In the wake of a murderous rampage at a Colorado Springs, Colorado, Planned Parenthood affiliate on Friday, there is a debate about whether political invective targeting Planned Parenthood bears any blame. Republicans, naturally, insist it does not.
Ted Cruz blasted “vicious rhetoric on the left blaming those who are pro-life.” He further suggested, apparently based on a report that suspect Robert Lewis Dear once registered to vote as a woman, that the killer could be a “transgendered leftist activist.” Carly Fiorina described attempts to link anti–Planned Parenthood rhetoric to anti–Planned Parenthood violence as “typical left-wing tactics.” When Meet the Press’ Chuck Todd asked Donald Trump whether “the rhetoric got out of hand on Planned Parenthood,” Donald Trump replied, referring to Dear, “No, I think he’s a sick person.” Trump proceeded to demonize Planned Parenthood for selling fetal organs “like you’re selling parts to a car.”
These denials are ridiculous. Since July, when the Center for Medical Progress began releasing videos purporting to show that Planned Parenthood profits from fetal remains, there’s been an “unprecedented escalation in hate speech and threats against abortion providers,” says Vicki Saporta, president of the National Abortion Federation. Over the summer, her group met with the Department of Justice’s National Task Force on Violence Against Health Care Providers, which was established by Janet Reno after a rash of anti-abortion murders in the 1990s. “We’re turning over the threats we’ve uncovered to them for their investigation and handling,” Saporta says. “Quite frankly, the threats and hate speech and posts have been too numerous for our staff to keep up with.”
And not just threats: There have been four arson attacks against abortion clinics since July. In October, someone smashed up a New Hampshire Planned Parenthood with a hatchet. “We have rewards being put out for the murder of doctors,” Saporta says. In late July, the Center for Medical Progress released a video that included footage of Savita Ginde, medical director of Planned Parenthood Rocky Mountain, the affiliate that the Colorado Springs clinic is part of. Shortly after, according to a National Abortion Federation court filing, about 50 protesters showed up at Ginde’s home, “holding signs stating ‘Planned Parenthood sells baby parts,’ and leaving fliers around her neighborhood claiming in massive print that ‘Savita Ginde Murders Children.’ ”
It’s ludicrous to suggest that this climate of incitement can be separated from a disturbed man shooting up a Colorado Planned Parenthood and then telling police, “No more baby parts.” Certainly, unlike previous anti-abortion murderers, Dear doesn’t appear to be closely tied to the anti-abortion movement. From what we know so far, he seems like an unbalanced loner with a host of right-wing preoccupations (handing out anti-Obama fliers in his neighborhood, ranting online about the end times). But this doesn’t mean he wasn’t caught up in the anti–Planned Parenthood fervor that’s lately been stoked by the right.
“He may very well be an unstable lunatic,” says Brian Levin, head of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. “But so too are a decent portion of those who commit terrorism across the ideological spectrum. When we have folks from other ideologies, we concentrate on the ideology first, not on their mental instability. So it’s a bit of a shell game.”
Levin is not a liberal partisan. A former cop, he studies extremists of all stripes, from radical Islamists to animal liberationists, and trains law enforcement in dealing with ideologically motivated violence. “Terrorism is symbolic,” he says. “Whether it’s unstable right-wing males or ISIS, symbols are important. It’s no accident that in the folklore of whatever extremist movement you’re talking about, certain targets are identified as primary sources of evil. That’s what makes this kind of attack different from a random attack.”
Only recently has Planned Parenthood become such a symbol of evil in the right-wing imagination. In the past, the targets of anti-abortion murders were usually specific doctors, not Planned Parenthood as an institution. Barnett Slepian, who was assassinated by a sniper’s bullet in his own kitchen in 1998, had been singled out by the anti-abortion movement for years. So was George Tiller, who was murdered in 2009 after surviving a previous assassination attempt in 1993.
The closest analogue to Dear is probably John Salvi, who shot up a Massachusetts Planned Parenthood in 1994, murdering receptionist Shannon Lowney; he then proceeded to another, non–Planned Parenthood clinic, where he shot receptionist Lee Ann Nichols while shouting, “This is what you get! You should pray the rosary!” But Salvi was motivated by general radical anti-abortion sentiment, not by a specific conspiracy theory about Planned Parenthood.
“What is so frightening now is that Planned Parenthood is the place where crazy people act out their grievances,” says Carole Joffe, a sociologist at the University of California–Davis and author of the 2010 book Dispatches From the Abortion Wars. “Any Planned Parenthood is at risk. Planned Parenthood now represents everything the right wing hates.”
Naturally, abortion opponents will argue that it is unfair to hold them responsible for what crazy people do on behalf of their ideology. Liberals, after all, vehemently oppose blaming all Muslims for Islamist terror. We’re horrified when conservatives such as Cruz link the Black Lives Matter movement to the murder of police. Dear’s killing spree does not invalidate criticism of Planned Parenthood. (Though I’d argue that most of the criticism is invalid for other reasons.) But it defies common sense to insist that there is no connection between political rhetoric and political violence—to insist, essentially, that there is no such thing as incitement—particularly when there is a history of anti-abortion murder that goes back more than 20 years.
When Cruz proudly accepts the endorsement of Operation Rescue president Troy Newman, a man who has called for abortion providers to be executed, that sends a message about what is politically acceptable. When Fiorina says, falsely, that the Center for Medical Progress has video from a Planned Parenthood showing “a fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking, while someone says, 'We have to keep it alive to harvest its brain,’ ” some people are going to believe her and believe that drastic action is necessary. When Bill O’Reilly compares Planned Parenthood to Nazis, we shouldn’t be surprised that some people conclude that taking up arms against it is permissible.
“Activists and people of good will in a civilized democracy have an obligation to undertake difficult positions on moral issues that they feel strongly about,” Levin says. But they also, he says, “need to be unmistakably clear in rejecting the extremists who try to carry their banner. And it should be done before we have someone shooting up a clinic, not afterwards.”