Political Hay

Obama and the Bombmaker’s Church

FALN: Yet another political landmine in the religious world of Barack Obama.

By 3.18.08

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There's more.

Let's move on from the tale of Senator Barack Obama's pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, to another tale of Obama's United Church of Christ -- a denomination that he and I share.

Does the name Fuerzas Armadas de Liberacion Nacional -- Armed Forces of National Liberation -- ring a bell? You may remember this charming group by its initials, FALN. A so-called revolutionary group determined to bring about Puerto Rican independence through violence. As reminded in a detailed February 12, 2008 article in the Wall Street Journal by Debra Burlingame, it was FALN that was responsible for a New Year's Eve, 1982 bombing at One Police Plaza in New York. The explosion ripped the lower leg off of Police Officer Rocco Pascarella, as well as destroying the entrance to the building. Of Officer Pascarella, Ms. Burlingame quotes the following: "He was ripped up like someone took a box cutter and shredded his face," remembered Detective Anthony Senft, one of the bomb-squad officers who answered the call 25 years ago. "We really didn't even know that he was a uniformed man until we found his weapon, that's how badly he was injured."

Moments later, notes Burlingame, Detective Senft himself, as well as his partner, Richard Pastorella, "were blown 15 feet in the air as they knelt in protective gear to defuse another bomb. Detective Senft was blinded in one eye, his facial bones shattered, his hip severely fractured. Detective Pastorella was blinded in both eyes and lost all the fingers of his right hand." There were four bombs that New Year's Eve night. In an hour, in addition to the two explosions at One Police Center, FBI headquarters in Manhattan and Brooklyn's federal courthouse were attacked. Over the years there have been others.

Fast forward to October 1999. The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee releases an unclassified report from then-Clinton Attorney General Janet Reno. Discussing the disappearance of many Cold War-era related terrorist groups, the report makes one exception.

"Puerto Rican terrorist groups...are an exception and represent an ongoing threat," the report says. It also recounts a violent history of 100 bombings and arsons in both Puerto Rico and on the U.S. mainland. Then, almost in passing, the report mentions "the impending release from prison of members of these groups jailed for prior violence."

Stop the tape.

April 1998. Reno's deputy attorney general Eric Holder meets with Paul Sherry, who is advocating clemency for FALN members. One wonders whether any responsibility for the loss of Officer Rocco Pascarella's leg, the blinding of Detective Senft's one eye, the shattering of his facial bones and the fracturing of his hip, as well as the complete blinding of Detective Pastorella and the loss of all the fingers of his right hand, was discussed. Holder does ask Sherry whether or not the FALN terrorists had renounced violence. Sherry, says Deputy Attorney General Holder later, "said they would not change their beliefs. This probably meant they would not change their beliefs about Puerto Rican independence, although he gave a carefully phrased answer that did not make it entirely clear that they had renounced the use of violence."

So who, you may wonder, is Paul Sherry? Glad you asked. As a member of the United Church of Christ who once tangled with Sherry over President Reagan's nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court, I'm happy to tell you.

Paul Sherry is actually the Reverend Paul Sherry, who, at the time he was meeting with the Deputy Attorney General of the United States to request clemency for the perpetrators of such horrific acts, was, I am sorry to say, the president of the United Church of Christ -- the denomination that Senator Obama and I share. Reverend Sherry's request -- and he certainly was not alone -- was granted. As Ms. Burlingame and many others, notably the website UCC Truths, have noted, on August 11, 1999 clemency was indeed offered by President Clinton to the FALN terrorists. Twelve accepted in less than a month, and over the objections of then-Democratic Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York, the terrorists were granted their freedom.

Now.

September 15, 1999. The Senate Judiciary Committee, disturbed over all of this, holds hearings to look into the clemency of the FALN terrorists. Testifying that day is one Nozomi Ikuta. She has been called to testify because the Judiciary Committee wishes to know about her lobbying activities surrounding the FALN pardons. Who is she? Well, she is actually the Reverend Nozomi Ikuta, who at the time was a representative of, yes, the United Church of Christ Board of Homeland Ministries. It becomes apparent in Reverend Ikuta's testimony that, as UCC Truths' James Hutchins notes, "The United Church of Christ did not, at any point, try to communicate with the victims of the terrorism." (Hutchins, by the way, says he was so stunned at seeing the UCC portrayed in this fashion that he promptly established UCC Truths, a site dedicated to dissenting UCC members who sharply disagree with the national leadership.) A stunned Rocco Pascarella, permanently disabled by the actions of the FALN terrorists, was also at the same hearing and said of the United Church of Christ: "Did I understand correctly that some people from the group trying to gain clemency for these individuals met with somebody from Justice or the White House? If that's the case then, I really think that that has to be the most outrageous thing I've ever heard in my life. Because as a victim I was never contacted by anyone."

You did understand that, Officer Pascarella. And surely I am not the only UCC member who is embarrassed about this. You are owed an apology.

THERE'S STILL MORE. Oh my, so much more.

Six days later, the Reverend Dr. Thomas Dipko, executive vice president of the UCC's United Church Board for Homeland Ministries, found himself in front of the House Committee on Government Reform answering questions from then-Georgia Republican Congressman Bob Barr. Barr, surprise, surprise, was disturbed. In particular he was upset at the news the UCC had honored one specific Puerto Rican terrorist for her role as a layman in the church, a woman who lived in Chicago named Alejandrina Torres. Why? Because Congressman Barr had seen Ms. Torres plying her trade -- on an FBI surveillance tape.

