Robert Stone: "That's What Terrorism Is"

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By Jonathan Marlow

"Maybe I would have become an outlaw instead of making films about them."

The Symbionese Liberation Army formed in Northern California between January to August 1973. As director Robert Stone describes in his film, Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst, "Although it began life as a political group, the best way to think of the SLA is as a cult." Along the way, they practiced a "weird and deadly form of performance art" - first, by assassinating Marcus Foster, the Oakland School Superintendent, on November 6, 1973. When that failed to produce the desired reaction, Donald DeFreeze, Angela Harris and others aimed higher, kidnapping Patricia Hearst, granddaughter of William Randolph Hearst, three months later. From February to June of 1974, they repeatedly sent audio tapes to the local media, taunting them with their ramshackle manifesto. The circus-like atmosphere that resulted was due, as Stone accurately notes, because this marked "the beginning of the broadcast news media becoming an extension of the entertainment industry." In their identification with Robin Hood, the SLA established a makeshift ransom (they seemingly never intended to honor) with Rev. Cecil Williams and the Glide Memorial Church to distribute food to the poor - a relationship between the church and the local community which continues to this day.

Seventy-one days after her capture, the public's understanding of the relationship between criminals and captive shifted dramatically when Hearst was involved in the robbery of the Hibernia Bank in the Sunset District.

What was your initial attraction to the topic of the Symbionese Liberation Army?

I was attracted to it on many levels. I was in high school when that whole thing went down and it's just something I never forgot. I was kind of amazed that nobody had ever done a documentary about it after all of these years. When I started raising funds to actually make the documentary, I realized why nobody had done it. Everybody thought that it had to be "the Patty Hearst story." That was how the story was perceived. You had to have Patty Hearst as your central character, but she was not a good witness and she would never cooperate with such a film. It was very difficult to get money. I ended up making the film without her cooperation, which is what I wanted to do in the first place, because she would have been a very boring interview. The story of the SLA is far more interesting as the story that has not been told. Most of my films have, in some way, dealt with the role of the mass media and how we sort of mythologize history. I was very interested in the whole interrelationship between the mass media and political terrorism. This seemed like a great, natural story that would unfold like a political thriller but would deal with these larger issues that I was really interested in.

Can much of the change in Patty Hearst's behavior be attributed to Stockholm Syndrome?

Absolutely. That was the initial window that allowed her to be indoctrinated into their ideology. I think, really, the way to understand what happened to her is to really understand the SLA as a cult. It was really more of a cult than it was a political organization. The behavior of all of them became increasingly cult-like, to the point where, in some of the later tape recordings that they sent to the media, they were referring to their leader as the fifth prophet. It became very weird, but I think that's the best way to understand the psychology behind it.

What do you think the place of the SLA in history would be without the February 4, 1974, kidnapping?

Nothing.

So they would otherwise merely be a footnote?

The reason the SLA are interesting is because they got such attention. They didn't really accomplish much, but it got attention. That's what terrorism is. Terrorism isn't planting a bomb anonymously in somebody's back yard and taking credit for it. Terrorism is getting mass media attention and working on peoples' heads and making people think that you're some major force in the world. That's what the SLA succeeded in doing by kidnapping Patty Hearst, which gave them access to the mass media. They ended up getting more attention and having more resonance than any other group that's ever come down the pike, even though what they accomplished is next to nothing.

And by targeting, not only someone of the wealthy class but also somebody who is deeply connected to a media empire.

Her father felt that the only power he had to get his daughter out was the fact that he was a media mogul. He felt, "If I give them access to the mass media, which is what they want, they'll give me my daughter back." You know, the whole thing backfired but the one thing that the SLA were really good at is they were just brilliant propagandists.

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