Edited and with a coda by Sam Thielman
IN 2016, THE MAN WHO MURDERED abortion doctor George Tiller learned that his prison sentence would be drastically reduced. He admitted to mixed feelings.
Scott Roeder was grateful for the measure of clemency, he explained to the Associated Press. "But I was looking forward to being another voice for the unborn," Roeder continued, "so I was disappointed in that respect.” Martyrdom, of one form or another, appeared to be his priority.
Roeder's favored email handle was ServantofMessiah. In May 2009, he showed his devotion by fatally shooting Tiller while Tiller served as an usher in church. Tiller was an unapologetic abortion provider in Wichita. Operation Rescue, despite a 42-day campaign of civil disobedience in the summer of 1991, was never able to close his clinic. For this, Tiller had to die.
Roeder wasn't the first to try. Tiller’s clinic, Women's Health Care Services, was bombed in 1986. In 1993, a woman named Rachelle “Shelley” Shannon shot Tiller in both his arms. Beginning in 2005 and lasting until the month before his murder, Fox News star Bill O’Reilly and his producer Jesse Watters made Tiller a regular feature on their show, ambushing him outside his home and repeatedly calling him “Tiller the Baby Killer” during segments on 29 episodes of The O’Reilly Factor. At trial in 2010, Roeder said he had been planning to kill Tiller for 16 years. He thought through a variety of scenarios, including chopping off Tiller's offending hands or running Tiller down in a car, but ServantofMessiah decided that the most practical thing to do would be to shoot him dead at church.
The Kansas Supreme Court, prompted by its federal counterpart, ruled in 2014 that Roeder could be eligible for parole after serving 25 years in prison, rather than 50. The year before, Roeder gave an interview threatening the lives of the South Wind Women’s Center, the women's health clinic that reopened Tiller's practice. "To walk in there and reopen a clinic, a murder mill where a man was stopped, is almost like putting a target on your back—saying, ‘Well, let’s see if you can shoot me," Roeder said.
Roeder is around 64 years old and has served about half of the time necessary for his parole eligibility. He may live long enough to see it. Shannon, the first to shoot Tiller, walked out of prison in 2018. "She is still as dangerous today as she was in August of 1993," Julie Burkhart, founder of the Trust Women Foundation and previously an employee of Tiller's, commented to the AP.
Roeder, Shannon and others considered themselves soldiers of God against evil. Shannon reportedly wrote her daughter a letter explaining that opening fire on Tiller was "was the most holy, most righteous thing I’ve ever done." They stood on the shoulders of their comrades.
Between 1973 and 2009, the National Abortion Federation documented eight murders, 17 attempts at murder, 41 bombings, 175 cases of arson, 525 stalking incidents and even 100 incidents of butyric acid attacks across the U.S. and Canada. (One such incident, per the Southern Poverty Law Center, was committed by Shannon.) Threats of anthrax attacks on clinics spiked from 30 in 2000—hmm, look who was thinking about anthrax attacks before 9/11—to 554 in 2001. According to the Federation's latest statistics, 2021 featured a swell in anti-abortion violence. "We saw the most significant increases in stalking (600%), blockades (450%), hoax devices/suspicious packages (163%), invasions (129%), and assault and battery (128%) compared to 2020," its 2021 report begins.
The National Abortion Federation's report highlights that specific January 6 Insurrectionists "are the same individuals who target abortion clinics and harass and terrorize clinic staff." Jessica Winter highlighted the lineage two months after the Insurrection in The New Yorker:
For a half century, a conspiracy-minded brand of anti-abortion extremism has been part and parcel of white-supremacist movements. The Ku Klux Klan referred to legalized abortion as a genocide against the white race. Anti-abortion leaders such as Randall Terry, of Operation Rescue, and Robert Cooley, of the Pro-Life Action Network, frequently alleged that most abortion providers were Jewish. Today, the QAnon conspiracy, which helped inspire the U.S. Capitol riot on January 6th and continues to threaten similar plots, can be seen as a twisted metonym for generations of anti-Semitic pro-life propaganda: child molestation and cannibalism take the place of abortion, while “George Soros” and “global cabal” stand in for Jews. In this world, a one-and-a-half-million-dollar grant awarded to Planned Parenthood by the Open Society Foundations becomes evidence of Soros personally offering political cover for Planned Parenthood’s lucrative trade in “baby body parts.” “The QAnon obsession with vulnerable children is very similar to the blood-libel myth,” Carol Mason, a professor of gender and women’s studies at the University of Kentucky and the author of “Killing for Life: The Apocalyptic Narrative of Pro-Life Politics,” told me.
