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The Tupamaros revolutionary flag and Raul Sendic, the group’s founder.

I’ve been following the bizarre story that broke yesterday (October 8) about the alleged plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. Few actions are as dramatic and attention-getting as a kidnapping.

Of course, the first thing I thought of was the Patty Hearst kidnapping in 1974 by the Symbionese Liberation Army. I’ve researched that kidnapping extensively because of the book I’m writing about Camilla Hall, who was a member of the SLA at the time of the crime. In that case, a group of eight people plotted to kidnap a well-known member of the high-profile Hearst family. They not only carried out their mission, but Hearst remained with the SLA for 20 months.

The SLA was also looking at Hearst as a bargaining chip; two of their comrades were in jail on murder charges, and they were hoping for a prison exchange. In addition, they asked Patty’s father, Randolph Hearst, to donate millions to feed the poor at various sites in California, which he did (though the ensuing operation, called “People in Need,” descended into chaos).

The SLA’s motive behind the kidnapping was to bring attention to their revolutionary cause. In that respect, I can see some parallels with the Whitmer plot. The SLA was decidedly far-left, and the Whitmer plotters far-right, but both groups wanted attention.

The Hearst kidnapping was one of the first politically motivated kidnappings in the United States. Until that time, kidnappings were motivated by ransom money. Children of wealthy men were often the victims.

While political kidnappings were new to the United States, revolutionary groups around the world had used the tactic for years. Not only to raise money, but also to bring attention to their cause. The SLA took its inspiration from the revolutionary fervor springing up throughout the world. Che Guevera’s National Liberation Army of Bolivia drew worldwide attention, but the SLA also studied lesser-known groups such as the Tupamaros in Uruguay. In the 1960s, Tupamaros distributed stolen food and money among Uruguay’s poor. When the government clamped down on its people in the late 1960s, Tupamaros took up arms. The group staged a series of political kidnappings, mostly high-ranking government officials and businessmen. The kidnappings garnered widespread support among the people. Not only did the kidnappings reverse the power structure, but they also exposed the ineptitude of the police, who largely failed to locate and capture Tupamaros members. The SLA had a model to follow. 

Now with the Whitmer news, I wonder if we are going to see similar plots come to light. We certainly are living in chaotic times.