I feel that your recent article on Lise Olsen took an unfair slant and raised assertions about improprieties taken by police and federal investigators without providing adequate justification ["The Accidental Terrorist," by Laura Kopen, May 31].
It would appear, even from your incredibly slanted presentation of the facts, that a reasonable prosecutor could have more than probable cause to believe that Ms. Olsen violated laws. According to your article, Ms. Olsen filled at least 21 Skippy peanut butter jars with gasoline (your article does not answer the questions of how big the containers were or how much gasoline they contained), plopped in green, underwater wicks of the variety used in explosives not legal in Illinois, and attempted to light these devices over a public highway on the day when police are the most overwhelmed in a battle against illegal and dangerous fireworks. I would like to think that nobody has dangled gasoline-filled jars with lit wicks from a viaduct as I pass underneath. What Olsen did was dangerous and stupid.
Olsen took the risk of using a primitive incendiary device to illuminate a viaduct. It was a risk because she should have wondered whether it was legal, especially since it could harm anybody who is nearby. What if things blew up, or fell over and set somebody on fire? What if they fell over on a passing car? This kind of risk is not acceptable in a civilized society.
Apparently Olsen is a very nice person for caring so much about poor children in Africa and for going to Sudan like Mother Teresa to help people. And apparently when she was there she learned to use and make primitive incendiary devices, presumably for light. OK, so let's assume that the Sudanese people Olsen went to visit are very poor and that they do not have lightbulbs or electricity for light and that they are forced to use the primitive lanternlike devices such as the ones Olsen used for her demonstration. Does that make them any safer? No. We should not confuse the good things about Lise Olsen with the stupid things she did. Your article made many attempts to do exactly this, confusing her beliefs in worthwhile causes and her involvement in philanthropic missions with justification for her conduct.
Your article also does a disservice to our community by confusing emotion-laden issues like cruelty to animals, environmental protection, and an overbearing police state. I am thankful for past Reader articles which fully exposed wrongful convictions, police brutality, and other forms of injustice. But the issue at Olsen's trial is not whether PETA, ALF, or any other animal-rights organizations have acceptable beliefs. It is whether Ms. Olsen made dangerous devices which might possibly explode or pose some unreasonable harm to the public at large.
I found it even more troubling that your article stated that "Olsen's afraid that she's become a scapegoat in the government campaign against the animal-rights movement," but gave no evidence in support of the theory that such a campaign actually exists. Although the article gave a few paranoid accounts from individuals alleging FBI and state investigators acted suspiciously, I thought your article was fundamentally flawed in that it shouted "conspiracy" without providing any credible supporting evidence. I would like to have seen evidence indicating that there is some real governmental focus on animal-rights activists per se, as opposed to a few random and unsubstantiated accounts that don't really prove anything.
Fortunately, Olsen's conviction was reversed and remanded for a new trial because the trial court mistakenly allowed impermissibly prejudicial evidence that could confuse the issue properly before the jury. Ms. Olsen definitely deserves a fair trial, and the use of a conviction she never received should never have been allowed.
On the whole, I think the Reader does a fine job of exposing corruption and injustice, but here you failed to support the bold assertions you raised, and you confused important issues we as a society need to be fully conscious of.
Saint Johnsbury, Vermont
Laura Kopen replies:
I did not contend that Olsen's protest was legal or even rational, but that the charges brought against her were severe given that they rested on the ambiguous question of intent, which was complexly and in some ways unfairly disputed at trial. My article did in fact state that Olsen employed 21 homemade devices to conduct her protest, and that she "used a syringe to measure out 50 cubic centimeters (about two ounces) of gasoline into each one." (Green underwater wick is sold over the counter at hobby shops and is also used in many legal projects.)
Furthermore, I should clarify that the article stated that "Olsen's afraid that she's become a scapegoat in a government campaign [italics added]." Olsen's interpretation of her conviction and subsequent encounters with authorities is wholly her own, and to say that the article "shouted conspiracy" is off the mark.
Olsen's involvement with animal rights activism was integral to her trial, so it was pertinent to the article. The accounts of individuals quoted in the article, along with Olsen's biography before the incident, were included not to justify Olsen's actions or beliefs but rather to provide a frame of reference for exploring the complicated issue of her reaction to her situation and its troubling implications.