Believe it or not (no comment here), Ms. Torres was -- sigh -- the wife of a UCC minister, Jose A. Torres. From Chicago. She has served in fact as both a teacher and officer of the First Congregational Church of Chicago -- where her husband is the retired Pastor. What was Ms. Torres of Chicago and Puerto Rico doing on this surveillance tape? Why, she was making a bomb. Yes, you read that right. The wife of a minister of the United Church of Christ was making a bomb. For this she served 16 years in the federal pen before being handed Clinton clemency. She has also been the subject of a laudatory film narrated by Susan Sarandon, the great American actress whose political addiction to the thuggish is considerably less admirable. Did I mention the plaudits for this UCC honoree from the Marxist-Leninist Daily -- Internet Edition? The paper that bills itself as the "Daily On-Line Newspaper of the Communist Party of Canada (Marxist-Leninist)"?

But I digress.

Here is the exchange over Alejandrina Torres between the UCC's Reverend Dr. Dipko and Congressman Barr:

MR. BARR. Were you here earlier when we showed the tape of this honored--

REV. DIPKO. Yes, I was.

MR. BARR. That didn't impress you at all? You still believe this is an honored person?

REV. DIPKO. That tape would have to have a lot more unpacking for me to understand where it came from and the circumstances under which it were made.

MR. BARR. Let's look at it anyway.
[The videotape was played.]

MR. BARR. The woman at the bottom is your honoree, Alejandrina Torrez. They are manufacturing bombs designed to kill, maim, injure and destroy property.

REV. DIPKO. If that is an accurate record of the happening and that is in fact what she was doing, the church would wish to, of course, disassociate from it.

MR. BARR. In other words, she would no longer be considered an honored person?

REV. DIPKO. I would think so.

MR. BARR. Thank you.


The church did not disassociate itself, of course. As a matter of fact, the UCC's Executive Minister for Justice and Witness Ministries, M. Linda Jaramillo, praised the UCC's favorite bomb maker as "one of my role models," adding that she "truly, truly" admires Ms. Torres.

Follow me now. Let's move on to the art world. Specifically an art exhibit called "Not Enough Space" that made a splash when it was featured at the Cleveland headquarters of the United Church of Christ in November of 2006. Since Picasso was unavailable, the exhibit focused on the work of two "artists" by the name of Oscar Lopez Rivera and Carlos Alberto Torres. Who are they? Well, Mr. Torres (yes, he is related to Alejandrina Torres) was, until his capture, the subject of some artwork himself. Photo art. His picture graced the FBI's Ten Most Wanted List. He rejected a Clinton clemency offer, so convinced of his righteousness, thus his artwork was painted behind bars. Mr. Rivera, who also refused clemency, is serving 55 years for his involvement in over two dozen bombings in the Chicago area.

What was said by the host of this event, the UCC's current President John Thomas? Well, he was just tickled pink to have the art work of these two fine men on display at UCC headquarters. The invitation sent out represented Messrs. Rivera and Torres as "serving long prison terms for acts and beliefs in favor of Puerto Rican independence." There was no mention at all of precisely what kinds of "acts and beliefs" but according to the government they include artistic terms like "seditious conspiracy," "violence," "firearms," "explosives," "kill," and "injure." Welcoming his guests, Thomas described the work of the two men as "the imaginative work of Shalom." Shalom. Peace.

Reverend Thomas, always out front in the good judgment parade, is the same Reverend Thomas who has brought an IRS investigation to the UCC's door because of Senator Obama's 2007 speech to the UCC's General Synod. More recently he has been seen vehemently defending Senator Obama's now retired-UCC pastor Jeremiah Wright. No word is yet available as to whether the UCC would be sponsoring any artwork painted by the Ku Klux Klan bombers of the Birmingham, Alabama church that killed four black kids back in 1963 or any captured al Qaeda types. But never say never.

REMEMBER MY EARLIER anecdote about the Reverend Sherry and Judge Bork? My protest directly to President Sherry over the conduct of my church leadership and the change that resulted? As a church member, I was fully aware that I could do something to change church policy because in fact the president of the UCC does not have the standing of, say, the Pope in the Catholic Church. Members not only can make a difference, they are, within their local churches, the ultimate authority. Yes, being in the White House helped get Sherry's attention. But I knew enough about the faith of my fathers to know that 1) the national church did not in any way speak for all rank and file members, and 2) I could change the policy if I acted.

So the questions for Senator Obama, who certainly as not only a member but a prominent member could get the kind of attention from the UCC leadership that would bring change, would be these:

* Do you agree with the UCC's position on FALN? Do you agree with the Reverend Paul Sherry, the then-President of the UCC, that these terrorists should have been granted clemency?

* How about the honoring by the UCC of your Chicago constituent Alejandrina Torres? Should a maker of bombs, caught on a surveillance tape, be honored by our mutual church in any form or fashion? Do you or your wife Michelle share with the Reverend Linda Jaramillo an admiration for Ms. Torres as a "role model"?

* Do you or your wife know Ms. Torres, have you met her or had any contact with her in any form? Has she or her husband or any of their associates been supporters of your campaigns for state senator, Congress, the United States Senate or the presidency?

* Have you ever met Ms. Torres's husband and worshiped in the UCC church where he was a pastor?

* Have you ever at any time led or participated in a movement within the UCC to change the policies of the national leadership on FALN or, for that matter, anything else?

* Do you think President Clinton did the right thing pardoning these people? (Hmmm, come to think of it, there may be another candidate in this race who has some insight on the Clinton administration and FALN pardons. As a matter of fact...no, never mind. Ms. Burlingame's piece on the subject covers that ground.)

* Would you, as president of the United States, pardon those terrorists still behind bars?

It is very safe to say that the United Church of Christ is going to prove to be a veritable field of political landmines for Obama.

Stay tuned.

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About the Author
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com.