Shortly after Barack Obama was elected, the National Abortion Federation sent out a security alert to its members asking them to be on guard. “We know from experience that political losses can sometimes incite antiabortion extremists to retaliate against abortion providers,” Vicki Saporta, the president of the NAF, told me in April. Antiabortion violence had ratcheted up during the Clinton administration, when radical pro-lifers felt themselves politically disempowered. “The first murder was in ’93, and in ’94 we had four murders," Saporta said. "Then again in ’98 we had two murders.” Antiabortion violence had declined since then, but she feared a reprisal.
“This is a teaching moment,” says Randall Terry, the founder of Operation Rescue. “We can talk about what a vile, evil man [Tiller] was, and discuss all the different ways that he killed children.”
And now it’s happened. On Sunday morning, Dr. George Tiller was assassinated in the lobby of his Wichita, Kansas, church. It was the first killing of an American abortion provider since 1998, and it was even more brazen than the shooting of Dr. Barnett Slepian in his suburban kitchen 11 years ago. The man arrested for Tiller’s murder, Scott Roeder, posted at least one comment on the Web site of the antiabortion group Operation Rescue suggesting that antiabortion activists attend Tiller's church en masse. According to local news reports, he had the group’s phone number on a Post-It in his car when he was arrested. He could be a lone lunatic, but he might also be part of a movement that’s reemerging after years of relative dormancy.
People who study right-wing extremism have been worried for months that something like this might happen. In far-right circles, “there’s a sense that America has tipped and has slipped out of control and somebody better do something, with regard to abortion, gay marriage, demographic changes,” says Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. Levin is a former cop who often consults with law enforcement. He studies all sorts of movements—neo-Nazis, jihadists, and fringe environmentalists. He has no political ax to grind. But he says that lately, the climate on the far right reminds him of that which prevailed in the mid-1990s—restless, apocalyptic, and ready for action.
Earlier this spring, conservatives went into paroxysms of outrage after a leaked report from the Department of Homeland Security warned of the possibility of right-wing violence. “Paralleling the current national climate, right-wing extremists during the 1990s exploited a variety of social issues and political themes to increase group visibility and recruit new members,” the report said. “Prominent among these themes were the militia movement’s opposition to gun-control efforts, criticism of free-trade agreements (particularly those with Mexico), and highlighting perceived government infringement on civil liberties as well as white supremacists’ longstanding exploitation of social issues such as abortion, interracial crimes, and same-sex marriage.”
Many ordinary right wingers accused the DHS of defamation, and, indeed, there’s reason to be wary when the government starts investigating ideologies. Nevertheless, the DHS was on to something. In the 1990s, amid economic instability and a sense that the president was an illegitimate traitor, a violent right-wing demimonde emerged. A few people connected to it turned to terrorism. Besides violence directed at abortion clinics and doctors, there was Eric Rudolph’s Olympic bombing and the Oklahoma City bombing. Now the economy is far worse, as is the degree to which conservatives find themselves marginalized in national politics. There’s desperation in the air.
That’s especially true with regard to abortion. “They see the mainstream antiabortion leadership as being traitorous or emasculated at best,” Levin says of the radical antiabortion movement. After all, Rick Warren gave the invocation at Obama’s inauguration. Notre Dame gave him an honorary degree and invited him to speak at commencement. A recent Gallup poll showed that, for the first time ever, more Americans identify as “pro-life” than “pro-choice,” but the antiabortion movement still can’t find momentum. “They feel like their leadership is not carrying the ball on this and has basically become patsies or traitors,” says Levin.
Meanwhile Tiller, known for providing late-term abortions, had been unbowed by the relentless campaign against him. Antiabortion protesters have long singled him out personally, as they did Slepian, demonstrating in front of his home as well as his clinic. In 1985, his clinic was bombed. In 1991, Operation Rescue laid siege to his practice before moving on to Buffalo, where Slepian worked. In 1993, Tiller was shot in both arms. Antiabortion activists brought a citizen-initiated grand jury investigation against him, accusing him of violating a law governing late-term abortions, but in March he was acquitted.
In this context, says Levin, Tiller’s murder is a call to action. “I think the assassin wanted to make a statement by killing him at a church, to say that the holy act was killing this guy and ending this hypocrisy and saving babies,” he says. “He wanted to do more than just kill someone he considers an evil baby killer, wanted to send a message to friend and foe alike that hopefully there will be more.” Tiller’s assassination looks like what anarchists and far-right groups alike sometimes call the “propaganda of the deed.”
Randall Terry, the founder of Operation Rescue, is unabashed in saying that the murder could help the antiabortion movement. “This is a teaching moment,” he said when reached by phone Sunday night. “We can talk about what a vile, evil man [Tiller] was, and discuss all the different ways that he killed children. Dr. Tiller was one of the most evil men on the planet. Part of my goal is I’m going to shore up pro-life leaders to not flinch, not fear, not waver.”
Indeed, as if he was following a script written by Levin, Terry complained about the timidity of his movement’s leadership, and said he was about to unveil a 14-part television series with the Latin title, Insurrecta Nex. “It means, ‘insurrection against the slaughter of innocent people,’” says Terry. Whether or not Terry knew about Roeder, he’s clearly gearing up for something.
Levin fears that, as in the 1990s, other attacks could follow. “One thing we know about extremism is that it tends to occur with some seriality,” he says. “This was not only a single assassination. Within the movement, it was a call to arms. Whether or not it’s successful, your guess is as good as mine.”
Michelle Goldberg is the author of The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power and the Future of the World and Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism. She is a senior correspondent for The American Prospect, and her work has appeared in The New Republic, The Nation, the Los Angeles Times, Glamour, and many other publications.