A good friend of mine worked at Planned Parenthood on the West Coast a few years ago. Though she was and still is fiercely pro-choice, she eventually left the clinic because administering abortions, even early ones, was too emotionally and mentally taxing for her. It never occurred to me that her job might have put her in physical danger, or that the protesters she encountered daily (it was a conservative town, after all) might have had some sort of impact on her decision to leave. In fact, she never even mentioned the picket lines to me. I spoke to her last night and asked if she’d ever felt at risk while working at the clinic. She told me she always felt safe. She also asked me not to mention her name in this piece.
Of course, my friend worked at Planned Parenthood during the Bush administration, which enacted the first federal law criminalizing second-trimester abortions and which went so far as to define birth control as abortion. The pro-life movement was getting what it wanted, and according to the National Abortion Federation, the number of reported death threats, clinic bombings, and attempted murders of clinic employees decreased between 2001 and 2008.
That all changed when, after losing control of the House in 2006, the right lost both the Senate and the White House last November. Since then, there has been an uptick in rightwing extremist violence. Threats against abortion providers reportedly spiked in January and have continued to increase throughout the first half of the year, coming to national attention less than two weeks ago with the murder of Dr. George Tiller, a Kansas physician who performed legal late abortions and who was gunned down in his own church by Scott Roeder, a known member of the anti-abortion movement. Tiller became the first death at the hands of anti-abortion extremists in 11 years—and the eighth since Roe vs. Wade.
It’s important to call Tiller’s murder, and the thousands of other acts of violence, vandalism, burglaries, kidnappings, stalkings, threats, and mischief that have taken place in the name of the anti-abortion movement, what they are: acts of domestic terrorism. Indeed, Tiller’s murder was a political act, as was the shooting of a security guard at the National Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. yesterday. James von Brunn is a white supremacist, an anti-Semite, and a Holocaust denier; he is also a convicted felon, which means the .22-caliber rifle he used to murder Stephen Tyrone Johns, who had worked at the museum for six years, was obtained illegally.
Both Roeder and von Brunn were seemingly lone wolves, but they are part of a larger movement of rightwing extremism that has emerged from the dark, shadowy corners of this country in recent months and which was accurately and prudently forecasted by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis earlier this year. The report, unambiguously titled “Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment,” cited a perfect storm of economic hard times, the election of a black president, the promise of social change, and the return of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans susceptible to the recruitment of white-power militias, as grounds for the alert. It was eloquently referred to as a “piece of crap report” by the likes of this piece of crap blogger, and DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano was forced to issue an apologia of sorts—despite the fact that the study was started during the previous administration.
That Roeder and von Brunn may have been lone wolves does not absolve others in the ideological groups to which they belong from culpability. Anti-abortion organizations with which Roeder is affiliated are indeed responsible. Operation Rescue—whose founder, Randall Terry, claimed that the anti-abortion movement was not responsible for Tiller’s murder and then in the same breath proclaimed that the doctor “reaped what he sowed”—claims that Roeder has never been a member, contributor, or volunteer for their organization. But convicted terrorist and current Operation Rescue senior policy advisor Cheryl Sullenger has admitted to having multiple phone conversations with Roeder about Dr. Tiller. According to Rachel Maddow, who has admirably refused to let the story die while most mainstream news outlets have, Operation Rescue kept tabs on Tiller both on its website and on Sullenger’s Twitter account. And as is evidently the practice of many anti-abortion groups, the organization posted the addresses for both Tiller’s private home and church on its website. His church. What other purpose would it serve to post that information other than to furnish activists and extremists—that is, would-be assassins—with the necessary information to commit their crimes?
And crimes are exactly what these people are committing. In a piece for Air America, “Dr. George Tiller Didn’t Have to Die,” Amy Goodman detailed Roeder’s offenses, including gluing shut the doors of a nearby clinic twice during the week leading up to Tiller’s death, and suggested that simple law enforcement could have prevented the gruesome murder. Both Goodman and Maddow have called attention to the federal Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act (FACE), which makes blocking or damaging an abortion clinic’s entrance a federal crime. FACE went largely unenforced under George W. Bush and clearly remains ineffective today.
Last night, Michigan representative Mike Rogers told Chris Matthews that crimes by fringe extremists like Roeder and von Brunn have “no connection to mainstream politics.” But the rhetoric that propels, emboldens, and even creates these monsters comes directly from the mouths of the Republican establishment. Bill O’Reilly made repeated reference to “Tiller the Baby Killer” on his TV show, claiming that the doctor “execut[ed] babies about to be born,” and compared his practice to the slaughter of the Jews in Nazi Germany. Von Brunn believes that Barack Obama isn’t an American citizen, that—according to his own website—the president was “sent” to the United States to further the “Jew/Negro” agenda. In February, Alabama Senator Richard Shelby questioned Obama’s citizenship, telling a local resident “I haven’t seen any birth certificate. You have to be born in America to be president.” And as recently as this week, the unofficial “Voice of the GOP,” Rush Limbaugh, declared that the only thing Obama has in common with God is that “neither of them has a birth certificate.”
This kind of incendiary race baiting and hate speech might be good entertainment, but it makes for risky politics. And it puts human lives at risk. Those on the left have been gleeful that the GOP is drumming itself out of the mainstream, but the right has been incessantly drumming a dangerously bigoted beat for months, propagating the kind of myths, lies, and conspiracy theories on which those on the outer fringes feed, breed, and kill.
This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.