For today’s throwback Thursday opening statement, I’m taking you back in time to the 1970’s… a tumultuous time in America, when domestic groups in America existed, that wanted to overthrow the U.S. government, mainly because of our involvement in Vietnam. One of those groups was called the SLA – the Symbionese Liberation Army.
On April 15, 1974 a young woman, who happened to be the heiress to publishing mogul Randolph Hearst, was caught on bank surveillance cameras, wielding an automatic weapon as she robbed a San Francisco bank branch. The woman – of course – was Patty Hearst. But during the robbery, she introduced herself as Tania. You see, according to Hearst’s later testimony, she had been previously kidnapped from her Berkeley California apartment, beaten, lost consciousness, and in the months afterward, she claims to have been held hostage, threatened, and then brainwashed by the SLA to join their cause. She said she had no choice. Other than her testimony – and later on – various psychological and physical ailments she suffered – there was no evidence to back up her account of what happened.
In fact, after her eventual arrest the United States Attorney General William Saxbe called her a “common criminal” rather than a reluctant participant in the bank robbery, as she had claimed in her statements to police. But then the FBI countered back that some SLA members were photographed pointing guns at Hearst during the robbery. A grand jury indicted her for the robbery in June 1974 and she was later convicted of bank robbery and using a firearm in a felony. Her sentence ended up being 7 years in prison with the judge commenting, “rebellious young people who, for whatever reason become revolutionaries, and voluntarily commit criminal acts will be punished.”
Who was right and who was lying? Well, one of the landmark things about the Patty Hearst trial, is that this was the first time in US history, where surveillance camera footage played a prominent role in the trial. In fact, the footage was shown every night on the 6 o’clock news. And remember that back then, unlike today where there are hundreds of channels, the entire country had their choice to only 3 channels to watch – NBC, ABC, or CBS. This is very different from the highly publicized trials today – like of the Batman killer or the Boston Marathon bomber trial – where every minute and every word is captured on 24/7 cable news media. You may recall in my first Throwback Thursday rant a few weeks ago, that it was the OJ Simpson murder trial that set that precedent. It’s amazing when we think of how much has changed in the way we follow trials, isn’t it? Now we can watch You Tube videos of surveillance footage or even using apps and watching webcams from our phone. We don’t have to worry about missing a single moment of a single high profile trial, courtesy of cable news.
So yes, think back to 1974, when all of America was glued to one of only 3 TV stations, watching surveillance footage of this one time heiress – this socialite – wielding an automatic weapon and robbing a bank. Can you imagine? And just like with the Attorney General and the FBI – opinions were divided. Many Americans thought – you know what – yes she probably did fake her own kidnapping. Here she was a college student living with her boyfriend in Berkeley California – which let’s face it, was a hotbed for social activism at the time… and maybe she wanted to milk her parents out of some money? And by the way, if this was the plan, it ended up backfiring. The SLA ended up demanding that the Hearst family distribute $70 worth of food to every needy Californian, in exchange for their daughter’s freedom. Well that would have been a $400 million operation. But Hearst’s father did do, however, was take out a loan and arrange for $2 million worth of food to be immediately distributed to the poor in the Bay Area. Well – you can imagine what happened right? The operation was so rushed and out of control, that the whole thing descended into chaos and the SLA still refused to release Patty Hearst.
But back to my main question: Was this simply a case of a young woman who made a mistake, it went horribly wrong, so she had to come up with an excuse to hide behind? When I think of the effects of the Patty Hearst case I also think of the term “stockholm syndrome” – where kidnapping victims supposedly become sympathetic toward their captors. Was it the Hearst trial that helped put that term into our modern lexicon? And – is “stockholm syndrome” just a fancy psychiatric way of saying – “not my fault”? Is it a way of not taking responsibility for your actions?
And now, we face a new threat, this time from overseas, with groups like ISIS and potentially other overseas enemies. We can’t deny that we vulnerable – can we? Not in light of the recent story about the shooting at the controversial art competition in Texas. There are also reports that the bad guys are here to try and recruit and brainwash American citizens – just like what Patty Hearst claimed happenedo to her.
So… could this happen again? And how would 24/7 media, technology, people with smart phones always ready to videotape the evidence, social media, social activism, and the court of public opinion – play into it? If this happened tomorrow – would you believe the supposed victim? Would you believe them if they said they were forced into committing crimes – potentially crimes against their own country?
As for Patty Hearst, ultimate her sentence was commuted by Carter and later she received a full pardon from President Clinton. She went on to write books, became active in various charities and even acted in popular independent feature films. The question is: Was the story of Patty Hearst an act? And can this happen again?