The far-right's violent return
The murder of George Tiller is a chilling reminder that the violent extremism of America's far-right hasn't gone away
When Barack Obama was elected president last year, pro-choice activists were elated, but there was an undercurrent of anxiety. In the past, the extremist fringe of the anti-abortion movement has responded to political disempowerment with violence.
In 1993, not long after Bill Clinton was inaugurated, the United States saw its first murder of an abortion provider, when Dr David Gunn was shot outside his clinic in Pensacola, Florida. Five months later Dr George Tiller was shot in both arms. They kept coming: seven shootings that culminated in the 1998 murder of Dr Barnett Slepian in his suburban kitchen, felled by a sniper as he made soup.
Even the bombing of the 1996 Atlanta Olympic games turns out to have been motivated by fanatical opposition to abortion. When he was finally sentenced in 2005, perpetrator Eric Rudolph said in a written statement that the attack was meant "to confound, anger and embarrass the Washington government in the eyes of the word for its abominable sanctioning of abortion on demand."
Then, during the Bush administration, the killings stopped. Many believed this was due to a triumph of law enforcement, but in the reproductive health field, people couldn't help but fear that maybe the violence had been halted because the anti-abortion movement was making progress by other means. That meant it could resurface. After the 2008 election, the National Abortion Federation, an organisation of abortion providers, sent out an alert asking members to be on guard. Clinic staff nationwide talked of beefing up their security.
So when Dr Tiller was assassinated in church on Sunday morning, it was a hideous shock, but it was also, in some ways, predicted.
This April, a leaked report from the Department of Homeland Security warned about a possible outbreak of right-wing violence. "Paralleling the current national climate, right-wing extremists during the 1990s exploited a variety of social issues and political themes to increase group visibility and recruit new members," the report said, mentioning opposition to gun control, free trade, abortion and same-sex marriage, as well as racial antagonism.
Then, as now, there was a Democratic president regarded as illegitimate and amoral by many on the far right. There was economic upheaval and a proliferation of apocalyptic rhetoric about liberal tyranny and the need for patriotic individuals to stand up and take action.
Conservatives howled in protest, complaining that the government was demonising their ideology. But the DHS was on to something. Experts who study the far right saw the rhetoric in various extremist movements ratcheting up. Brian Levin, director of the centre for the study of hate and extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, is a former cop who often consults with law enforcement. For the far right, he said, Obama's election signaled that "the country has now become the cesspool that they've been warning about. When people feel so disenfranchised, or an event has taken place that for an extremist is considered so pivotal, it makes sense that we look at what these extremists are saying, because someone is listening."
Someone like Tiller's alleged killer, Scott Roeder, who was almost exactly the kind of person the DHS was warning about. His ideology, such as it was, appeared to combine an extreme paranoia about the federal government with an Old Testament fundamentalism and an obsessive focus on abortion. He had connections to the "sovereign citizen" movement, which rejects all government authority above the local level, and, according to Levin, is full of white supremacists. In the 1990s, police found bomb-making materials in Roeder's car, although he was only sentenced to probation, and eventually his conviction was overturned on a technicality.
Right now there is no way to know why Roeder, like other similar figures, laid low during the Bush years. But it's chilling how quickly the febrile, frustrated milieu of the Obama-era right produced its first killer. We can pray he'll be the last. But we shouldn't count on it.