Yesterday we covered the early years of Lori Berenson, who dropped out of MIT to become a terrorist in Peru (after brief stints as a budding revolutionary in Nicaragua and El Salvador). In December 1996, after she and other members of the Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) were arrested, tried, convicted, and locked away, several of their MRTA confederates occupied the residence of the Japanese ambassador to Peru, took hostages, and demanded that Berenson and the other MRTA prisoners be released in exchange for them; instead of negotiation, however, the Peruvian government sent in special forces, who succeeded in killing all the hostage-takers.
Meanwhile Berenson’s parents were trying other approaches to springing her from the Peruvian cárcel. In fact, they quit their jobs to devote their lives full-time to this effort. They hired a filmmaker to produce a documentary about Lori. Rhoda Berenson, Lori’s mother, wrote a book entitled Lori: My Daughter, Wrongfully Imprisoned in Peru. (Noam Chomsky wrote the foreword, Ramsey Clark the afterword.) In 2000, the New York Observer profiled Rhoda, describing her as having been “a real New York classic: a physics teacher who took dance lessons at Martha Graham, who had a subscription to the Joyce Theater, who cooked, graded papers and danced under the stars at Lincoln Center with her husband, Mark, a retired statistician who taught at Baruch College.” Now, however, her life was totally different: she and her husband were taking turns flying to Peru every other week to visit Lori and discuss their expensive legal efforts to free her.
Also in 2000, both parents went on Oprah, where, as Rod Dreher wrote in the New York Post, they “made an impassioned case for America’s support for their daughter.” Their case, alas, was based entirely on lies. When Oprah asked why Lori had been in Peru in the first place, Rhoda Berenson said, “She was there to help the poor.” The little detail of her involvement in the plotting of large-scale terrorist acts was neatly dropped down the memory hole. As Dreher noted, the two major Peruvian terrorist groups, MRTA and Shining Path, had between them “killed an estimated 35,000 Peruvians – many of them dirt-poor peasants and native people” in the previous twenty years. While admitting that Peru under Fujimori was “no model of human rights,” Dreher pointed out that secret courts of the kind that had tried Berenson had become necessary “after left-wing terrorists began assassinating judges who imprisoned their comrades.”
For her part, Lori made the following assertions in a 1998 statement to international human-rights organizations: “I have never been a member of the MRTA; I have never participated in the planning of a violent act, neither with the MRTA nor anybody else; neither have I ever promoted violence, and, what is more, I do not believe in violence and it would not be possible for me to participate in violence….. I am completely innocent of the horrendous charges made against me.”
All these claims would later prove to be lies. But they worked. International complaints about Berenson’s secret trial led Peruvian authorities to order a new trial by a civilian court. That event has been described as “the Peruvian equivalent of the O.J. Simpson trial, broadcast on television every day from the end of March to June this year. For Peruvian justice, it was a giant step forward: an open terrorism trial with cross-examination of witnesses.” In her closing statement to the court, Berenson said: “I am innocent of all charges against me….I have been called a terrorist, a term that has been used and abused in Peruvian society for far too many years, mostly because of the psychological impact of a concept that brings to mind indiscriminate violence designed to terrorize; irrational destructive violence; deadly, senseless terror. I am not a terrorist, and as I stated in this courtroom before, I condemn terrorism, I always have.”
We’ll finish up Lori’s story tomorrow.