How the Extreme Christian Right Incited the Assault on the Planned Parenthood Clinic in Colorado
After months of verbal assault against Planned Parenthood and against women more broadly, Republican Christianists have gotten what they were asking for: bloodshed.
On November 27, a mass shooting left three dead and nine wounded at a Planned Parenthood clinic just miles from the headquarters of the religious right flagship, Focus on the Family. Was the shooting exactly what conservative Christian presidential candidates and members of Congress wanted? Maybe; maybe not. But it is what they asked for. Republican members of the religious right incited violence as predictably as if they had issued a call for Christian abortion foes to take up arms.
Inciting violence this way is called stochastic terrorism. “Stochastic terrorism is the use of mass communications to incite random actors to carry out violent or terrorist acts that are statistically predictable but individually unpredictable. In short, remote-control murder by lone wolf.”
In an incident of stochastic terrorism, the person who pulls the trigger gets the blame. He (I use the male pronoun because the triggerman is almost always a man) may go to jail or even be killed during his act of violence. Meanwhile, the person or persons who have triggered the triggerman—in other words, the actual stochastic terrorists—often go free, protected by plausible deniability.
The formula is perversely brilliant:
- A public figure with access to the airwaves or pulpit demonizes a person or group of persons.
- With repetition, the targeted person or group is gradually dehumanized, depicted as loathsome and dangerous—arousing a combustible combination of fear and moral disgust.
- Violent images and metaphors, jokes about violence, analogies to past “purges” against reviled groups, use of righteous religious language—all of these typically stop just short of an explicit call to arms.
- When violence erupts, the public figure who have incited the violence condemn it, claiming no one could possibly have foreseen the “tragedy.”
Stochastic terrorism is not a fringe concept. It is a known terrorist modality that has been described at length by analysts. It produces terrorism patterns that are known to any member of Congress or any presidential candidate who has ever thought deeply about national or domestic security issues.
We can be confident that communications teams for Carly Fiorina, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Ben Carson, Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz, Rick Santorum and others are scrambling at this very moment to figure out the nuances of plausible deniability. They are weighing how best to distance themselves from the violence that killed a police officer and two others without making their protestations of surprised dismay sound as hollow as they are.
For months, Republican presidential candidates and conservative Christian members of Congress have been following this script for political gain. Elected Republicans in the states have sought to intimidate women and providers by demanding the release (and even publication) of identifying information and addresses—essentially a target list for perpetrators. They know exactly what they are doing. Since abortion was legalized in the United States, providers and clinics have been the target of 41 bombings and 173 arson attacks. Since the 1990s, 11 providers, clinic staff or defenders have been murdered, including the three in Colorado:
- March 10, 1993: Dr. David Gunn of Pensacola, Florida was fatally shot after being depicted in “Wanted Posters” by Operation Rescue.
- July 29, 1994: Dr. John Britton and a clinic escort, James Barrett, were both shot to death outside another Florida clinic, which has been bombed twice including in 2012.
- Dec. 30, 1994: Two receptionists, Shannon Lowney and Lee Ann Nichols, were shot and killed in Brookline, Massachusetts by an abortion foe who had previously attempted murder in Virginia.
- January 29, 1998: Robert Sanderson, a security guard at an abortion clinic in Birmingham, Alabama, died when the clinic was bombed.
- Oct. 23, 1998: Dr. Barnett Slepian was killed at his home in Amherst, New York, by a shooter with a high-powered rifle.
- May 31, 2009: Dr. George Tiller, who provided late-term abortions, was shot and killed in the lobby of his church, where he was serving as an usher.
- Nov. 27, 2015: Two civilians and a police officer died during a five hour siege in which a “lone wolf” assaulted patients and providers at a Planned Parenthood Clinic in Colorado Springs.
Since David Daleiden launched his deceptive “fetal squish” video campaign aimed at fueling outrage among abortion foes, and since Republicans in high places decided that assaulting Cecile Richards and all of the women she represents was good electoral fodder, Planned Parenthood clinics in Washington and California have been set on fire. Righteous Christian abortion foes have made death threats against providers and clinics across the country.
But the real perpetrators likely will continue to have access to pulpits, radio stations, town halls, and television, where they will express carefully crafted dismay about the carnage, hoping we won’t notice that the hands clutching the podium are covered in blood.