You probably don’t need me to fill in the details of the latest shooting rampage in gun-sick America. This time, the target was a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado. After a multi-hour gun battle with police, the attacker was captured alive, but not before he’d killed a police officer and two civilians.
By now, these slaughters are a drearily familiar story. Other than the city and the number of people killed, they all follow pretty much the same template, and all you have to do is fill in the blanks. But there’s one thing that sets this story apart. Unlike mass shootings that are purely random, or those that grow out of some personal grievance, this one seems to be the rare case with explicitly political motives. While it’s still early to draw any definite conclusions, preliminary reports indicate the shooter was acting out of anti-choice beliefs:
In one statement, made after the suspect was taken in for questioning, Dear said “no more baby parts” in reference to Planned Parenthood, two law enforcement sources with knowledge of the case told NBC News.
This language is more than a little reminiscent of the latest deceptive criticism of Planned Parenthood, and specifically of Republican candidate Carly Fiorina’s delusional, unbending insistence on having seen a non-existent video of a live fetus being vivisected for parts. If these reports are borne out, the anti-choice rhetoric of politicians has been taken up by a man who used it as a justification for murder.
As you might imagine, the religious right feels a queasy tinge of cognitive dissonance at the comparison, and they tried mightily to deflect attention from it. Fox News and other conservative outlets initially reported that the shooting was a bank robbery gone wrong, and angrily denounced liberals who said otherwise. But as more details trickled in, it became increasingly likely that the thing we’d been dreading was true: this was a deliberate act of anti-choice terrorism.
It’s a depressing commentary on the state of reproductive rights in America that the bloodshed was probably less because Planned Parenthood was prepared for it. They’re threatened so often that their staff is trained on what to do in case of an armed assault, and many clinics have panic rooms and other security measures. That training doubtless saved lives on Friday, but the fact that clinics need to adopt this siege mentality is a sign of how out-of-control and lawless anti-choice rhetoric has become. What other kind of organization has to take such extreme measures to protect its employees and its customers?
It seems inevitable that a terrorist will get the benefit of the doubt if he’s a white man, and the media didn’t disappoint. In one story, the alleged shooter was described as “adrift and alienated“, while another piece even more incomprehensibly described him as a “gentle loner“. This is a consistent pattern: when the guilty party is a white Christian, domestic terrorism is treated as random and causeless, committed by isolated and mentally unstable lone wolves, whereas Muslim terrorists are invariably assumed to be sinister agents in thrall to a larger evil conspiracy.
The truth is that Christianist terrorism, like Islamist terrorism, doesn’t spring out of nowhere. Both are alike: they’re born in the absolutist worldview of religious fundamentalism, nurtured by leaders who work hard to cultivate hatred and rage in their followers, and fed by the adulation of the masses who don’t commit violence themselves but lionize those who do. In that hothouse environment, it’s inevitable that a few will be tipped over the edge. Whether it’s Christians who shoot at abortion clinics or Muslims who strap on suicide belts, the mindset is the same. Valerie Tarico calls this “stochastic terrorism” in an excellent post about the too-long history of murders, bombings, arson attacks and other violence against clinics and doctors, which I’ve also written about in “Christian Terrorism“.
And it’s not just over abortion, either. The exact same process of radicalization feeds xenophobia and anti-immigrant violence:
"I only know what I hear on Fox News and what I hear on radio," says man who set fire to Ohio mosque. https://t.co/V4BAhRgiFO
— Gretchen Koch (@GretchenKoch) November 29, 2015
There are real consequences when politicians and demagogues spew these apocalyptic fantasies. When they whip up fear and prejudice for their own purposes, this is the collateral damage that inevitably results. But as long as the media and popular discourse doesn’t connect the dots, they get away with it.
Better security at clinics isn’t the answer. Even tighter gun laws wouldn’t put an end to campaigns of harassment and intimidation. The real solution to Christian anti-choice terrorism is to recognize that these aren’t isolated events but fit into a larger web of violent and reckless rhetoric. When we hold politicians responsible for the harm their words have wrought – when we shame and reject them as they deserve for spreading hateful lies, instead of rewarding them for it – only on that day will this cease to be a tactic. As Jessica Valenti says:
When we dehumanize people – when we call them demons, monsters, and murderers – we make it easier for others to do them harm. Let’s not pretend that we don’t know that.