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Researching the Right for Progressive Changemakers

Reproductive Justice: Violence

The Murder of Dr. George Tiller
Militant Anti-Abortion Activity, the Patriot Movement, & the Christian Right

PHOTO: Dr. George Tiller's Wichita clinic was the target of continuing demonstrations by Operation Rescue dating to August 1991 and its massive "Summer of Mercy" protests.

The recent killing of Dr. George Tiller, an abortion provider who has been targeted by anti-abortion activists for decades, has prompted a reexamination of the motivations for violence against clinics and providers. Some anti-abortion activists respond to the slogan, “If abortion is murder, then act like it” by engaging in non-violent demonstrations or civil disobedience, but others feel that performing abortions justifies a violent response. This small subset of the anti-abortion movement sometimes intersects with people who deeply oppose what they see as government intrusion, especially by liberal policies, into their lives. This web resource is intended to shed light on the complex relationships between thought and action behind the assassination.

Guest Commentary: Killing for Life Returns

Posted June 3, 2009

The murder of Dr. George Tiller in Kansas raises again the question of what it means to defend life through killing. When militant antiabortionists began bombing clinics and shooting doctors in the 1980s and 1990s, law enforcement officials looked for some conspiracy among the perpetrators. They did not find conspiracy. What they needed to look for was a cultural explanation for how members of a movement dedicated to defending life began to kill for life.

PRA Senior Analyst Chip Berlet and Public Eye magazine contributor Fred Clarkson speak about the murder on this Democracy Now video.

Listen to Chip Berlet in a radio interview by Dori Smith on TalkNationRadio.

Statement From Political Research Associates

June 1, 2009

The anti-abortion movement harbors within it a subculture of militant activists who believe the slogan, “If abortion is murder, then act like it” says Pam Chamberlain, senior researcher at PRA “For some this means attending demonstrations or engaging in acts of civil disobedience; for others it means committing murder.” Many of these activists are motivated by their religious beliefs, but there are other factors involved as well.

The election of Barack Obama traumatized whole sections of the U.S. Right. Right-wing media demagogues have been quick to exploit this angry constituency by using rhetoric that demonizes not just Obama and the Democrats but liberal ideology itself. Using the rhetoric of Right-Wing populism, opportunistic pundits and politicians portray liberal government programs as picking the pockets of hard-working taxpayers to help undeserving poor people, lazy parasites, and unlawful immigrants.

By using the tools of fear, irresponsible public figures are cultivating an aggressive constituency comprised of people who feel that militant action is justified, because in their view the Obama administration has shut them out of the political process.

“The current political environment is awash with seemingly absurd but nonetheless influential conspiracy theories, hyperbolic claims, and demonized targets,” explains Chip Berlet, senior analyst at PRA, “and this creates a milieu where violence is a likely outcome.”

Periods of right-wing populism in the United States often emerge during times of political, economic, or social stress, generating movements in which White men who feel displaced and ignored blame their sense of loss on targeted scapegoats. “This frequently happens when elections favor the Political Left and the society is seen as moving towards greater social equality or away from traditional societal hierarchies,” says Berlet. “In this scenario it is easier for right-wing demagogues to successfully demonize liberals as abandoning morality and crafting a tyrannical New World Order.

“Today targeted scapegoats include not only liberals but also immigrants, Muslims, gay people, and abortion rights activists,” says Berlet, co-author of the award-winning book Right-Wing Populism in America. In the 1990s, there was a significant overlap between the Patriot Movement and the anti-abortion movement

In late 1994 John C. Salvi III who trained with a militia group in Florida, launched an armed attack in which Boston abortion clinic workers were killed or wounded. Salvi later cited obscure economic and religious theories popular in the Patriot Movement, armed citizens militia, and “Constitutionalist” movement including the Montana Freeman.

“This is not the time to undermine free speech or civil liberties,” says Tarso Ramos, Director of Political Research Associates. “Yet we must hold accountable the media pundits and political actors who through campaigns of exaggeration and deceit have created an atmosphere where some among the many anxious and angry people are bound to conclude there is no option available but to turn to violence. Likewise, we must hold accountable those civic leaders and media companies who stand by silently as this environment grows evermore toxic to democracy.”

