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Tiller Killing Spurs Renewed Calls for US to Reverse Longstanding Passivity on Anti-Abortion Extremists

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To many critics, the murder of Dr. George Tiller, the eighth abortion provider to be killed since 1977, highlights the US government’s refusal to take seriously the threat of domestic right-wing, anti-abortion extremists. We speak to author and journalist Frederick Clarkson, who has written extensively on anti-abortion violence, and Chip Berlet, senior analyst at Political Research Associates and co–author of Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to turn now to look more at the anti-abortion movement. We’re going to Chicopee, Massachusetts, joined by the researcher Frederick Clarkson, who’s written extensively on anti-abortion violence since the ’90s, the author of many books, the latest called Dispatches from the Religious Left: The Future of Faith and Politics in America. His latest article on the Tiller murder was published on Women’s eNews and is called “Beware ‘Lone Nut’ Theory in Tiller’s Murder.”

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Fred Clarkson. You’ve been listening to this broadcast, watching the broadcast. Does any of this surprise you? And what do you mean by the “beware” of “the ‘lone nut’ theory”?

FREDERICK CLARKSON: Well, no, it doesn’t surprise me at all. It’s typical in the major crimes that I’ve looked into around anti-abortion violence over the years, where people case out locations. And they also increase their level of activism, including the degrees of their crimes. So, gluing a lock and doing things repeatedly over a period of time is not only a violation of the FACE law, it’s an indication of an escalation of activity around violent anti — and potentially violent anti-abortion activists.

But the other part of it is that we have a tendency in society, where heinous crimes are committed, to think of somebody as crazy and acting alone. With the history of anti-abortion violence and major crimes is that typically people are neither nuts or alone. They’re actually pretty well-planned crimes. You have to do a great deal of intelligence gathering, casing out a place, knowing locations. In the case of Dr. Tiller, he was known for wearing a bulletproof vest, for example, as most abortion providers do because of the constant threat and danger to their lives. So a headshot would be key to doing a death blow to any abortion provider, if you were serious about trying to get him.

AMY GOODMAN: But this issue of the “lone nut” theory that you’re saying beware of, talk more about this.

FREDERICK CLARKSON: Well, it’s easy to look at people as isolated individuals, when they’re usually operating in a context. It’s easy for people, for example, to have lots of degrees of assistance. For example, Shelly Shannon, who did the attempted assassination of Dr. Tiller in 1993, one of the precipitary factors to the FACE law, was on a crime spree all over the West for months and years doing arsons and butyric acid attacks. That’s the chemical attack that creates a powerful, unbelievable stench that just clears out buildings. And she would have — she had a network of safe houses, including one where a couple provided gas cans. And it was kind of a “don’t ask, don’t tell” situation, where the less people know about what you’re doing, the better it is for everyone. And there’s an extensive network of support for itinerant clinic protesters, some of whom turn out to be violent criminals in this way. So, history has shown that there are always these concentric circles of support, some witting and some unwitting, of people who participate in these kinds of crimes.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re also joined by Democracy Now! video stream by the senior analyst at Political Research Associates, Chip Berlet, joining us from Boston, co-author of Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort and editor of Eyes Right!: Challenging the Right Wing Backlash.

You begin your piece, Chip, with “The anti-abortion movement harbors within it a subculture of militant activists who believe the slogan, ‘If abortion is murder, then act like it.’” Explain how this fits into this picture.

CHIP BERLET: Well, it’s essentially the same thing that Fred’s been saying. It has to do with the fact that there is this social movement, this overlapping network of social movements, that the anti-abortion activists in the 1990s began to merge into — and in both directions, merge into — the patriot and armed militia movement, move into the tax protest movement, and move into the white supremacist movement. And it became a very broad network of people with a wide range of ideas.

But a social movement provides for institutional support, in a sense. So, as Fred says, there are safe houses. We know that Roeder was involved in the sovereign citizen movement, like the Freemen. It’s not clear at all that he was a Freeman. But the term here is being used to talk about this package of views. They’re not really anti-government; they’re anti-equality, they’re anti-civil rights. It’s a movement that has a white supremacist understanding of the Constitution as amended. And this network, which is — the umbrella term would be the patriot movement, has all of this set of support. They have radio programs that talk about their line. You know, there’s members of Congress that parrot this line.

And it’s sometimes secular; it’s often religious. It’s totally awash with conspiracy theories about a new world order or a North American union or Obama is selling us out to UN tyranny. And the religious side is this apocalyptic understanding that argues that the Second Coming of Christ is being held up by sin in America, and the two major sins are the provision of abortion to women and gay rights.

AMY GOODMAN: You talk about the sovereign movement, the Freeman movement. I don’t know that people understand what these groups are.

CHIP BERLET: It’s tough. It’s — basically it’s an idea that came out of the Posse Comitatus, which was a racist movement that challenged the authority of the federal government as constituted. And basically, it argued that the federal courts and the state courts were misinterpreting constitutional law, and they rejected the participation in the federal government. And that’s why people like Roeder would put a license plate that was hand-drawn on their car, because they rejected the authority of both the federal and state government. So, these are people who really have decided that they’re rebelling against the laws of the United States and of the state they’re in.

And part of — this is part of a broader package, that the government is run by secret elites who are, you know, about to turn us over to jackbooted UN troops coming in black helicopters. So, you know, you have a range of beliefs here. They’re sometimes called constitutionalists. They’re — some of them are tax protesters. Some of them are survivalists. So there’s no real central organization. It’s a constellation of beliefs that are kind of a right-wing anarchism and right-wing populism.

