Anti-Abortion Movement Marches On After Two Decades of Arson, Bombs and Murder

Two decades of arson, bombs and murder

Murder and the Theocratic Revolution
By the early 1990s, Michael Bray had come to advocate the murder of abortion doctors and call for theocratic revolution with the aim of instituting biblical law. During the same period, professed AOG member Rachelle "Shelley" Shannon, who had earlier launched butyric acid and arson attacks on clinics throughout the western United States, attempted to murder Dr. George Tiller in Wichita, Kan., wounding him badly.

High-profile murders in the early 1990s marked a turning point in the violence, transforming the movement and riveting the attention of the nation.

In 1993, Dr. David Gunn was shot to death by Rescue America activist Michael Griffin. Paul Hill then became the focus of attention through his efforts to promote the notion that the murder of Dr. Gunn and other abortion providers was "justifiable homicide." Hill received the prominent support of Fr. David Trosch, Bray and 31 others (see Justifiable Homicide: The Signers).

Following Dr. Gunn's murder, Joseph Scheidler presided over a summit meeting of militant pro-life leaders in Chicago to discuss the movement's future. The conclave degenerated into a debate about violence, and led to the formation of the hard-line American Coalition of Life Activists (ACLA), many of whose leaders signed the "justifiable homicide" statement. Many ACLA members had previously been prominent in Operation Rescue, the group founded and long headed by Randall Terry.

In 1994, Hill murdered a doctor and his escort outside a Pensacola, Fla., clinic. He drew moral support from the likes of ACLA leader Andrew Burnett, who appeared in one photograph holding a sign reading "Free Paul Hill! JAIL Abortionists." Burnett's magazine, Life Advocate, has been the leading editorial voice of the pro-violence faction.

In 1995, a young, mentally unstable hairdresser named John Salvi shot up two clinics in Brookline, Mass., killing two people and wounding five.

The Violence Grows
By that year, the number of arsons and bombings had grown to 180 — evidence of the rising pace and ferocity of the violence. This trend is partly attributable to the evolution of the revolutionary theology of those originally associated with Operation Rescue and the emergence of Christian Identity-informed activists. (Identity is an anti-Semitic, racist theology that, among other things, is violently opposed to abortion.)

In this period, the line between anti-abortion activists and Patriot and militia groups began to blur. The 1996 bombing of Planned Parenthood offices in Spokane, Wash., for instance, was carried out by Identity-believing white supremacists — so-called Phineas Priests — from Idaho.

In addition, the nature of those willing to kill changed. The first wave of those who attacked doctors and others saw themselves as public martyrs; the second, informed by a revolutionary hatred of the government that is shared by many Patriot groups, is composed of assassins with no desire to go public or be sentenced to prison.

"The first murderers stood around waiting to be caught," Blanchard explains. "More recently there is surreptitious violence, living to fight another day."

At the same time, other kinds of attacks have picked up a new head of steam. During June and July of this year, almost 20 abortion clinics in Florida, New Orleans and Houston were hit with butyric acid attacks, bringing the total over the years to more than 100. The chemical, which causes severe nausea and can result in hospitalization, usually requires bringing in hazardous materials teams for cleanup.

But it was this year's Birmingham clinic bombing that has given the nation a taste of the probable future of anti-abortion violence.

At around the same time as that attack, two tales of the future, Rescue Platoon and ARISE!, appeared on a Web site sponsored by David Leach. Earlier, in the early 1990s, Leach's newsletter had serialized the prison diaries of convicted clinic bomber John Brockhoeft, edited by Shelly Shannon. Leach has also shown Patriot leanings, coming out as an early advocate of militias, a point reflected in Rescue Platoon.

History of the Future
Rescue Platoon is set in the near future. Early in the story is the execution of Paul Hill (in real life, awaiting execution in Florida). "Then from deep, deep down in the soul of America, a righteous wrath began to wind its way to the surface of the hearts of many. ... These were the conditions when the 'Rescue Platoon' came out of training and entered into active service in the Army of God."

Ultimately, Hill's "martyrdom" ignites the war against abortion.

Most of the novel centers around the Army of God's campaign to blow up clinics and murder doctors and others. At the end, the former Confederate states plus Utah outlaw abortion.

The federal government threatens to send in the National Guard to reopen the clinics, which causes the ideas of the real-life Republic of Texas (a Patriot group which argues that the U.S. illegally annexed the state in 1845) to gain currency to the point where Texas declares its independence. The "Rescue Platoon," along with other "disgruntled Patriots," side with Texas in the cause of "righteousness."

No reasonable commentator expects such a vision to be realized. But that does not mean that more doctors, police officers and uninvolved bystanders will not die.

Frederick Clarkson, who has reported on the religious right for 15 years, is the author, most recently, of Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy (Common Courage Press, 1997). He is currently at work on another book on the religious right. Clarkson was the founding editor of Front Lines Research, an investigative newsletter published by the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.