loving wife, doting mother, and reliable contributor to the school bake sales. It’s 1999 and the country is staring wide-eyed into the promises of the next millennium. A popular show on television called “America’s Most Wanted” ran an episode that year which featured Soliah and the LAPD pipe bombs case. From the images used in the piece, law enforcement received a tip that purported that Soliah might now be living under an assumed name in the Midwest. That tip led to the discovery and arrest of Soliah a few months aftwerward.
Soliah had been a fugitive for twenty-three years. She had been so young then, so easily misled and manipulated. No one was hurt, so where was the harm, she argued. At least in Soliah’s mind, the arrest was a lark, a mere bookend to finally shut away that part of her life. She sold an almost mocking cookbook to help with her legal fees.
What she did not understand was the degree to which the police will doggedly pursue someone who has killed or intended to kill one of their own. She was tried, found guilty, and sentenced to a jail in California, the place where the bombing attempt had been made. It didn’t help that the actual trial didn’t make it to court until 2001—after the 9/11 attack on America. There was no sympathy for someone who had tried to murder some of the countries brave first responders. She was sentenced to twenty years in prison and would serve eight of them.
Upon being released from prison on parole, an interesting conundrum was raised: could Soliah—who now had finally been able to legally change her name to Sara Jane Olson—be allowed to return to Minnesota and to her family, or would she need to serve the years of her patrol in California where the crime occurred and in which she had been convicted.
Law enforcement’s position on this question was crystal clear. The police in California did not want her to receive special dispensation to return to her Minnesota life without bearing the full weight of her conviction. The police in Minnesota, in solidarity, did not want to be tasked with keeping an eye on an unsuccessful cop killer. Police in Minnesota banded together to craft a statement calling on the state government to deny Olson’s request. It was a difficult choice to make. On one hand, the things Soliah had done were completely unsympathetic and heinous, and during the whole process Olson never seemed to offer up even the most minimum of regrets. On the other hand, Olson was almost literally a new person, one who had served her time and was desperate to get back to her children, her family. I, and many others, spent time around the water coolers to weigh in on the degree to which Olson should be punished for what Soliah had done. It was a question that weighed on one’s heart.
And yet, for all the “seeing both sides” of the issue, a procedural vote on whether to allow Olson to return fell exactly down party lines, with Democrats having the advantage in numbers. It was in this moment where my dream of consensus shattered. Not one Republican was willing to let Olson rejoin her family. Not one Democrat was willing to say that Olson should face the fullest extent of the law’s punitive provisions. The two parties had to square off against the other that said loud and clear, “”If yer fer it, I’m aginst it!”
We find ourselves again at a moment in which we should be ashamed of our selves. Ineffective pipe bombs were mailed to prominent liberals, and while the gruesome murders did not come about for any of them, it cannot be denied that the use of these faulty explosives should be interpreted as a threat against, among others, two former presidents of the United States of America.
The question of how to perceive the events, however, has shown a radical split between the two sides. The liberals wasted no time in labeling the perpetrator the #MAGAbomber, as the targets were all people and politicians that President Trump had . Those on the right, convinced that violence is a tool reserved only for the dangerous left, could only conclude that the devices had been slapped together as a sort of “false flag” operation designed to build sympathy for the Democrats as America headed into the 2018 midterm elections.
And here is where I am once again frustrated to the point of wanting to tear my own hair out. Since Democrats are highly motivated to believe this malice stems from the right in response to Trump’s antagonistic rhetoric whereas the Republicans are locked into the idea that it is a case of liberal misdirection, one could believe that both sides would like nothing more than to find the source of these devices so that one group might claim victory over the other in the form of the moral high ground.
And yet here we are, casting blame without proof and more than willing to sweep away the factfinding process of determining the truth because the truth need not be tied to reality in order to be embraced. Both sides will continue to clutch their pre-drawn mental sketch of the archetypal, two-dimensional villain they see at work, the law enforcement work be damned—a flat-out waste of time and resources to eventually prove (it is assumed) the obvious nature of the criminal’s identity and ideology.
While I am firmly on the side of criticizing Trump every chance one can get, and would hurry along any process that would right the ship of our democracy, I am greatly disappointed that conservatives cannot see the obvious motive suggested by the list of targets—left-wingers all—and that Democrats can’t see that there are some puzzling elements at work in this plot, ones that make one wonder how the plot ever even progressed at all given the seeming incompetence the bomber seemed to have displayed regarding the addressing, the mailing, and the activation of these devices in a simultaneously coordinated yet somehow still haphazard distribution of devices.
We are running out of time, as Americans, to find a unifying purpose as Americans that can get us back on the same side again as a nation. It took some unfathomable tragedies to snap us out of it before—the Challenger explosion and 9/11 for instance. We must seize the opportunity while we can in order to find an issue to draw us together that doesn’t require the terrible loss of life. This is one. The desire for fair elections could perhaps be another, within the parties voters if not the parties leaders. If we don’t, we may unleash a devastation on ourselves that we might not ever recover from as the fifty states of the union. There is too much anger building to ignore for much longer, and it’s like a ticking timebomb.

Author of over sixty children's books, as well writer of textbook materials and standardized exam text. I may have helped teach your children...

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