In some ways, the profile of Robert Lewis Dear, the man who was arrested for a shooting rampage at the Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs on Friday, is similar to that of the other six individuals who have been charged with abortion-related murders in the past two decades. But unlike them, Dear does not appear to have a history of public involvement with the organized anti-choice movement. Though several sources, including an ex-wife, told the New York Times that he was staunchly against abortion, another former partner said that “It was never really a topic of discussion.”
The contrasts between this horrific incident and those of the past reveals the extent to which abortion opponents, including virtually all the current Republican presidential candidates, have succeeded in raising the demonization of Planned Parenthood to an unprecedented level. This has been aided, of course, by the release of the discredited videos made by the Center for Medical Progress (CMP).
Unlike nearly all the actions of other anti-abortion terrorists, the violence at the Colorado Springs clinic for which Dear was arrested did not appear to specifically target abortion providers. Rather, the institution of Planned Parenthood itself, along with anyone who happened to be on the premises, appeared to be the intended victim. In fact, those who tragically died at the scene included a police officer and two individuals who were accompanying friends to the clinic and not receiving any services themselves.
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Robert Dear, it is important to note, has a range of apparent grievances. Fitting the stereotype of the “angry white male,” according to those who knew him, he is virulently anti-government and deeply opposed to President Obama. He also has a history of being accused of domestic violence, rape, and other disturbing behaviors concerning women. Though I think it would be inappropriate at this remove to put a definitive psychiatric label on him, it is safe to conclude that he is a troubled and aggressive individual, as several of his former neighbors have stated.
What is striking to me, given that abortion was only one of several issues bothering him, is that a Planned Parenthood clinic was ultimately where he, according to authorities, chose to act on his rage. Why, for example, not a government office, as other men with similar profiles to Dear’s have targeted?
The report we have thus far of Dear’s interview with police after his arrest is that he mentioned “no more baby parts”—a clear reference to the misinformation put out by the CMP videos about Planned Parenthood’s donations of fetal tissue to researchers—as well as numerous other topics in a rambling statement. I suggest that one way to interpret the attack on the Colorado Springs clinic is that Planned Parenthood, once the most mainstream of institutions supported by Republicans and Democrats alike, is becoming the ultimate symbol of evil to those on the extreme right. Thanks to the drumbeat of lies from irresponsible figures, it is becoming the place, at this historical moment, for unstable individuals with terroristic impulses to act on their diffuse anger.
From the moment that the CMP videos attacking Planned Parenthood were released in July, and, notably, after the Colorado Springs shootings, abortion opponents obsessively dwelt on the theme of “baby parts” being “harvested” and “sold” for profit. Carly Fiorina, for example, at a Republican candidates’ debate, famously said, “Watch a fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking while someone says, ‘We have to keep it alive to harvest its brain.’” Fiorina later doubled down on her statement, even as other conservatives acknowledged the untruthfulness of the claim.
After the shooting, Donald Trump took the occasion to repeat his earlier assertion that Planned Parenthood was “selling” fetal tissue “like parts to a car.“ Also after the Colorado Springs tragedy, Erick Erickson, a prominent right-wing blogger, compared Cecile Richards to the infamous Nazi doctor Josef Mengele and went on to state, “Under her leadership at Planned Parenthood, doctors have been killing children and harvesting the children’s organs. In some cases, the children are born alive. In some case[s], whole children are born and then carved up.”
Without more information, it is impossible at this time to directly tie Friday’s tragedy to any individual abortion opponent or particular statement. But that does not mean we should dismiss the idea that this nonstop barrage of anti-Planned Parenthood vitriol plays a part in inflaming the imagination of people like Robert Dear. In a very perceptive piece about the incident in Colorado, Valerie Tarico discussed the concept, drawn from media studies, of “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.”
Tarico pointed to the fact that in September, two months after the release of the first CMP videos, the FBI warned of probable attacks on Planned Parenthood facilities. And indeed, in the months leading up to Colorado Springs, there have been a number of cases of fire-bombings and other acts of vandalism at abortion-providing facilities. In other words, while abortion opponents are piously denying any possible connection between their Planned Parenthood bashing and Dear’s action, the FBI clearly knew better.
Only a lowering of the inflammatory and blatantly untruthful rhetoric about the organization and a cessation of the witch hunt against it through the various “investigations” under way will change the seductiveness of Planned Parenthood as a target. Sadly, there appears little reason to hope that these things will take place.