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Tiller Murder Reveals Violent Anti-Abortion Subculture
Watchdog Organization Charges that Demagogues Use "Tools of Fear"Originally published on June 2, 2009
"We must hold accountable those civic leaders and media companies who stand by silently as this environment grows ever more toxic to democracy," says PRA director Tarso Ramos.
BOSTON—In the wake of the May 31, 2009 murder of Dr. George Tiller of Wichita, Kansas, one of a dwindling number of American ob-gyns who perform late-term abortions, questions are once again being raised about anti-abortion activists who push their convictions to violent conclusions.
The anti-abortion movement harbors within it a subculture of militant activists who believe the slogan "if abortion is murder, then act like it," according to Pam Chamberlain, senior researcher at Political Research Associates (PRA), a Massachusetts-based independent nonprofit research center on the religious and political Right. "For some, this means attending demonstrations or engaging in acts of civil disobedience; for others it means committing murder." Many of these activists are motivated by their religious beliefs, but larger forces are also in play.
The election of Barack Obama deeply angered whole sections of the U.S. Right. Media demagogues have been quick to exploit this anger with rhetoric that demonizes not just Obama or the Democratic Party, but liberal ideology itself. Using the rhetoric of Right-Wing populism, opportunistic pundits and politicians portray liberal government programs as picking the pockets of hard-working taxpayers to help "undeserving" poor people, "lazy parasites," and "unlawful immigrants." Using the tools of fear, irresponsible public figures cultivate an aggressive constituency that feels extra-legal action is justified because, in their view, the Obama administration has shut them out of the political process.
"The current political environment is awash with seemingly absurd but nonetheless influential conspiracy theories, hyperbolic claims, and demonized targets," explains Chip Berlet, senior analyst at PRA, "and this creates a milieu where violence is a likely outcome."
A suspect being questioned in Tiller's murder, Scott P. Roeder, has been linked to the militia movement. This is not the first case in which militias have been implicated in the murder of an abortion provider, says Berlet. In late 1994, John C. Salvi III launched an armed attack in which Boston abortion clinic workers were killed or wounded. He had trained with a militia group in Florida, and later cited obscure economic and religious theories popular in Patriot, armed citizens' militia, and Constitutionalist movements such as the Montana Freemen.
"This is not the time to undermine free speech or civil liberties," says Tarso Ramos, director of Political Research Associates. "Yet we must hold accountable the media pundits and political actors who through campaigns of exaggeration and deceit have created an atmosphere where some among the many anxious and angry people are bound to conclude there is no option left but to turn to violence. Likewise, we must hold accountable those civic leaders and media companies who stand by silently as this environment grows ever more toxic to democracy."
Political Research Associates is an independent, nonprofit research center that analyzes and monitors the Right and other anti-democratic movements, institutions, and trends. PRA is based on progressive values and committed to advancing an open, democratic, and pluralistic society.
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This story was published on June 3, 2009.