Terrorism and Othering

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“What a treacherous thing to believe that a person is more than a person.” – John Green, Paper Towns

I remember standing in line at an office on a Sunday in 2009, and reading a headline on the TV screen: “Kansas Abortion Doctor George Tiller Killed.” I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but I remember being slightly surprised as the headline changed to discuss the location – Dr. Tiller’s church. But that was all that surprised me.

You see, the first headline told me everything I needed to know about the case: “Kansas Abortion Doctor…Killed.” Specifics didn’t matter because there were a number of things I could assume, just from a headline: the man was likely the only provider of abortions in the state, he had probably been harassed for years, and the person who killed him probably had a history of connections with pro-life groups and organizations.

And the story unfolded: Tiller provided late-term abortions, one of three people in the US at the time to do so, and was one of the only people in Kansas to provide abortions at all. And his killer, Scott Roeder, was a man connected at several levels to Operation Rescue, an organization which frequently held protests and vigils outside Tiller’s Wichita office (though Operation Rescue denies any connection to Roeder, he frequently attended meetings and had the phone numbers of some of the higher ups in his car at the time of the shooting).

(For more information about Dr. Tiller’s death, see this excellent documentary narrated by Rachel Maddow for MSNBC).

For me, Dr. Tiller’s death was just another sad chapter in a decades long string of clinic bombings, fires, and assassinations.

The latest came in the form of a failed bomb at a Wisconsin Planned Parenthood on Sunday night – the bomb went off, but burned itself out, causing damage to the building but luckily not injuring any workers as they were not in the clinic on a Sunday night.

This happened just a couple short weeks after Texas State Senator Wendy Davis’ office was set on fire by a man with a Molotov cocktail. Davis was an outspoken supporter of Planned Parenthood who had recently entered the limelight by talking about how Planned Parenthood helped her out as a single, teen mother.

I was born in 1986. In my (relatively short) lifetime, Drs. David Gunn (1993), John Britton (1994), Barnett Slepian (1998) and George Tiller (2009), as well as clinic escort James Barrett [in the same case as David Gunn, above], receptionists Shannon Lowneyand Lee Ann Nichols (all three in 1994), and security guard Robert Sanderson (1998) were all killed for doing their jobs.

In my short 26 years of life, acid has been poured over the entrances of clinics in Miami (1998), clinics have been set on fire (including one in my hometown in 1999, as well as numerous incidents all throughout the 2000s), cars have been literally driven into clinic buildings (Rockford, IL, 2000; Rochester Hills, Michigan, 2006; and St. Paul, MN, 2009) , multiple Molotov cocktails have been lobbed through windows and doors (most recently being the incident at Wendy Davis’ office), and several clinics have been bombed or experienced attempted bombings (most recently in January in Pensacola, FL, excluding the already mentioned incident in Wisconsin on Sunday).

Additionally, numerous pro-life organizations have participated in harassment techniques, publishing the names, addresses, and phone numbers of “abortionists,” encouraging their followers to call them by the hundreds, though the content is up to the individual caller.

And yet, in recent memory (since I started paying attention in 2009), the incidents of bombings, of threats, of attempted arson have been reported as “isolated incidents,” done by “unhinged fringe members” of the pro-life movement – if their connection to pro-life movements is acknowledged at all. Even with a consistent pattern of attacks on Planned Parenthood clinics and Planned Parenthood supporters, each new incident of violence is treated as isolated, as fringe, as not representative of the movement as a whole.

And I’m willing to grant that it’s not representative of the movement to bomb clinics, but the lack of willingness to acknowledge ANY complicity in this form of domestic terrorism smacks of intellectual dishonesty.

I grew up in the pro-life movement. While my parents weren’t the “stand outside the clinic and protest” type, I frequently heard – at church, at school, at home – imprecations of those “sluts” who would “kill their babies.” I listened to my OBGYN uncles rant and rave about the irresponsible ladies who just shouldn’t have sex if they don’t want a baby, and talk about how they urged their patients to have more children (instead of adopting…?). I side-eyed the Planned Parenthood across the street from my high school, thinking bad thoughts about “free condoms” and low cost birth control – because, obviously, that was just enabling the sluts. And I financially supported the local pregnancy crisis center – the Abstinence Clearing House – by wearing a shirt with a cute dog on it reading “Pet Your Dog, Not Your Date.”

