Coming on the heels of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, the news of last month’s Paris attacks immediately drew many onlookers’ minds to terrorist organizations like ISIS and al-Qaeda. Similarly, and especially for reproductive rights advocates, Friday’s reports of an active shooter near a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood clinic evoked the long and sordid history of terrorist violence against abortion providers.
In fact, both the FBI and the National Abortion Federation had described an “uptick” in clinic harassment and violence — including arson — in recent months, since the release of dubious “Center for Medical Progress” videos spreading the inaccurate claim that Planned Parenthood sold fetal tissue (or “baby parts”) for profit. One of the clinics featured in those videos was the Colorado Springs clinic. Then, this weekend, it was reported that Robert Lewis Dear, who shot 12 people and killed three outside that clinic (his victims included a number of police officers) had said something about “no more baby parts” during his interrogation.
Clearly, this demonstrated a motive. And yet, in their reporting about the issue, many mainstream media outlets, from broadcast to print, hesitated to ascribe a motive to the killer. In particular, they seemed to avoid the “T” word: terrorism.
At the end of a year marked by Black Lives Matter protests, activists felt this story continued to highlight a disparity in the way both law enforcement and media treat the perpetrators and victims of violence. For instance, the New York Times‘ story on Michael Brown’s death at the hands of policeman Darren Wilson had noted that the dead child was “no angel” — while, initially, the same paper’s story on Robert Lewis Dear, a cop killer, described him using the phrase “gentle loner.” That wording was later scrubbed, but not before the hashtag #gentleloner made an appearance on Twitter, along with a white terrorist bingo board mocking the way many outlets cover terrorists when they’re white and male.
“The press seems to have this allergy to calling a duck a duck. If it walks like it and quacks like it, then call it what it is,” says Pamela Merritt, co-founder and co-director of Repro Action, a new direct action group aiming to increase access to abortion and advance reproductive justice. “There’s a reluctance to call violence against certain bodies ‘violence’ and terrorism against certain communities ‘terrorism.'”
Merritt underlines what many have said on social media: these narratives represent a confluence of several strains of social prejudice. The first is the idea that, since 9/11, terrorists are Islamic and not white (certainly no one called Timothy McVeigh a disturbed loner); the second is an obsession with getting “both sides” of the abortion debate, which leads to less scrutiny on anti-abortion extremists; and third is the way white killers are often afforded more of a presumption of innocence than black victims, both in the media and by law enforcement. Someone like Dear or Dylann Roof is taken into custody even after committing mass murders, whereas young, black suspects like Freddie Gray and Laquan McDonald, suspected of smaller infractions, are killed without arrest.
Instead of defining these acts of politically motivated violence as such, the preferred narrative in outlets from the Times to the local news to the tabloids is a “lone wolf” story, which inevitably emphasizes that Dear was “off the grid” and crazy, a drifter who kept to himself. Photos of his remote cabins and trailers began to proliferate almost as soon as he was named.
Rather than digging into his associations or wondering how he might have been exposed to anti-Planned Parenthood propaganda, reporters pursued the loner narrative, interviewing neighbors who described Dear as strange and antisocial but “not dangerous.” Although he has quite a checkered criminal past — including domestic violence and “peeping tom” incidents, as well as cruelty to animal charges — Dear’s eccentric lifestyle is what’s leading many of the stories about him. (In the wake of the Paris attacks, I read several stories that described some of the killers as having once been kind and gentle with neighborhood kids. Just imagine the reaction, though, if that had been the leading anecdote in the stories about that act of terrorism.)
Media experts see this “lone wolf” pattern as being a product of the demand for an easily digestible narrative that can be produced quickly. “News organizations work according to standardized patterns and routines. That goes from everything from how they gather quotes to the narrative tropes that they come to rely on. In academia, we call these ‘news frames,'” says Nikki Usher, a professor of media studies at The George Washington University. “The loner, outsider, troubled gunman is a media frame that news organizations employ because it helps them give shape to their reporting and because it creates a standardized narrative for the public to digest. ” But, Usher adds, social media can be a corrective to some of these frames when they lack context. This weekend, Facebook, Twitter, and social media users, as well as activist petitions, demanded that outlets use the word “terrorism.”
This week, Feminist Majority Foundation President Eleanor Smeal told Flavorwire that she wants the media to ask all the questions they would ask about an ISIS terrorist: “In that case, the media would immediately ask: ‘Who, what, where, when and who does he know? Is this going to end with him or is it going to continue? Who else is involved? Where did he get the gun?'” she says. Smeal points out that Dear couldn’t have been entirely off the grid if some of the allegations about him, including his Craigslist ads for S&M encounters, are true. “This is a man that shot five police officers. To say ‘he’s just crazy’ is to dismiss it,” she says. She refers back to all the harassers and arsonists and killers who have targeted clinics, and wonders, “Are we to believe they’re all crazy?”
Similarly, Miranda Blue, Senior Researcher for progressive group People for the American Way, cautions against dismissing practitioners of right-wing violence as merely “disturbed” or “crazy.” Over the decades, Blue notes, the mental state of terrorists has varied — but the effect of their actions was the same. “Whether or not it’s a person who’s carefully thought through a terrible set of ideas, it’s still terrorism if it has the goal of trying to prevent people from trying to practice medicine,” she says. “I’m reluctant to blame any group for a terrible event like this, but responsible media coverage of this story should include the history of clinic violence and its connection to set of a set of ideological beliefs that have been bandied about in the fringes of the anti-abortion movement for decades.”
It’s not even confined to the fringe. Yesterday, MSNBC’s Irin Carmon interviewed leading anti-abortion movement figures who essentially shrugged their shoulders, saying that Planned Parenthood itself was to blame, not their movement.
But even labeling these acts as terrorism doesn’t go far enough for many activists who have been monitoring this issue, and who say the warning bells have been sounding for some time — even before this summer’s propaganda videos. Even as violence decreased, clinics across the country and experienced a dramatic increase in threats, according to the Feminist Majority Foundation’s Clinic Access Project: “The percentage of clinics impacted by targeted threats and intimidation increased from 26.6% of all clinics in 2010 to more than half of all clinics in 2014, or 51.9%.” In the past, such targeted threats as “Wanted” posters with doctors’ faces on them have led to murders, which is why activists have been so concerned.
One of the reasons that there’s so much frustration with the framing of this ongoing domestic terrorism story is that law enforcement can’t — and shouldn’t — arrest people for speech or propaganda. Yet the press, which has done such a dogged job analyzing Islamist YouTube videos and researching the ISIS recruitment process on social media, could be an asset in exposing the truth about how domestic terrorism operates, and shining a light on that dark fringe environment in which it thrives. Independent media has been on the story for some time, but it certainly deserves the full cable-news or front-page treatment.
Merritt, of Reproaction, recalls that cable news devoted plenty of coverage of the doctored Planned Parenthood videos and the subsequent hearings in Congress, and outlets that covered those stories could have dug deeper. “The press is uniquely positioned to see the churning of violent rhetoric against Planned Parenthood,” she says. “When we look at international terrorism, we report on the power that rhetoric has for Daesh or other terrorist organizations. The mainstream press needs to put its thinking caps on and see that being born within the borders of the USA does not miraculously absolve people from committing terrorism.”