American Lori Berenson, middle-class Manhattanite turned foreign terrorist helper, was sentenced to life in prison in Peru in 1996 for housing Marxist terrorists of the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA), which took part in assassinations, kidnappings, and bombings during the 1980s and 1990s. Berenson let them use her apartment as a storehouse for ammunition. Standing before police, she exclaimed in Spanish: "There are no criminal terrorists in the M.R.T.A. It’s a revolutionary movement!"
Novelist Jennifer Egan interviewed Berenson in Peru over several months as she shuttled between parole and jail before being freed for good, and came up with a 8,300-word portrait for Sunday’s upcoming New York Times Magazine (It was posted online Wednesday).
Michael Calderone got a sneak peek at the cover shot of the newly revamped magazine, an image with her son that John Podhoretz at Commentary calls "consciously designed to make Berenson look like the Madonna with child."
Egan, a discerning fiction writer, brought none of that perception to this profile. Instead Egan found excuses for Berenson’s notorious outburst and terror ties, trying to put M.R.T.A.’s leftist political violence in context, offensively referring to a four-month hostage ordeal as the terrorist group's last "big idea," and chalking up Berenson’s own involvement to positive personal characteristics like her ability to “absorb fear and discomfort.”
Incredibly, this marks the third fawning story about Berenson from the Times in less than 10 months. A November 27, 2010 front-page profile by Simon Romero stuffed the M.R.T.A. terrorists down the memory hole, implying bygones should be bygones: “‘I certainly am saddened, and I’m sorry that I have been part of something that was considered so damaging,’ she said, bouncing her son on her knee as she acknowledged her ties to M.R.T.A., now a thoroughly marginalized group.” That was preceded by an equally sympathetic Romero story May 27, 2010 on the controversial granting of parole to Berenson: “Though her past still looms large, prison officials and fellow inmates now talk about her baking skills, her teaching music to cellmates and her devotion to her 1-year-old son, Salvador.”
Egan signaled her own sympathy early, emphasizing the anger of average Peruvian citizens while downplaying reasons they might feel that way:
Berenson wasn’t under house arrest, but she might as well have been; the media frenzy surrounding her release on May 27 meant that during her first 10 days of freedom, she never went outside. A horde of photographers stormed the car in which she was driven away from the prison -- three cameramen thrust themselves into the backseat; more jumped onto the roof, leaving dents; a TV van crashed into the back. Another gantlet awaited her outside her apartment building, surging against the surrounding gate with such pressure that it buckled. For many days, the press lingered outside, interviewing Miraflorans incensed at having Berenson in their midst.
Such an outpouring of rage at a 40-year-old woman, mother to a toddler, who was convicted in her mid-20s of abetting a terrorist plot that never took place, is a measure of the degree to which Peruvians are still traumatized by the violence that convulsed their country during the years when the Shining Path warred with the military and nearly 70,000 Peruvians were killed. It also underscores the fact that terrorism, all but defunct in Peru for more than a decade, is still a hot political issue.
In person, Berenson is an unlikely fulcrum for all this drama. She is slight and mild-mannered, with wire-rimmed glasses, an inquisitive gaze and wavy brown hair that she often wears in a single braid down her back. She dresses simply -- often in jeans, occasionally dangly earrings....
Egan dubiously emphasized M.R.T.A.’s “historically less violent” nature when compared to the murderous Shining Path, and downplayed the significance of Berenson’s “15-year-old tirade” where an enraged Berenson called the M.R.T.A. “a revolutionary movement!”
....The M.R.T.A. was a much smaller insurgent group than the dominant Shining Path, and historically less violent. But on the top two floors of the house, which Berenson had sublet to another M.R.T.A. leader, the police discovered a large cache of weapons and ammunition, along with evidence of a plan to forcibly seize the Congress and hold its members hostage. Berenson claimed she was innocent: she had known the people by different names, she said, had no idea they were M.R.T.A. members and had never visited the top two floors of the house after subletting them for what she thought was going to be a school.
Egan mounted a lame defense of Berenson’s behavior.
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. Fujimori was elected in 1990, at the height of Shining Path aggression, and in 1992 he dissolved the Congress, suspended the Constitution and passed a number of laws that gave the military expanded powers to fight terrorism....
Egan never once characterized Berenson’s radical leftism, blandly characterizing her “political views” as being based on “her discovery of a world built on oppression, exploitation and imperialism.” Egan only mentioned ideology a single time in the long story, claiming the M.R.T.A. was set up to oppose “the neo-Maoist Shining Path,” which targeted opposition citizens for death.
A litany of unacknowledged left-wing groups and people passes through Egan’s fairy tale (Berenson worked for the Committee in Solidarity With the People of El Salvador, or Cispes). Anti-American former Attorney General Ramsey Clark makes a cameo in a quote defending Berenson. Left unmentioned: Clark, founder of the hard-left A.N.S.W.E.R. coalition, served as defense attorney for Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic and Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
Egan offensively describes M.R.T.A.’s last major hostage-taking as their last “big idea.”
By the time Berenson arrived in Lima in 1994, the Shining Path was severely diminished, and the M.R.T.A. had been reduced to a skeleton crew with one big idea left: to seize a public place, take hostages and demand the release of M.R.T.A. prisoners.
They did so, storming the residence of the Japanese ambassador to Peru and holding 72 hostages for four months.
It’s quite a while before Egan gently hints that Berenson is lying about not knowing “weapons were being amassed in the house, or that violent action was being planned.” Even then Egan couches it in terms sympathetic to Berenson, as someone not doing herself any favors.
No one I spoke with in Peru seems ever to have believed Berenson’s original claim of total ignorance, and such an obvious untruth may have been self-defeating -- not just legally, but by further damaging her image. When I asked Berenson why she had hewed to that story during her civilian trial, she told me it was because she was innocent of the charge of posing as a journalist for the purpose of seizing Congress....