Toxic to Democracy
How the Tools of Fear Can Lead to Violence

Right-wing media pundits and politicians have been using the Tools of Fear: dualism, demonization, scapegoating, aggressive apocalypticism, and conspiracy theories. This create a volitile environment where some people mobilized by this demagogy decide to turn to violence. Conspiracy theories about the Obama administration and his "liberal" allies betraying the country contribute to this dangerous dynamic.

A few days after the inauguration came a warning that Obama planned to impose martial law and collect all guns. The first clues of the impending tyranny would involve changes in traffic laws and signage. Many of these false claims recall those floated by right-wing conspiracy theorists in the armed citizens Militia Movement during the Clinton administration – allegations that percolated up through the media hierarchy and were utilized by Republican political operatives to hobble the legislative agenda of the Democratic Party.

While conspiracists tell compelling stories, they frequently create dangerous conditions as these stories can draw from pre-existing stereotypes and prejudices. Cynical movement leaders then can hyperbolize false claims in a way that mobilizes overt forms of discrimination. People who believe conspiracist allegations sometimes act on those irrational beliefs, and this has concrete consequences in the real world. Angry allegations can quickly turn into aggression and violence targeting scapegoated groups.

From Toxic to Democracy, by Chip Berlet, a report to be released this week.

Militant Anti-abortion Activism, the Militia Movement and Christian Patriotism

"The decade old cross-fertilization between militant anti-abortion activism, the militia movement and Christian Patriotism in the 1990s continues into the new century..."

--Frederick Clarkson, 2001

For example, longtime Operation Rescue militants Joe Foreman and Bruce Murch founded a community near Roanoke, Virginia that engaged in paramilitary training. In Idaho, a militia group emerged, that made abortion a high priority and featured a fairly sophisticated website. This group, the Freedom Fighter Militia, was typical of a new style and network of militia groups in the loate 1990s that seemed to hybridize the contemporary Christian Right and the old style Christian Patriots. The Roanoke-based Virginia Citizens Militia encapsulated this confluence when it declared:

We believe in conservative Judeo-Christian values and constitutional rights!! We know that abortion and homosexuality are the greatest moral evils of our day! All men should be like `Promise Keepers' because a strong Christian family equals a strong Virginia." They also claim to be open to anyone regardless of race, gender or religious orientation.

Read More by jumping into the relevant section of the Clarkson article...
John C. Salvi III and Possible Similarities to the Tiller Murder

Anti-Abortion Violence and the Patriot & Militia Movements

The text below is from From Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort, by Chip Berlet and Matthew N. Lyons:

The gun used by Salvi was modified in a way favored by some militia members. Detailed instructions for these modifications were for sale at the Burlington Patriot meeting, as well as in Massachusetts gun stores and gun shows, where Patriot material was easily obtained...

Magazines found in Salvi’s residence included The New American and The Fatima Crusader, both published by right-wing groups promoting conspiracist theories and vociferously opposing abortion and homosexuality. One issue of The New American found in John Salvi’s possession contained an article by Charles E. Rice exploring the idea that killing an abortion provider might be morally justified. One does not find issues of The New American or The Fatima Crusader, or material from Human Life International, at the corner newsstand. They are circulated mainly within a distinctly right-wing con­spiracist subculture. This is a subculture where apocalyptic demonization, scapegoating, and conspiracism are rampant.

Read More of this chapter...

Salvi and Catholic Right Conspiracism

While Salvi clearly showed signs of emotional disturbance, his view of himself as a crusader against an evil conspiracy was rooted in the small but militant wings of the Catholic and Protestant anti-abortion movements. It is still difficult for many people to see the political side of the Salvi case. There is still a widespread lack of knowledge about the beliefs of the right wing conspiracist subculture--and there is still an attitude of denial that groups promoting conspiratorial worldviews have growing influence in our political system.


Civil Liberties
Economic Justice
LGBT Equity
Racial Justice
Reproductive Justice
The Christian Right
Foreign Policy/Right Web

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