And then I met women who had abortions.

They weren’t the irresponsible sluts I’d been raised to revile – they were people who were already mothers, they were college freshmen who had to scrape together the money to pay for the abortion (it goes without saying that they did not have the money to pay for the medical care of a pregnancy, let alone a child), they were women who had taken every precaution they could. They were and are real people, with real, complicated stories and motivations and lives.

And the people who work at the clinics are real people, with real, complicated lives and stories – everyone from the doctor to the nurse to the receptionist in the lobby is a real person, just like you, and just like me.

The rhetoric of the pro-life movement (on the whole) doesn’t seem to think so, though. They like to talk about women who get abortions as “irresponsible,” without ever considering how abortion, in some cases, might just be the responsible move. They like to offer simple solutions, like women simply not having sex in order to avoid pregnancy – a solution that only works in a world where rape and incest are not reality. They like to characterize doctors who provide abortions as “baby-killers,” ignoring the numerous positive efforts they make in providing birth control and the hardship that is life as a doctor who provides abortions.

“I am a good citizen, and I am very real.” – Kurt Vonnegut

I’m not writing this necessarily to implicate the pro-life movement as a whole, or even necessarily to rail on about domestic terrorism,* but merely to point out this: Clinic bombings, terroristic attacks, Molotov cocktails, cars being run into buildings can be pinned down to one thing, and one thing alone: Othering.

We encounter a lot of people in our lives, many of whom we’ll disagree with, and most of us manage to disagree peacefully. But we create a toxic environment, a world that encourages violence, when we Other the people we disagree with – when we make them, in our minds, into something so unlike ourselves that we strip them of their humanity and dignity.

This is what the pro-life movement consistently and successfully does to abortion doctors and to women who get abortions. This is the stuff of hate crimes – when a teenager on the street becomes nothing more than a black kid in a hoodie. This is the lifeblood of a political environment that breeds shootings, and shouting matches, that leads pundits to rip off their mikes and storm off set, that props up figures like Rush Limbaugh and scares off any moderate criticism. Othering is how we get to absurd proclamations like “The entire Tea Party is racist,” or “Liberals are all atheist, god-hating scum,” “The GOP doesn’t care about the poor,” and “Liberalism is a mental disease.”

Othering is a bipartisan problem. However, it most consistently is connected with violence and terrorism within pro-life movement, likely because the stakes are raised so high. It is genuinely believed that they’re preventing a “holocaust,” that “the most dangerous place for a black baby is in the womb” (thereby playing on race war rhetoric), that abortion doctors are “heartless baby-killers.” Rather than being halted and questioned and asked to be more nuanced, the most flagrant mongers of this hateful rhetoric are encouraged, celebrated and awarded (think of the vans that drive around cities showing pictures of “aborted”** fetuses on the sides).

And then, when a bomb goes off at a clinic, when an abortion doctor is shot in the back of the head while standing in his church lobby, when a clinic is vandalized and bricks are thrown through windows, when a clinic escort is assaulted walking into work – all of these things extend from the ongoing and sustained practice of Othering.

I don’t have any practical solutions, other than to remind you to rebuke those in your life who Other people. Remind them that everyone has a story, that your enemies are men like you. And, little by little, we’ll regain some of the dignity necessary for civil discourse.

*I say terrorism because these attacks are the definition of terrorism – a violent attack meant to send the message to others in a community that they are in danger.

**This pictures are most often actually medical pictures of stillborn babies, not abortions as the campaigns frequently claim (warning: link contains graphic content).

UPDATE: It has been confirmed that the man who bombed the Wisconsin Planned Parenthood clinic on Sunday night was doing so explicitly as an anti-abortion move. He is quoted as asking the judge in his arraignment if the judge knew "how many babies were being killed in that clinic." "Baby killer" as Othering functions well in this situation.