I am not going to be the reporter who adjudicates the role of political violence, of the sort that claims a religious foundation, in the anti-abortion movement achieving its objectives. I can only note its presence, for it clarifies the state of exception.
OFFICIALLY SPEAKING, the opponents of abortion don’t engage in terrorism. Throwing acid at people because you consider yourself an instrument of God's justice turns out not to qualify across the board as terrorism, if you get my drift. Shooting them dead in church, bombing their clinics, following them to those clinics or their cars or homes—these are state offenses that tend not to trigger federal terrorism statutes, because those statutes and their enforcement target non-Christian and non-white communities.
After 9/11, the media didn't call Tiller's assassination or any other incident of anti-abortion political violence terrorism, no matter how focused it was on achieving a political outcome, because that would have been inflammatory. Terrorism is about Those People. The FBI cannot document any pro-abortion terrorism, but that doesn't stop it from institutionally treating phantom pro-choice violence as equivalent to manifested anti-abortion violence. Emily Shugerman and I reported in 2020:
In 2017, the FBI distributed a brief “Abortion Extremism Reference Guide” at a counterterrorism training for local law enforcement, listing “pro-choice extremists” as a group of domestic terrorists. The document, first reported by Jezebel, claimed that these extremists “believe it is their moral duty to protect those who provide or receive abortion services”—though even this document noted that only one “pro-choice extremist” had ever been prosecuted. Additionally, an earlier FBI training document obtained by the ACLU in 2012 referenced pro-choice violence but did not “provide a single example of violence against abortion opponents,” the ACLU wrote.
There are places of worship in this country that have been violated, for an entire generation, by police and their informants; and there are places of worship that never will be. There are sources of income, networks of association, even religious practice, spread across entire communities, that will be treated as the routes to violence. Others, often those who consider terrorism something Those People do, can get away with things like this:
Operation Rescue condemned the killing as vigilantism and "a cowardly act." But its founder, Randall Terry, stressed that the anti-abortion movement should not tone down its rhetoric. He said the gunman was wrong to kill Tiller, 67, but that abortion opponents bear no responsibility for the action.
Tiller was "a mass murderer and horrifically, he reaped what he sowed," Terry told the National Press Club in Washington.
Several rungs further up on the respectability ladder there was concern that the censorious left will exploit the murder of an abortion provider to silence opponents of abortion:
"In the immediate future, it makes it difficult to even speak about an issue we've been speaking about for 365 days a year," said Mary Kay Culp, executive director of Kansans for Life. "Anything you say -- somebody is going to pounce on us."
More recently, here's the Islamophobic ex-Reagan Pentagon official Frank Gaffney. His organization emailed me the following this morning, under the subject line "Are We Ready for The REAL Domestic Terrorists?":
It’s no secret that domestic terrorists are intent on inflicting violent harm in our country. It turns out, though, they’re not the white supremacists we’re incessantly told are the greatest threat.
Instead, they are anarchists and Marxists who have seized on the impending Supreme Court ruling on abortion as a pretext to inflict a “Summer of Rage” that could make that of 2020 pale by comparison.
It remains to be seen whether groups like “Jane’s Revenge” will be joined by unknown numbers of others—including possibly military-age men who have entered this country illegally since Joe Biden opened our southern border and admitted tens of thousands more from Afghanistan.
To paraphrase something from my book, a white man with a gun, a flag and a cross cannot be a terrorist in America, since the 9/11 era, recapitulating the ugliest aspects of American history, defines him as a counterterrorist. Tools born from the War on Terror are now tools for states to persecute people for exercising the most basic bodily autonomy they possess. Today we learned, once again, who the Constitution is for and who it is not.
SAM HERE. The entire online far right, in fact, is harmonizing in apoplexy over Jane’s Revenge, a group that has claimed responsibility for vandalizing a number of “crisis pregnancy centers.” Right-wing Catholic publication The Pillar (you may remember them) quoted a memo from The Diocese of Stockton, saying it had been warned by a DHS agent that Jane’s had “essentially” threatened nonspecific “extreme violence against Catholic churches and pregnancy centers” for the night of the SCOTUS opinion. Attacking churches is both the Christian right’s go-to tactic and its deepest fear. Beyond Tiller, the repeated epidemics of Black church-burnings in the South—most recently by a guy who called his victims his “brothers and sisters in Christ,” ought to make it clear that this is a kind of violence that obsesses theocrats. Kill a guy in church and for the rest of your life, you’ll pray with one eye open.