Patty Hearst & 9/11

Comparing the events of Robert Stone's taut and provocative documentary with their disquieting parallels in the recent past and present day, you get the sense that Karl Marx was wrong, that history repeats itself first as farce and second as tragedy.

In 1974, a band of amateur revolutionaries calling themselves the Symbionese Liberation Army decided to strike at a symbol of America's power, wealth, and corporate hegemony. They kidnapped 19-year-old Patricia Hearst, granddaughter of the late, legendary media mogul William Randolph Hearst. The deed evoked revulsion, fascination and terror. An army of FBI agents and police fumbled for months on the case. In the end, the SLA's abject failure and the spectacle of its naive idealism and infantile megalomania probably marked the end of any viable anti-establishment movement in America.

Three decades later, a band of jihadists calling themselves al Qaeda decided to strike at a symbol of America's power, wealth, and corporate hegemony. Their deed evoked terror, chauvinism and repression. Feckless government agencies, an invasion, and a war failed to bring the culprits to justice. In the end, the administration's success at exploiting these disasters and manipulating a cowed public and the craven media will probably mark the beginning of the unraveling of the Constitution as we know it.

For suggesting such parallels, which are never overtly stated in the film, Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst deserves to be seen. But it also offers an alternative take on the SLA, whose members were characterized as lunatics and thugs in the media of the time, an image that recent history has done little to rehabilitate. Interviews with surviving SLA members Mike Bortin and Russell Little suggest an activist ideology and a critique of America that are no more radical or irrational than the opinions of Noam Chomsky. Despite their questionable (and for a while disarmingly successful) methods, their motives were quixotic, even patriotic.

Little, for example, recalls how as a kid growing up he was inspired by Zorro and Robin Hood, an identification that progressed to the more politicized outlaws of State of Siege when he became a college student and Vietnam and the Nixon administration prompted him and others to radical action. In the early '70s, he drifted into the SLA and was arrested along with fellow member Joe Remiro for involvement in the group's assassination of the Berkeley school superintendent Marcus Foster. (He was acquitted in a 1983 retrial.) Thereafter, the incarcerated pair served as pawns played by the SLA, the police, and the media.

The SLA's initial idea was to abduct Hearst and trade her for Little and Remiro. That wasn't going to happen, but then the group realized they had something much more valuable: the undivided attention of a public consumed by the kind of voyeuristic frenzy that would soon become the media's standard operating procedure. What an opportunity to broadcast their message of "Death to the fascist insect that preys on the life of the people!" And when Hearst announced that she herself had become an urban guerrilla named Tania, then denounced her family in chilling, ambiguous, and sometimes hilarious recordings and participated in a bank robbery caught by surveillance cameras, the media circus became surreal. "I thought, was everyone stoned?" recalls Little. Not only had the SLA kidnapped the symbol of media domination, it had kidnapped the media. Future terrorist organizations would take note.

Such triumphs, though, are by nature ephemeral. The SLA overreached, the police overreacted, and most of the revolutionaries were reduced to cinders after an LA shoot-out. Hearst and two others survived and joined latter-day recruits like Bortin to pull off some bombings and robberies. In one bank heist, they "accidentally" killed a teller named Myrna Opsahl. When Hearst was finally caught, in 1975, the focus shifted to her trial and trials, and the SLA faded to a grotesque footnote.

Stone intercuts the present-day interviews with archival footage and audio recordings from the actual events with subtle, ironic, illuminating precision. When he succumbs to Michael Moore boorishness, embroidering archival images with cuts from cartoons or movies or TV shows, he undermines the cold clarity and the respect for his audience that give Guerrilla its quiet power. He can also be taken to task for trivializing Hearst's own story. What of her kidnapping, rape, and brainwashing, her brutalization by the Mandingo-like embodiment of white folks' worst nightmare, SLA field marshal Cinque? For that point of view, one can refer to Hearst's own book or to Paul Schrader's disturbing 1988 adaptation.

For better or worse, Stone chooses to take Hearst pretty much as the SLA did – as a symbol. His only real cheap shot comes at the end, when he intercuts news footage of Bortin and others being sentenced in 2002 for the killing of Opsahl with the image of Hearst gliding onto the set of a talk show. True, some victims get off easier than others. But the guilty, as usual, get off scot free.

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