As we wait to learn more about the background and motivation of Robert Dear, the alleged murderer of three people at a Planned Parenthood facility in Colorado, anti-choice activists and pols are rushing to distance themselves from the terrible act. Senator Ted Cruz has ingeniously (if not very credibly) sought to place Dear in the camp of the hated liberal enemy. But, by and large, right-to-life leaders are relying on a ritualized tradition of deploring violence they developed and refined during the 1980s and 1990s, when terrorism against abortion facilities and providers was a relatively frequent phenomenon.
It is not, accordingly, fair or accurate to suggest that the palpable desire of American conservatives to re-criminalize abortion, or their recent demonizing of Planned Parenthood, “inspired” actions like Dear’s, even if it becomes apparent he was sane and politically motivated. Conservative opinion-leaders should, however, be held accountable for two persistent strains of extremist rhetoric that provide a theoretical basis for violence against abortion providers specifically and enemies of “traditional values” generally.
The first is the comparison of legalized abortion to the great injustices of world history, including slavery and the Holocaust. The first analogy helps anti-choicers think of themselves as champions of a new civil-rights movement while facilitating a characterization of Roe v. Wade as a temporary and disreputable constitutional precedent like Dred Scott. The second follows from the right-to-life movement’s logic of regarding abortion as homicide and treats the millions of legal abortions that have been performed in the U.S. since 1973 as analogous to the Nazi extermination of Jews and other “undesirables.”
Both the slavery and Holocaust analogies for abortion have become commonplace “truisms” in the right-to-life movement and in allied Christian-right organizations (where there is a natural tendency to take on the righteous mantles of religiously motivated abolitionists and of the German “Confessing Church” resistance to Hitler). Conservative politicians have been more circumspect in using these inflammatory comparisons — though George W. Bush pulled off a clever dog-whistle reference to Dred Scott in the 2004 presidential debates, leaving most watchers puzzled while anti-choice activists nodded knowingly. But the white-hot atmosphere of conservative “base” competition in the current Republican presidential nominating contest may be loosening the bonds of self-restraint.
Mike Huckabee is by far the least inhibited presidential candidate when it comes to American Holocaust rhetoric, despite repeated warnings from groups like the Anti-Defamation League. Here was a characteristic Huckabee remark about a year ago, delivered to a group of conservative Christians practically in the shadow of the Auschwitz death facilities:
If you felt something incredibly powerful at Auschwitz and Birkenau over the 11 million killed worldwide and the 1.5 million killed on these grounds, cannot we feel something extraordinary about 55 million murdered in our own country in the wombs of their mothers?
Another 2016 presidential candidate frequently described as “genial” by mainstream media observers, Dr. Ben Carson has embraced both the Holocaust and slavery analogies for abortion, and has wrapped both in a conspiracy theory that treats American liberals as a sinister and deceitful quasi-totalitarian force plotting to rob the people of fundamental liberties.
During the recent Republican campaign to “defund” Planned Parenthood, Senator Ted Cruz sent a letter to ministers around the country referring to legalized abortion as an “ongoing holocaust.” His father, Reverend Rafael Cruz, who frequently warms up crowds at his son’s political events, is fond of citing legalized abortion (and, for that matter, same-sex marriage, Obamacare, and climate-change regulation) as an example of creeping totalitarianism in America, sometimes comparing it to Communism and sometimes to Nazism.
Senator Marco Rubio has not gone over the brink into Holocaust analogies for abortion, but he has used the slavery meme.
And virtually every Republican presidential candidate has supported the mendacious campaign to accuse Planned Parenthood of “barbaric” practices involving illegal late-term abortions and “baby part sales.”
But there’s a second element of contemporary extremist rhetoric from conservatives that brings them much closer to incitement of violence: the claim that the Second Amendment encompasses a right to revolution against “tyrannical” government. Again, Mike Huckabee, Ben Carson, and Ted Cruz have embraced this idea most avidly. Here’s Cruz:
The 2nd Amendment to the Constitution isn’t just for protecting hunting rights, and it’s not only to safeguard your right to target practice. It is a Constitutional right to protect your children, your family, your home, our lives, and to serve as the ultimate check against government tyranny—for the protection of liberty.
Ben Carson notoriously went so far as to suggest that had European Jewry possessed the gun rights Americans now claim, the Holocaust might have been significantly mitigated.
It’s not difficult to see how toxic these arguments become when combined. If legalized abortion (and its alleged extension into open infanticide via the “barbaric” practices of government-subsidized Planned Parenthood “baby-killers”) represents government-sponsored mass extermination and/or a perversion of the Constitution comparable to slavery, and there is a fundamental right to violent resistance against this and other acts of tyranny, then it could definitely cross the minds of conscientious gun-owning anti-choicers to emulate John Brown or the conspirators against Hitler. After all, the two greatest wars in American history were undertaken to destroy the Slave Power and Nazism. Why not a small individual war against their contemporary equivalent?
Perhaps none of these influences affected Robert Dear, and quite likely it was a coincidence that his murder spree occurred in Colorado Springs, sometimes regarded as the Christian-right capital of America, where apocalyptic rhetoric about abortion and the wickedness of secular liberals has long been in the air.
Nevertheless, it is not enough for conservatives to deplore violence in practice while justifying it in theory. Anti-choicers are arguably one successful presidential election from realizing most of their dreams, from the defunding of Planned Parenthood to national restrictions on abortion providers to a Supreme Court that will decisively reverse Roe v. Wade. They should be willing and able to denounce the lethal twin ideas that their political opponents are quasi-Nazis and that patriots stockpiling weapons have not only the right but the obligation to use bullets if ballots don’t suffice.