The Sad Story of Judith Clark: How Ideology can Ruin a Life. The Question Remains: Should She Go Free?

The incredible story by Tom Robbins about Judith Clark that appears in today’s New York Times -- an advance posting of a feature in their coming Sunday Magazine -- tells the story of Clark, one of the four arrested on Oct. 20, 1981, after a failed attempt to rob a Brink's truck in a shopping mall in Nanuet, New York. The action led to the murder of one black and one white police officer, in what Robbins correctly calls “one of the last spams of ‘60s-style, left-wing violence.”

Clark was part of an offspring of the Weather Underground that they called the Republic of New Afrika, a non-existent utopia that Robbins writes “existed mainly in their fevered dreams.” She was part of those young people whom Peter Collier and David Horowitz termed the “destructive generation,” the movement of those who had turned against everything America had given them, and proceeded to ruin their lives trying to build a revolutionary movement that would bring the United States down as they rebuilt their native land along a Stalinist-Maoist model.

Clark had grown up in a Communist household. Her late father was Joe Clark, once the foreign editor of the Communist paper The Daily Worker. After the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, Clark joined with his colleague Joe Starobin and the paper’s editor John Gates in an effort to move the Communist Party towards a new anti-Soviet position. Within a few years, all had left its ranks.

I knew all three fairly well. They had evolved to advocates of social-democracy and had become firm anti-Communists of the Left, who ended up as Clark did on the editorial board of Dissent magazine. I never met Judy Clark, but her infant daughter -- whom she left with a sitter as she went off to perform her duty for the revolution -- attended P.S. 87 on W. 78th Street in New York City, the same public school my son Michael attended in which she was in the same grade.

What is amazing about the profile of Clark is that unlike other leftist terrorists inexplicably freed by President Bill Clinton in the amnesty he granted to Silvia Baraldini in 1999 and to Susan Rosenberg in 2001 -- one of the last acts carried out before he left office -- Clark acknowledges thoroughly and honestly the depth of the crime she committed. Those Clinton pardoned, including the Puerto Rican terrorists who had tried to kill Harry S. Truman, have never said anything to indicate any regrets for their crimes.

Journalist Robbins’ article is a powerful example of the effect that ideology can have on young people, who in effect give up all that God has granted them in an American life to serve the dictates of the warped revolutionary ideals they believe in. After years of acting like a hardened revolutionary who spouted rhetoric in an attempt to prove her fidelity to the cause to her comrades -- a woman who could condemn Vietnam War vets she spoke with for would-be murder of our enemies in wartime, and yet sanction the blood-curdling murder of police officers with young families by her own comrades -- Clark was a model of a deluded young person consumed by ideology.

Judy Clark believed for a time that she was “the keeper of the flame that flickered out in her parents’ lives” instead of realizing that perhaps her parents had something vital to teach her about disillusionment, and hence believed that “anything less than total commitment to the cause was betrayal.” What shattered the core of her belief system was her daughter, whose existence slowly led her to realize that she had to abandon her loyalties to become anything of a mother.

Clark did not kill anyone herself; she was driving what was supposed to be a getaway car for her comrades. Her comrade Kathy Boudin pleaded guilty and got 20 years to life, and was paroled in 2003. Clark refused to follow Boudin’s path, and hence received the harshest sentence possible, although Boudin was as guilty if not more so than Clark. Eventually, a sociologist visiting the prison made her comprehend that she did everything she suffered to herself, and that she had no right to cry for her own daughter “and not see that the children of the men who were killed cried the same way for their fathers.”

No longer using her radicalism to “avoid confronting her own doubts” and walling herself off in “the safety of doctrine,” she acknowledged that what she believed was crazy. As Clark told Robbins: “I’ve experienced so much loss, and created so much loss, for the sake of an illusion.” (My emphasis.) She eventually found her once-neglected Judaism and attended Jewish services. After her father died of a heart attack in 1988, she spent Yom Kippur “alone, walking and thinking about the crime and about my father.” She also said aloud the names of those who had been killed by her comrades, and realized that “there were nine children who were a lot younger than me grieving for their fathers. And I was responsible for that. There was the human toll. It was a terrible truth, but it was my truth.”