The New York Times Sunday magazine had a glowing profile of Lori Berenson, the American woman who has spent a decade and a half in a Peruvian prison for …well, for what? The piece-headlined “The Liberation of Lori Berenson”-makes it sound like some awful miscarriage of justice:
Five weeks after her arrest, on Jan. 8, 1996, Berenson was taken to a small auditorium in the headquarters of Dincote, Peru’s antiterrorist police, and presented to the press. Her performance was indelible: she took the stage bellowing in Spanish, hands clenched at her sides, long dark hair tumbling down both sides of her face. After denouncing suffering and injustice in Peru, she denied that she was a terrorist by shouting: “In the M.R.T.A. there are no criminal terrorists. It is a revolutionary movement!” – words that, to Peruvian ears, amounted to a confession. She looked scary: big, ungoverned and enraged. To this day, clips from that 15-year-old tirade are part of any news story about her on Peruvian TV; stills from it, in which she appears to be baring her teeth, appeared on the front pages of Peruvian newspapers when she was paroled. Her father told me ruefully: “Forty-four seconds, and it ruined her life. It doesn’t take much.”
There are practical explanations for Berenson’s behavior that day; she was told by the military police that there were no microphones and that she would have to shout to be heard. She spent the prior four days in a rat-ridden cell with a woman who had five gunshot wounds; Berenson was strung out and sleepless. Before facing the media, she had no access to her lawyer. She was arrested at a time when the Peruvian government, under President Alberto Fujimori, had achieved a state of hyperefficiency at shutting terrorism down….
Actually, Ms. Berenson’s 44-second outburst was indicative of what she was: a terrorist. The paper or record was, in the words of John Podhoretz in an excellent column today in the New York Post, “carrying water for a terrorist.” Podhoretz notes that Ms. Berenson collaborated with one of two groups that “plunged Peru into what may have been the worst terrorist maelstrom the world has ever seen.”
A member of the murderous Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (or MRTA), Berenson was tried and found guilty twice. Peru’s human-rights activists were uninterested in defending her. Podhoretz notes that Susana Villaran, head of Peru’s largest human-rights group, said in 1996, “She admitted she belonged to them, so she is not an innocent person.” But the New York Times sought to portray her as an appealing person, almost a holy innocent:
And to look at the cover image of the 40-year-old Berenson holding the toddler to whom she gave birth in prison, you might mistake her for the Madonna with Child — the central image of medieval painting, consciously evoked by photographer Mary Ellen Mark.
The extraordinarily sympathetic article by the often-brilliant novelist Jennifer Egan has much in common with the “Free Lori” activists who have been calling for her release since her arrest in 1995. They talk about how gentle and well-meaning she is and complain about the handling of her case, but give us no reason to believe that mere “collaboration” was the full extent of the connection which landed Berenson in jail — and from which she was finally paroled in January.
Lori Berenson was a terrorist–and the New York Times celebrated her Sunday.