Abortion clinic mayhem is back. It waxes and wanes with politics, Supreme Court opinions and, of course, extreme rhetoric.
Over the holiday, a gunman entered a Planned Parenthood office in Colorado Springs. He killed three people -- university police officer Garrett Swasey, who responded to reports of shots fired at the clinic; Iraqi war veteran Ke'Arre M. Stewart; and Jennifer Markovsky, who had accompanied friends to the clinic. Each was the parent of two children.
We still don't know a lot about the suspect, but will anyone be surprised if he turns out to be a religious zealot? All the anti-abortion terrorists are.
Robert Dear may not be part of any organized group. He may just be a crazy man made crazier by the intense rhetoric around the recent undercover videos that purported to catch Planned Parenthood officials talking about selling "baby parts" for profit.
Perhaps he saw that the House Judiciary Committee called a hearing to discuss the videos in September and titled it "Examining the Horrific Abortion Practices at the Nation's Largest Abortion Provider."
Or maybe he watched the Sept. 16 Republican presidential debate and saw Carly Fiorina vibrating with rage as she described watching a video of Planned Parenthood staffers discussing keeping an aborted fetus alive in order to "harvest" its brain. A masterful performance really, especially since she made the story up.
You can easily see that the rhetoric of the anti-abortion crowd is like tinder for those already smoldering.
When someone like Dear comes along and acts out the rage, you cannot pretend that words deliberately chosen to whip people up have no consequences. That is specious, and dishonest.
Abortion is a constitutional right. It is not murder. Planned Parenthood does not traffic in body parts. It has provided fetal tissue to medical researchers. As President Obama said Tuesday in Paris, "They provide health services to women all across the country, have for generations. In many cases, it's the only organization that provides health services to impoverished women."
Certainly, you cannot draw a straight line from the loopy utterances of a desperate Republican presidential candidate to the crazy actions of a deranged human being.
But you can definitely draw a dotted line.
On March 27, 2009, I sat in the front row of a small Wichita courtroom, waiting for a jury to return its verdict in the criminal trial of George Tiller, one of the few doctors anywhere willing to perform late-term abortions.
The Kansas attorney general had accused Tiller of violating the state's stringent abortion laws.
In reality, the case was just another example of the state-sanctioned harassment of abortion doctors, and, by extension, of the rights of all women.
I sat behind Tiller for most of the trial. He had been shot in the arms by an anti-abortion terrorist. His clinic had been firebombed. Armed deputies crowded the courtroom. The threat of violence was in the air.
On most days, I sat next to Grace Wu-Monnat, a legal researcher on the case and the wife of Tiller's attorney, Dan Monnat. Tiller's wife, Jeannie, sat next to Grace. Before the verdict was announced, Grace and I plotted how we'd duck if someone had smuggled a gun into the courthouse. We didn't want to crack heads on the way down.
In less than one hour, the jury found Tiller not guilty on all counts. Trial watchers dispersed peacefully.
But two months later, Tiller was assassinated in the vestibule of his church when a Christian extremist walked in, put a gun to his temple and fired. The murderer, Scott Roeder, had attended Tiller's trial.
With that, Tiller became the fourth American doctor to lose his life for doing his job, for taking care of women in need. Eleven in total -- clinic workers, volunteers, visitors as well as police officers -- have been killed.
FOR THE RECORD
Dec. 1, 11:25 a.m.: An earlier version of this post said that 11 non-physicians had been killed in abortion-related violence. Seven have been killed.
And for what? Legal abortion is here to stay.
Even the godfather of the clinic violence movement told me as much when I phoned him on Monday.
I reached Michael Bray at home in Wilmington, Ohio. In the late 1980s, Bray, 63, served nearly four years in prison in connection with 10 bomb attacks on abortion clinics, the National Abortion Federation and the ACLU. In 1994, he wrote "A Time to Kill" outlining Biblical justification for murdering abortion doctors.
Bray has been called the "intellectual father" of the abortion terrorism movement, and is believed to be affiliated with Army of God, an extreme Christian movement that supports violence against abortion providers.
I met Bray at Roeder's murder trial in Wichita. That courtroom was tense, as well, a place where abortion rights advocates sat uneasily next to convicted abortion terrorists like Bray. He had come to give moral support to Roeder, who was convicted of first-degree murder and is serving a life term.
He told me he hoped that Roeder would eventually be set free. "There are bombers who have been released from jail who haven't bombed again," he told me, smiling.
On Monday, I asked Bray whether he thought the Planned Parenthood videos and the overheated conversation around them had inspired the Colorado Springs rampage.
"I suppose it could," he said. "But I don't see any reason to hold back the truth because you are afraid of the consequences. Those films exposed things that people have been ignoring."
Bray has kept a lower profile in the last few years, but he has never renounced violence against abortion providers.
"I have obviously laid out a case why it's justifiable to defend the innocent and in the course of doing so, you can do harm to the one who is killing someone else," he said. "But I couldn't defend going out and shooting policemen."
On Tuesday morning, a new item was up on the Army of God website.
"Robert Lewis Dear aside, Planned Parenthood murders helpless preborn children," it said. "Those murderous pigs at Planned Parenthood are babykillers and they reap what they sow."
This is extreme. And I would not expect anything else from a group like Army of God.
But when someone like Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee articulates a moral equivalence between that sort of carnage and the legal abortions performed at Planned Parenthood, we have to understand his words as a dog whistle to extremists.
"There's no excuse for killing other people," said Huckabee, "whether it's happening inside the Planned Parenthood headquarters, inside their clinics where many millions of babies die or whether it's people attacking Planned Parenthood."
MORE ON PLANNED PARENTHOOD SHOOTING