Valentine’s Day came a little early for the former Weather Underground member Judith Alice Clark this year in the form of a long cover story in The New York Times Sunday Magazine on January 15. Currently a guest at the maximum-security Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, Clark is nearing the halfway mark of her seventy-five-year sentence for her part as an accomplice in the 1981 Brink’s robbery ($1.6 million netted) in Nyack, New York, that left one guard and two policemen dead and others wounded. “Judith Clark’s Radical Transformation” is one of those emetic pieces that the Times periodically assembles to assure itself and the world of its politically correct “progressive” sentiments. Written by Tom Robbins, a reporter for the Daily News and The Village Voice, this exercise in sentimental political rehabilitation takes its place alongside other such bijoux as the Times’s publicity efforts on behalf of Kathy Boudin and President Obama’s mentor Bill Ayers, who co-founded the Weather Underground in 1969.
Remember the Weather Underground? This mephitic offshoot of the radical Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) carried the narcissistic radicalism of the Sixties out of the classroom and into the streets. It was dedicated, Ayers and his fellow radicals said in a founding document, to the “destruction of U.S. imperialism” and the achievement of a “classless world: world communism.” One of their models was the Chinese Red Guards—How many millions did they murder?—a “movement with a full willingness to participate in the violent and illegal struggle.” In September 2001, Ayers published Fugitive Days, a memoir of his years underground after a nail-bomb-making project went awry in 1970, destroying a Manhattan townhouse and killing three of the bomb makers.
The Times was on hand to celebrate Ayers’s literary project. On September 11, 2001—remember that date?—the Times published a fawning interview with Professor Ayers (as he had since become) in which he said “I don’t regret setting bombs. . . . I feel we didn’t do enough.” There are some, we feel sure, who think that Ayers’s thuggish cronies did more than enough: Joe Trombino, for example, one of the Brink’s guards whose arm was nearly severed from his body when he was hit by several rounds from an M-16 during the robbery. Mr. Trombino fared better than Peter Paige, who took multiple hits and was killed instantly, leaving behind a wife and three children, who also, we suspect, believe Ayers and his colleagues did more than enough.
Judy Clark, like Kathy Boudin (who was released from prison in 2003), drove one of the getaway vehicles. She was thirty-one at the time. When Boudin’s U-Haul was stopped by the police, she temporized while her gun-wielding colleagues jumped out and opened fire. According to one report, “Officer Brown was hit repeatedly by rifle rounds and collapsed on the ground. One robber then walked up to his prone body and fired several more shots into him with a 9mm handgun, ensuring his death.” Waverly Brown left three children behind: What do you suppose they would have to say to Bill Ayers? Or how about Edward O’Grady’s wife and three children, aged six, two, and six months? Officer O’Grady was shot several times and died ninety minutes later on an operating table. Enough?
These events hover mist-like in the background of Tom Robbins’s plea for absolution. “When I first started visiting Clark,” he writes toward the end of the essay, “I also wondered whether her transformation was a calculated effort to get out of prison. Over time I’ve come to see her differently.” And how! “A dozen former inmates,” he writes, “told me stories of how Clark helped them sort out their own troubles.” Isn’t that nice? She also raises puppies to help war veterans, writes poetry, and pines for the daughter she left with a babysitter one morning in 1981 in order to drive a getaway car for America-hating robbers and murderers. (“A gay, single woman,” Robbins explains, “Clark had decided that she wanted to have a child, and a fellow militant served as surrogate father.”) Robbins’s essay is full of passages like this:
Through programs for inmates, [Clark] earned a bachelor’s degree in behavioral science followed by a master’s in psychology. When the government ended tuition aid for inmates, she helped persuade local colleges to offer affordable courses. As AIDS arrived in the prison, terrifying inmates and correction officers alike, she calmed things down by educating everyone.
You have to admire the little jab “When the government ended tuition aid for inmates.” Oh, that nasty, nasty government! Robbins ends his brief for the defense with the observation that “Clark is a model for what’s possible in prison.”
Maybe so. Maybe she really is, as one former inmate put it, “truly remorseful and sorry for what happened.” There are two points to be made about that. The first concerns the sincerity of her remorse and nature of her rehabilitation. As David Horowitz, writing in the online journal FrontPage Magazine, notes,
a guilty person who understands their guilt and has genuine remorse begins by accepting responsibility for what they did and for all they did—and not pretending (as Clark does in this article) that they became a violent radical only after they were arrested as a result of guilt for not having been revolutionary enough. Or that their participation in the one crime they were apprehended for was actually the result of inattention or some other excusable offense.
Far more important, a truly remorseful terrorist will feel obligated to turn his back on his fellow terrorists and their supporters and do the innocent a service by revealing what they know, and who their networks are, and what they actually did—not just what they got caught doing.
Exactly. But there is another point to be made. Let’s say that Judy Clark really is what Robbins says she is: a rehabilitated, model prisoner who understands and accepts her guilt. What then? Or rather, so what? Toward the end of his apology for Judy Clark, Tom Robbins mentions that former Governor Patterson had been approached about freeing her shortly before he left office in 2010. He couldn’t do it, he said, because he’d be “tarred and feathered” by an angry public. Quite right, too. But that passage suggests who the real audience for “Judith Clark’s Radical Transformation” is: Governor Andrew Cuomo and, beyond him, the public which needs softening up before a pardon can be made politically palatable.
The children and now grandchildren of Peter Paige, Waverly Brown, and Edward O’Grady find no restitution in Judy Clark’s remorse, be it ever so ardent. Organs like The New York Times have boundless patience and sympathy for radicals like Judy Clark, Kathy Boudin, and Bill Ayers. What about their victims? Where are their book-selling interviews, the empathetic profiles, the conspiracy of boosterism that endeavors to forgive all by explaining all? The Times, like so many other cultural institutions, has never gotten over its infatuation with the radicalism of the 1960s. So many of its assumptions—about the supposed evils of America and democratic capitalism, the “idealism” of revolutionaries, the heroism of self-indulgence—are by now bred in the bone. They have become assumptions about the world that are simply taken for granted by anyone whose opinion they believe is worth heeding, i.e., anyone who espouses the left-liberal consensus about the world. It’s an attitude that more and more defines America’s cultural elite and helps explain the moral imbecility of articles like “Judith Clark’s Radical Transformation.”
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 30 Number 6, on page 1
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