On Tuesday, Wisconsin voters went to the polls for their Presidential primary, but that wasn’t the only big news out of the badger state; the media were also focusing on the attempted bombing of a Planned Parenthood clinic in Appleton. Fortunately the device was small and no one was injured, but investigators are taking it seriously, as well they should. The FBI has been brought in and a suspect was arrested on Monday. We can only hope that the investigation is conducted carefully and effectively to make sure that suspect is adequately tried and appropriately sentenced, if guilty.
What happened in Wisconsin fits into the much larger sociopolitical climate in the United States right now, in which endless attacks on reproductive rights are escalating in nature, scale, and intensity. Anti-choice groups want to block access to essentially all reproductive health services, including basics like birth control. They’re being bolstered by politicians who not only support their efforts but actively inflame them with rhetoric, and it’s becoming harder and harder to push back. And more and more dangerous, because to be known as pro-choice and pro-reproductive justice is to be at serious risk of physical harm.
The few bright spots for reproductive rights in the United States are starting to feel overshadowed by this and other acts of terrorism committed in the name of the sacred fetus. Clinic bombings have an old and well-established history; the National Abortion Federation has almost 400 on their records between 1977 and 2010. To say nothing of other forms of extreme violence like murder and acid attacks.
This case was rapidly addressed, a good sign, but law enforcement resources in the United States are still heavily dedicated towards other crimes, and when it comes to terrorism, the primary interest is terrorism by foreign actors and ecoterrorism, not this kind of domestic terrorism, even though it fits the FBI’s own definition to a T:
Domestic terrorism is the unlawful use, or threatened use, of force or violence by a group or individual based and operating entirely within the United States or Puerto Rico without foreign direction committed against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof in furtherance of political or social objectives.
Setting an explosive device is intimidating and is clearly intended to coerce; the goal is to close an individual facility and frighten others into doing the same. It may not have caused very much damage, but that’s not the point: It frightened people and reminded them that they are doing dangerous work. Furthermore, it alerted them to the fact that someone could have set a much larger bomb, timed to detonate when people were at work, and when patients were seeking services. It was effectively a death threat, indicating that people could and would engage in acts of violence at the clinic.
A threat to be regarded as very, very real, given the history of violence at clinics offering reproductive health services.
And it occurred in the context of the tail end of ’40 Days for Life,’ an anti-choice campaign that whips sentiments up to a fever pitch, harassing clinic staff and patients as they attempt to go about their business and hoping to attract media attention. This is not a coincidence. Nor is it a coincidence that Santorum decided to take advantage of his statement about the bombing to sneak in some more rhetoric:
While we can and should work to defund Planned Parenthood and push back against government mandates that force Americans and religious institutions to violate their faith, violence against our fellow citizens has no place in a freedom-loving America.
A bombing is not the greatest news event to use to advance your political platform, Mr. Santorum. He played the political game expertly, attempting to present himself as a reasonable fellow who issues condemnations in the wake of vicious attacks, while also pandering to his base, using every conceivable dogwhistle to make sure they knew how he really felt about the bombing. While of course no one campaigning for the presidency is going to admit it, Santorum clearly experienced some level of pleasure about the bomb, and clearly supports terrorist activities used to shut down access to reproductive health services in the US.
As do other politicians on the US right, who apparently see no conflict between positioning themselves as public servants and supporting the activities of terrorists. Given how much the right likes to scaremonger about terrorism, and the harsh penalties the right proposes for those involved in liberal social activism, surely the right should be deeply concerned about this flowering of domestic terrorism taking place on US soil, and the threat it poses to civil society and the purported values of this country.
Yet, not only do they choose to ignore it, they actively promote it with their actions, rhetoric, and political associations. Politicians on the right don’t divest themselves from organizations involved in promoting anti-choice sentiments and even appear at their fundraisers and events, support them, and meet with representatives to discuss policy initiatives. They aren’t at all concerned about the risks of being seen in association with these people, because they know their base, the voters they want to woo, will think better of them for their involvement in what are effectively terrorist organisations.
The FBI has prevented several planned clinic bombings and clearly considers this a matter for investigation, although these investigations aren’t nearly as highly publicised as those involving perpetrators of Middle Eastern descent, or environmental activists. This sends a mixed and dubious message to the US public; by focusing on particular types of terrorism, the media perpetuate the idea that these are the only types that occur and matter. This is particularly critical with reporting on terrorism related to Middle Eastern extremists, which adds to the hatred and fear experienced by Middle Easterners living in the US. Shaima Alawadi was killed precisely because of these attitudes.
It also sends a signal to would-be terrorists, suggesting that their actions aren’t closely watched and they can proceed without fear of being identified and subjected to legal penalties. This creates a form of vindication; the would-be domestic terrorist can view violent action as righteous and good, without the interference of legal penalties that might introduce doubts and fears.
The right likes to claim that only ‘crazy people’ would take its rhetoric to the point of violence, denying the logical conclusion that its kind of rhetoric leads to and slamming people with mental illness with the suggestion that mental illness is the only explanation for acts of violence committed in the name of radical causes. When you’re dehumanising large classes of people and saying they’re evil, you’re setting them up as targets for violence; it’s the same tactic used in wartime propaganda to increase support for wars and ensure that members of the military will be aggressive when called upon to do so, and the end result is utterly predictable and unremarkable.
If you stand up in front of a large crowd of people as an authority and respected figure and make an appeal to morality, those people are going to take what you say very, very seriously. And when you tell that crowd that some members of your society are harmful and dangerous and should be eliminated, that some members of society don’t deserve control over their own lives and bodies, you shouldn’t be surprised when some members of that crowd decide to put your words into hateful action. Because that’s what you’re telling them to do.
Politicians involved in the anti-choice movement are not innocent of the crimes committed by the domestic terrorists acting upon their words. They are complicit in the danger posed to all healthcare providers who work in reproductive health settings, along with the patients who see them and the clinic escorts who protect them.