The Biden administration recently promoted a new program designed to identify domestic terrorists. I wonder if a program like this would have helped to identify Camilla Hall’s radicalism before she joined the Symbionese Liberation Army in 1974.
According to an NPR story on Jan. 27, this program shifts “toward community-based models of prevention, and that the emphasis will be on identifying behavioral signs that someone may be on a path toward violence.”
But what about people like Camilla who do not display any outward signs of radicalization? In fact, she and the others in the SLA were intent on keeping their activities hidden from those around them. They deemed secrecy a “must-have” before launching their war. They were all about the surprise attack.
Although had her community been more alert, they may have seen signs that Camilla was up to something.
She visited her parents in the Chicago area over Christmas 1973, right before she bought a gun and joined the SLA. Her parents described her speaking in “apocalyptic” terms about the state of the world. Keep in mind that at this time the U.S. was enmeshed in Vietnam and Cambodia, we knew about the government surveillance upon left-wing radical groups, and the country was still reeling from the crisis year of 1968 with its protests, political firestorms, and assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. There wasn’t a lot of positive news to talk about. Camilla’s parents chalked it up to the mood of young people at the time.
Camilla also sold all of her belongings around Feb. 24, 1974. This was about three weeks after Camilla and others in the SLA had kidnapped Patty Hearst and Camilla was preparing to go into hiding. She held a yard sale and told friends she had secured a gardening job in Palo Alto. Friends who wanted to give her an IOU for items were told no—Camilla needed cash right then and there. Her friends thought this was odd, that she’d just pick up and leave without any warning.
In retrospect, yes—the signs were there. Friends and family of other SLA associates say the same thing. For example, the brother of Patricia “Mizmoon” Soltysik noticed a radical change in her appearance (she had lost a dramatic amount of weight due to the training the SLA was undertaking) and much more radicalized talk. But by the time he had wanted to ask her more questions, she had dropped out of sight. Willie Wolfe left his father’s house in a rush after a Jan. 10, 1974 phone call, leaving his father to wonder what was going on.
Friends and family want to believe the best, right? The mind is a powerful thing—even if signs are in front of you, you want to find reasons that will excuse the behavior. You want an innocent explanation, not the worst explanation.
Some domestic terrorists make their cases known—they don’t hide their beliefs. So they might raise some red flags in their communities. But you can be sure there are others right now who are making secret plans to wage war—how do we find them before it’s too late?
For updates on my forthcoming book, Not the Camilla We Knew: One Woman’s Life from Small-town America to the Symbionese Liberation Army, sign up for my monthly newsletter at https://www.rachaelhanel.com/subscribe. You will get a FREE 9-minute audio story