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

As the hardcore wing of the anti-abortion movement becomes smaller, its extremism increases — leading to increased violence.

It is, perhaps, the history of the future. In much the way that the neo-Nazi novel The Turner Diaries served as a blueprint for white supremacist revolution, a fictional account of the future of insurrectionary anti-abortion violence has already been written.

And it is a chilling tale.

Rescue Platoon, a story of a future, final war against abortion, was serialized this year on a Web site sponsored by David Leach, whose Iowa-based newsletter, Prayer & Action Weekly News, has supported the pro-violence anti-abortion network. Replete with bombs and murder, the mini-novel tells of a "righteous wrath" to come.

In the end, the "Army of God," amid a bloodbath of epic proportions, gains the final victory.

Over the years, the race war fantasy detailed in The Turner Diaries has been used by a series of terrorists from The Order to Timothy McVeigh. Now, observers fear, these new, revolution-minded stories could prove to be a road map for anti-abortion terror.

In recent years, experts say, the ranks of nonviolent clinic blockaders have shrunk, largely as acts of terrorism have alienated many in the larger anti-abortion movement. But at the same time, those who have always advocated some violence have become increasingly revolutionary, seeing themselves as fighting a holy war to recreate society in a religious mold. Today, those in the most militant wing of the anti-abortion movement are more and more willing to kill.

"As groups become smaller," says Dallas Blanchard, a sociologist who has studied anti-abortion extremism, "they encourage the violent to get more violent."

Two Decades of Terror
Although nonviolent forms of protest are the preferred methods for most who oppose abortion, violence and threats of violence have been part of the anti-abortion movement since the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision legalized abortion.

Over the last 20 years, anti-abortion terrorists have been responsible for six murders and 15 attempted murders (see Lake of Fire), according to the National Abortion Federation. They have also been behind some 200 bombings and arsons, 72 attempted arsons, 750 death and bomb threats and hundreds of acts of vandalism, intimidation, stalking and burglary.

The first arson attack against a clinic took place in 1977, four years after Roe v. Wade. It was aimed at a Long Island, N.Y., clinic owned by abortion rights advocate Bill Baird. In the next six years, the pace picked up, with 29 bombings and arsons by 1983.

Soon, the attacks were against people. In 1982, a man claiming to represent the "Army of God" (AOG), kidnapped, but ultimately released, an abortion doctor and his wife. Don Benny Anderson, convicted of the kidnapping and three clinic bombings in Florida and Virginia, remains in prison, but still serves as a role model for many militants.

Dubbed "the Year of Fear and Pain" by militant activists of Joseph Scheidler's Pro-Life Action Network (PLAN), 1984 was marked by 25 clinic arsons and bombings, resulting in millions of dollars in damage. Among these were the so-called "Christmas bombings" of two clinics in Pensacola, Fla. At least seven attacks were planned and carried out by a group headed by Rev. Michael Bray, of Bowie, Md., who epitomizes the activist who engages in nonviolent protests by day but wages covert terrorism by night.

While most people involved in clinic protests are clearly not involved in or necessarily supportive of violence, these protests remain the common ground of expression for abortion opponents of both nonviolent and violent persuasions. From Michael Bray to Paul Hill in Florida to John Salvi in Boston, practitioners of violence have used the occasion of peaceful protest to blend in and to gather intelligence for their terrorist attacks.

The 'Army of God' Emerges
At the site of a Norfolk, Va., bombing, Bray left a sign: "AOG." The same year, a caller claiming responsibility for several bombings said he was from the Army of God. Also in 1984, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, who wrote the Roe v. Wade decision, received a threatening letter from a group using that name.

Who, or what, is the Army of God?

That question has plagued investigators for years. Whether it is a concept — a handy moniker for whoever takes up the cause — or a permanent underground group is not yet clear. Most recently, it came up when letters claiming credit for the deadly Jan. 29 bombing of an abortion clinic in Birmingham, Ala., were signed "Army of God". Similar letters took credit for 1997 bombings of a clinic and a lesbian bar in the Atlanta area. The AOG also claimed the attempted assassinations of abortion physicians in Canada.

Aside from the occasional letter taking credit for violent actions, the primary document reaching the public has been the so-called Army of God manual, an underground handbook on how to commit clinic violence. It describes itself as "a manual for those who have come to understand that the battle against abortion is a battle not against flesh and blood, but against the devil and all of the evil he can muster among flesh and blood to fight at his side."

It calls the United States "a nation ruled by a godless civil authority that is dominated by humanism, moral nihilism and new age perversion of the high standards upon which a Godly society must be founded, if it is to endure."

And it goes further. After offering detailed instructions on how to build ammonium nitrate bombs and "homemade C-4 plastic explosive," it suggests maiming abortion doctors "by removing their hands, or at least their thumbs below the second digit."

The Army of God of the 1980s was fairly careful not to harm people. But as the AOG's widely circulated manual suggests, those who now claim to be part of the Army of God, whoever they may be, are willing to kill and maim.

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.