AMY GOODMAN: Chip Berlet, this issue of — or let me put this question to Fred Clarkson. This issue of how different domestic groups are treated and the issue of domestic terrorism, whether we’re talking about animal rights groups, environmental groups, which the FBI, I think, puts at the top of their domestic terror list.

FREDERICK CLARKSON: Well, yeah. There’s been a big controversy about whether any of the anti-abortion groups should be called domestic terror organizations. There is one called the Army of God that’s an above-ground organization of largely veterans of anti-abortion violence or proponents of anti-abortion violence. And the Justice Department has decided that it’s not a terrorist organization, even though it publicly espouses crimes that could be called terrorism by any reasonable definition and has many convicted felons.

It’s —- I think for many of the same reasons that Susan was talking about earlier, law enforcement keeps an arm’s length on these kinds of things. In fairness, the Justice Department, under both Presidents Clinton and Bush, vigorously went after issues of violence using the counterterrorism task force and prevented some major crimes. But that said, area district attorneys, federal prosecutors have considerable prosecutorial discretion. So, if these groups are not defined as domestic terrorism organizations or that crimes against doctors are not viewed as terrorism, FACE is all we’ve got. And as we’ve seen, the enforcement of FACE is highly selective, to be generous.

AMY GOODMAN: Chip Berlet, what would you like to add to this?

CHIP BERLET: Well, I think in the current context of the PATRIOT Act and other repressive legislation, we have to be very careful about the use of the term “terrorism.” Arguably, if you look at the Federal Criminal Code, many active anti-abortion violence would not be classified as terrorism in some interpretations. I don’t think the issue here is urging the government to expand its repressive powers. I think that’s a mistake. I think what we have here are groups of criminals and criminal individuals who need to be pursued and prosecuted, as appropriate.

And I think it’s important to understand that, for many years, clinic violence was not treated with the same aggressive attention by the federal government and state governments as other forms of vandalism and violence. And I think that that’s because the anti-abortion movement has a very large political and religious constituency that makes it very difficult for state and federal officials to try and actually enforce the existing laws that they should be doing.

You know, under the Clinton administration, we had a hotline into the Justice Department that you could call for acts of violence or potential acts of violence, so that it wasn’t some clinic worker from Wichita or Kansas City calling a local FBI agent. It was the federal government’s Justice Department calling the local FBI agent and saying, “Get on this.” And I think that needs to be reinstituted, because, of course, it was canceled, you know, after the Democrats lost out to the Republicans. So, we know that there’s an anti-abortion constituency for many elected officials, primarily in the Republican Party, and we know that these political pressures have an effect on how aggressively criminal laws are enforced. And -—

AMY GOODMAN: We have to break.


AMY GOODMAN: But we’re going to come back to this discussion. Chip Berlet is senior analyst at Political Research Associates, joining us by Democracy Now! video stream from Boston. Frederick Clarkson on with us from Chicopee in Massachusetts, western Mass, a longtime researcher. His book, latest one, is Dispatches from the Religious Left: The Future of Faith and Politics in America.

But when we come back, I also want to play for you what Randall Terry said upon the news of the death, the murder, of Dr. Tiller. And we’re going to play, in an exclusive national broadcast, the words of Dr. Tiller, his advice to people and how he feels about what people’s roles should be on earth in their mission in their lives.

This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, the War and Peace Report. We’ll be back in a minute.



In a few minutes, one of the last speeches that Dr. George Tiller gave. But first, we’re speaking with Chip Berlet. He’s a senior analyst at Political Research Associates in Massachusetts. Also Fred Clarkson is with us from western Mass. They’re both researchers, have — longtime researching the anti-abortion movement and talking about this issue of domestic terrorism.

I wanted to play a clip of the response of Randall Terry, head of Operation Rescue, soon after learning about Dr. Tiller’s death.

    RANDALL TERRY: Pro-life leaders and the pro-life movement are not responsible for George Tiller’s death. George Tiller was a mass murderer, and, horrifically, he reaped what he sowed. Mr. Tiller’s untimely death can be a teaching moment for what child-killing is really all about and what he was doing behind those doors in his grisly trade.


The words of Operation Rescue’s Randall Terry. Frederick Clarkson, your response and final words?


Well, it’s typical Randall Terry. It’s the argument that somebody who’s practicing a legal medical practice is a mass murderer and that what happened to him is inevitable and he got what was coming to him. Randall Terry is a provocateur with a sound bite. But what he says is pretty typical of most anti-abortion or pro-life leaders in the United States, be they Catholic bishops or Rick Warren.


Your response, Chip Berlet, how Operation Rescue fits into this?

CHIP BERLET: Well, it’s very clear that the kind of agitating rhetoric that’s used by certain leaders in the pro-life movement — the anti-abortion movement, more accurately called — sets up a dynamic in which some people are more likely to act out in violence.

But this goes all the way up to a whole range of right-wing demagogues, on not just issues involving women, but racism and homophobia. And let’s name names: Glenn Beck, Ann Coulter, Sean Hannity, Lou Dobbs. These are people who are creating an environment of violence against targets that are scapegoats. And these are demagogues who may have a First Amendment right to say these things, but we have an absolute obligation as citizens in a civilized society to call them for what they are, that they’re demagogues, they’re hate-mongers, and they are setting up a situation in which some people will choose violence as the only alternative to achieve their political goals.


I want to thank you both for being with us. Chip Berlet, joining us from Boston area, a senior analyst at Political Research Associates. Fred Clarkson’s latest piece is called “Beware ‘Lone Nut’ Theory in Tiller’s Murder,” his latest book, Dispatches from the Religious Left: the Future of Faith and Politics in America.

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In 2008 Speech, Dr. Tiller Outlined Views that Underpinned Lifelong Commitment to Reproductive Rights

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