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When Does Anti-Abortion Violence Become Terrorism?

Following months of intense anti-Planned Parenthood rhetoric, Robert Lewis Dear killed three people in a clinic this weekend. Why are people so reluctant to label the attacks as domestic terrorism?
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On Sunday, an unnamed police source told NBC News that Robert Lewis Dear of South Carolina—the assailant who attacked a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, killing three people and wounding nine others—had made comments about "baby parts," alluding to a slew of anti-Planned Parenthood videos released this summer. According to Raw Story, Dear's ex-wife has confirmed that he is conservative, religious, and anti-abortion.


On November 27, the Department of Justice released a statement statement by Attorney General Loretta Lynch which condemned the recent Planned Parenthood attack. Though Dear's act was reportedly motivated by an extremist religious/political ideology, and although it's also part of a broader trend of anti-abortion violence motivated by shared beliefs, it has yet to be classified as an act of domestic terrorism. The Department of Homeland Security has publicly stated they don't believe the Planned Parenthood shooting is a terrorist attack.

We have these incidents where people are clearly saying, 'I committed this violence to further a cause because of my views,' [but] we won't call it terrorism.

The International Business Times reported that there have been 9 criminal incidents at reproductive health clinics across the nation since the springtime release of the Center of American Progress' deceptively edited and "phony" videos, which purport to depict Planned Parenthood executives negotiating the sale of aborted baby body parts—a claim Planned Parenthood has roundly and repeatedly denied. In September, CBS reported that the FBI warned in a statement that "it is likely criminal or suspicious incidents will continue to be directed against reproductive health care providers, their staff and facilities."

Pete Simi is a Professor of Criminology at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. For the past twenty years he's studied domestic terrorism, specializing in far right extremist violence. "There's certainly mounting evidence suggesting that [Dear] has a history of [extremist anti-abortion] views and then engaged in this violence as a result, which is essentially the definition of terrorism: When people are engaged in violence that is motivated by a particular ideology and use that violence to essentially communicate to the broader world they're acting on those beliefs," he told Broadly in a phone interview.


Simi said that there's a lack of continuity in the way violence is categorized as terrorism. "It's an ingroup, outgroup issue. When members of an ingroup commit a particular act of violence it's easier to write it off as though the person is just crazy or deranged than to say this person is a terrorist. When it's a member of a perceived outgroup—a foreigner—it's easier for us to attach that with terrorism." He pointed out that we often jump to label incidents of violence as terrorism if the perpetrator is Muslim and that, for many Americans, the word terrorism and Muslim have become synonymous. "Yet when we have these incidents where people are clearly saying, 'I committed this violence to further a cause because of my views,' we won't call it terrorism."

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According to a report from Think Progress, you're more than seven times as likely to be killed by a right wing extremist than by Muslim terrorists. The term "terrorist" has been around since the mid twentieth century, but it swooped into mainstream parlance in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. Since then, the rhetoric and ideology surrounding supposed threats of global terrorism rooted in the Middle East has shaped the political rationale of a huge portion of the U.S. population. Just last week, a routine town hall meeting in Virginia was held to discuss the development of a mosque when an irate bigot screamed anti-Muslim statements, including "Every Muslim is a terrorist."


Simi said that "hate group" is an accurate term to represent many far-right extremists, but that it can also be misleading. "It creates a certain image in your mind, like foaming at the mouth, but many of them aren't." The term "hate group" often calls to mind the image of circles of dissatisfied, uneducated white men in rural regions of the United States. But, according to Simi, this is not the case. "You find a very wide cross section of individuals who [adopt these ideologies]. They come from varying backgrounds," he said. "People with PhDs, people who are doctors, lawyers, and so forth." The rhetoric that these like-minded ideological groups produce varies. "Some of it is very vile, and at times can be hard to make sense of. But much of it is not. Much of it is produced in a way that is easily digestible by average Americans and really does have similarity to mainstream political discourse, especially as our mainstream political discourse has become more and more heated and polarized."

You hear [politicians] who say the violence isn't justified, but they're making the other end of the argument, stating overtly and forcefully that abortion is murder.

The 2016 Republican party presidential candidates, for example, send messages and preach divisive ideology in a way that Simi said parallel some of the violence-prone extremist organizations he's studied. For example, in September's Republican debate, several presidential candidates cited the Center for American Progress' deceptively edited Planned Parenthood videos. Carly Fiorina, in particular, described a gruesome scene that never occurred in any of the anti-Planned Parenthood sting footage: She claimed she had seen footage of Planned Parenthood employees planning to harvest a brain from a "fully formed fetus… its heart beating, its legs kicking," adding fuel to the extreme anti-Planned Parenthood rhetoric coming from conservatives nationwide. After the Planned Parenthood shooting on Friday, Fiorina stated that attempts to connect the attack to the Center for Medical Progress videos is typical left-wing tactics. The Washington Post reported her saying, "This is so typical of the left to immediately begin demonizing a messenger because they don't agree with the message."


But that message doesn't exist in a vacuum—it has consequences. "As the rhetoric has been polarized in the mainstream," Simi said. "You hear [politicians] who say the violence isn't justified, but they're making the other end of the argument, stating overtly and forcefully that abortion is murder." If abortion is murder, then violence becomes justified.

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There's an increasing blurring in the boundary between lawful abortion protest and unlawful violence—from the shooting rampage of Colorado Springs to bombings, attacks, and threats of violence that have occurred throughout the past. "This has had actual impact in terms of a decrease in availability [of women's health services.] You get a cumulative impact," said Simi. "There's the violence, rhetoric, institutionalized efforts, all of these things, while not necessarily coordinated lockstep do work in concert in some fashion to ultimately produce the desired outcome from their political standpoint. You have to start to ask yourself, to what extent has [anti-abortion domestic terrorism] been quite effective as a political strategy. There's been substantial success."

It's important that this violence is properly categorized. "If terrorism is a useful category then it has to be applied consistently, regardless of who the perpetrators are," Simi explained. "You can't say we're going to apply it to some religious groups but not others, some racial or ethnic groups but not others. Otherwise we distort reality and perpetuate a stereotype that only certain types of people are engaging in terrorism."

But in order to get these attacks on women's reproductive health facilities classified correctly, Simi said the government first must become willing to consider terrorism as a possibility. "This may sound overly simplistic, but part of it is just being open. Let's not decide before we have gathered all the information whether something is an act of terrorism or not. That goes for all types of violence—regardless of who the perpetrator is and what religion or ideology they're motivated by."