Would you use the word terrorist there?

Politics, Presidential Elections, US culture, US Elections, US Politics

The news addicts among you will already have seen this one:

Think Progress has the transcript:

[BRIAN WILLIAMS]: Is an abortion clinic bomber a terrorist, under this definition, governor?

PALIN: (Sigh). There’s no question that Bill Ayers via his own admittance was one who sought to destroy our U.S. Capitol and our Pentagon. That is a domestic terrorist. There’s no question there. Now, others who would want to engage in harming innocent Americans or facilities that uh, it would be unacceptable. I don’t know if you’re going to use the word terrorist there.

“Have we really reached the point at which the Republican ticket wants to parse the meaning of the word “terrorist”?,” Steve Benen asks at the Washington Monthly. He also wonders, “does John McCain, who sat silently during the exchange, agree with this?”, before answering his own question: “Actually, he might. ThinkProgress noted a couple of weeks ago that McCain has “repeatedly voted against protecting Americans from domestic terrorists carrying out violence at abortion clinics.”

Violence against abortion providers, fig. 1

Violence against abortion providers, fig. 1, based on NAF data.

What kind of views does Palin’s take spring from? How widespread has the anti-abortion strand of domestic terrorism been? Are there any trends?

Maybe Palin’s reluctance to call an abortion clinic bomber a terrorist has something to do with her radical views on abortion, which she blithely ascribes to McCain as well. James Dobson of Focus on the Family asked Sarah a couple of days ago whether McCain really, really believes in the Republican platform’s planks on life and marriage; would he implement it once elected? She answered, Marc Ambinder notes: “I do, from the bottom of my heart. I am such a strong believer that McCain believes in those strong planks and we do have good conversations about some of the details too, about the different planks and what they represent.” What you have to realise here is that implementing the 2008 GOP platform, as Ambinder explains, would involve “support[ing] a constitutional amendment to ban all abortion (including those cases where the mother was raped or was the victim of incest), a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, and [opposing] government-sponsored embryonic stem cell research.”

All of those positions are things McCain opposed before. And yet Palin is ascribing support for them to him; and yet he just sits there as she prevaricates about whether abortion clinic bombers are even terrorists at all. It’s a pretty sad spectacle. He has hostaged himself out to the fundies, and all he has to show for it is an 8-point deficit in the polls.

Meanwhile, Kos blogger Meteor Blades notes, “The anti-choice terrorists didn’t warn Dr. Barnett Slepian and Robert Sanderson (killed in 1998) or Dr. Jack Fainman and another unnamed physician (wounded in 1997) or Dr. Hugh Short (wounded in 1995) or Dr. John Bayard Britton, James H. Barrett, Shannon Lowney and Leanne Nichols (killed in 1994) or Dr. Garson Romalis and five others (wounded in 1994) or Dr. David Gunn (killed in 1993) or Dr. George Tiller (wounded in 1993).”

The National Abortion Federation has the statistics. There have been seven murders and fifteen attempted murders of abortion clinic staff and physicians since 1993. Two kidnappings and a full 90 cases of assault and battery. Fourteen abortion clinic bombings, 74 cases of arson and another 41 cases of attempted bombing or arson. 110 burglaries and 506 cases of stalking, though those have rapidly diminished after 1997. In 1993 and 1998 there were spikes of 15 and 19 attacks with butyric acid; “a clear, colorless liquid with an unpleasant, rancid, vomit-like odor,” which can linger for years even once you have replaced carpeting and furniture. (See figures 1, 2 and 3.)


Violence against abortion providers, fig. 2, based on NAF data.

The NAF has the stories too: “Dr. Barnett Slepian was shot and killed in his home in Amherst, New York [..]. Shannon Lowney and Leanne Nichols were shot and killed [..] at two clinics in Brookline, Massachusetts. Five others were injured in the attacks. [..] Dr. John Bayard Britton and his escort, James H. Barrett were shot and killed in front of a clinic in Pensacola, Florida [..].” Or: “Peter Howard, a local activist, put 13 gas cans and 3 propane tanks in his truck and drove it through the clinic door.”

It’s worth noting that some of the perpetrators cast a wider net: “Eric Robert Rudolph pled guilty and is serving a life sentence for the bombings at Olympic Park, a gay bar, and two abortion clinics”. “Benjamin Matthew Williams and James Tyler Williams pled guilty [to an abortion clinic arson] and were sentenced to 21-30 years in jail for this fire and three synagogue arsons.”

Different forms of attacks had their day: when butyric acid went out of fashion, anthrax threat letters became en vogue (554 cases in 2001). Attackers were often young, and were sentenced as juvenile offender or charged as an adult at age 17. There’s little pattern in the geography of it: the last four cases of extreme violence took place in New Mexico, Virginia, Florida and Washington. Earlier cases took place everywhere from New York to South Dakota.

To paraphrase Palin, would you use the word terrorism here?


Violence against abortion providers, fig. 3, based on NAF data.

There is one piece of comfort here: for now, the listings read like they are increasingly a part of history. No murder has been attempted in seven years. Cases of arson have dropped significantly since 1999. Death threats had their heyday in the mid-nineties, though there’s still about a dozen every year.

The problem isn’t solved: burglaries were up the last couple of years, so are cases of assault and battery. But there hasn’t been a bombing since 2001.

That in itself immediately suggests one of three explanations. After 9/11, these “patriots” who had a thing for bombing abortion clinics and putting the lives of physicians and nurses at risk probably felt less comfortable with going around planting bombs. It just didn’t fit the zeitgeist anymore. The slight increase of some forms of “pro-life” terror since 2005 may suggest that this effect is waning.

Two other explanations come to mind, though. One’s hopeful. Maybe the tide of the most violent manifestations of the culture war has just ebbed. There’s a whole new generation now. Polls show that abortion is as contentious an issue among young people as always. But the equanimity with which youth voters, and voters in general, have shrugged off McCain’s appeal to culture war memes this year maybe suggests that they aren’t quite as likely to push people over the edge anymore. Things change.

You could speculate on a more troubling correlation though, one to do with how this kind of domestic terrorism appears to have peaked in the early and mid-nineties. An era, in short, when conservatives were faced with a man being elected President who embodied, in their perception, everything they were against. When they were faced, also, with a looming sense that they were losing the culture wars against a new generation (the baby-boomers), which seemed about to wrest the cultural and political authority they had won in the Reagan years from their hands.

There’s an unnerving parallel there, but that’s for another blog post.

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