As anti-abortion extremists cross over from rhetoric to violence, Report editor Mark Potok wonders if the rule of law is considered relevant to the public debate.
As the massive North Carolina manhunt for alleged abortion clinic bomber Eric Robert Rudolph heated up again last July, a deeply troubling phenomenon became increasingly apparent. More and more Americans, from local anti-abortion clergymen to workaday citizens who live in the forested hills around Rudolph's home, were openly showing support, or at least sympathy, for the accused murderer.
"Run Rudolph Run" T-shirts sold briskly in the area, even as more than 200 federal agents, tugged by baying bloodhounds, trekked through the dense Nantahala National Forest without success. A man from whom Rudolph obtained food waited four days to report seeing him.
One pastor, the Rev. Conrad Kimberough, told a reporter that Rudolph "may be right" and added that he doubted Rudolph was "an unprincipled killer." Several other locals described him as a "good" person and an "underdog" and said they wouldn't turn Rudolph in despite the $1 million reward on his head.
In Montgomery, Ala., a hairdresser told a customer, "I hate to say it, but I think they should give that man a medal."
The man they are talking about is accused of murder. The killer left a police officer's family without a father and husband, and grotesquely maimed a nurse. He also may have used antipersonnel bombs to kill a woman at the Atlanta Olympics and injure more than a dozen others at a lesbian bar and another abortion clinic.
Whether or not a person agrees with abortion, the fact remains that the United States is a nation of laws. Since 1973, the practice of abortion has been legal. It has never been legal to murder police officers, blind nurses or bomb public facilities.
A Principled Killer?
There is no exception in the law for those who oppose abortion.
"I don't believe in abortions, but ... I'm not going to kill someone because of that," says Felecia Sanderson, the widow of Robert "Sande" Sanderson, the police officer murdered in the Birmingham, Ala., clinic bombing. "Sande didn't believe in abortion, but Sande believed in the law, that all people should be protected under the law equally."
To many, Eric Rudolph appears as a classic type of American anti-hero, a handsome Butch Cassidy eluding the police, bloodhounds, helicopters, motion detectors and heat sensors of the state. In fact, he is merely an accused assassin.
"There's a natural inclination to root for one man against all the odds," The Asheville (N.C.) Citizen-Times editorialized recently. But such an inclination "should dismay anyone who wants to continue living in a country governed by law rather than anarchy."
Likewise, The Birmingham News wrote, "Eric Rudolph, a principled killer? It's insulting to the bomb victims and their families to suggest such a thing."
The Rudolph case also points up another worrisome trend.
As the numbers of nonviolent clinic blockaders and other anti-abortion activists have shrunk, the violent wing of the anti-abortion movement has become more willing to kill. And these anti-abortion terrorists have increasingly drawn succor from the ranks of white supremacist groups and the so-called "Patriot" movement.
Today, these once-distinct movements increasingly share an enemies list that includes the federal government, homosexuals, abortion facilities and non-"Christian" religions.
"Eric Rudolph is symbolic of this new merger," says Dallas Blanchard, a Florida expert on anti-abortion extremism. "Militia types have shown more and more interest in the abortion issue, while anti-abortionists are becoming more and more militant and allying themselves with the militia movement."
Seeds of Savagery
The savagery associated with this "merger" is symbolized in the body of Emily Lyons, the nurse maimed in the Birmingham bombing. The bomb tore away her shins and one eye, and left her mutilated from head to foot. She's gone through nine surgeries and faces many more.
An X-ray of one knee, clearly showing the nails the Birmingham killer packed into his bomb, reflects a bloodthirsty desire to destroy people, not mere buildings.
The list of horrors doesn't end there.
And Fr. David Trosch, a Mobile, Ala., anti-abortion militant, has put up a cartoon on his Web page which sarcastically contrasts the weight of aborted fetuses with that of murdered clinic workers. The late officer Sanderson, stepfather of two boys, is depicted as adding merely "about 200 pounds" to the clinic workers' side.
Lyons' husband, Jeff, speaks eloquently of such men. "Eventually, they'll catch Rudolph," he says. "But no one is going after the people who planted this seed. ... Rudolph may have been the only person at the clinic that day. But they should be paying attention to the people who turned Rudolph from whatever he was into what he is now."