By Frederick Clarkson
Wednesday, February 13, 2002
For years, law enforcement officers have allowed anti-abortion violence to thrive. Now, the federal crackdown on unrepentant terrorist Clayton Waagner could signal a new commitment to protecting abortion providers.
(WOMENSENEWS)--Clayton Waagner may be the most notorious terrorist never to have fired a shot or bombed a building. Waging a brazen criminal campaign against abortion providers, including several anthrax hoaxes last fall, he has come to epitomize the cult of violence that has grown out of the anti-abortion movement. But his case may also signal a long-overdue change in how law enforcement treats crimes against abortion providers.
U.S. Marshals arrested Waagner, 45, in December, nearly a year after he escaped from custody while awaiting sentencing on federal weapons and stolen-vehicles charges. At the time of his initial arrest in 1999--after being pulled over in a stolen Winnebago--he said he was on his way to Seattle to kill an abortion provider. His only regret, he testified at his trial, was that he hadn't managed to kill one. After his escape, he claimed that God had sprung him from jail so he could finish what he had started.
The fugitive Waagner issued a manifesto, posted on the Army of God Web site, threatening to kill abortion-clinic staff and to arm himself to wage war. He portrayed himself as at war with the "the most powerful country in the world," a nation that views him as a terrorist.
"They're right," he wrote, "I am a terrorist. And that's the reason I'm posting this letter." He further declared that he had been driving across the country scouting out abortion clinics, assembling a cache of weapons and compiling dossiers on clinic staff in order "to kill as many of them as I can."
"Pray," he requested of readers, "that every one I kill causes a hundred to quit."
Last fall, Waagner claimed credit for delivering anthrax threats: envelopes containing white powder sent via both the U.S. Postal Service and Federal Express, in the name of the Army of God, to some 550 clinics and abortion-rights organizations. At about the same time, envelopes stuffed with real anthrax were arriving at the offices of media outlets and members of Congress.
Many of Waagner's anthrax mailings were opened, requiring tremendous mobilizations of federal, state and municipal resources during the height of the real anthrax scare. Each envelope had to be treated as though it might contain real anthrax. In some cases whole city blocks had to be evacuated.
Indeed, everyone who was touched by Waagner's flight from justice, from clinic security staff to the federal law enforcement agents to the Army of God that cheered his escape and encouraged his rampage, agreed that Waagner's threats needed to be taken seriously--and that his style of terrorism worked.
"The use of anthrax or the threat of the same is not popular, especially in the wake of 9/11. But it was certainly effectual," observed Army of God leader Rev. Michael Bray in a recent essay on the Army of God Web site. "Waagner disrupted abortuary [sic] operations throughout the country with the very fact of his being on the lam."
Remarkably, Waagner almost single-handedly made anti-abortion violence synonymous with terrorism. To accomplish this goal, timing was everything: He was able to exploit the national panic caused by the attacks of Sept. 11 and the deadly anthrax mailings that followed.
In doing so, however, Waagner reframed the way the public and law enforcement view his tactics and his cause. He has already been sentenced to 30 years in prison for his 1999 crime spree and his escape. Now federal prosecutors say he will soon be charged for a series of major crimes. Charges will stem from his alleged role in threatening abortion providers with mailed anthrax threats, a carjacking and series of bank robberies he used to finance his flight from justice.
The feds are also taking a close look at the possible role of Army of God in aiding and abetting Waagner's flight from justice. Waagner gives all appearances of being a committed convert to the religious vision propagated by the Army of God, some of whom he corresponded with while in prison. Although it seems unlikely that prosecutors will be able to turn Waagner into an informer, the way they sometimes can with organized-crime figures, his trials will likely reveal much about the anti-abortion underground.
All of this represents an historic shift. Abortion providers and abortion rights advocates have long said that many law enforcement officials practice a double standard: Crimes committed against abortion providers were somehow less important than those committed against anyone else.
It was probably Reagan-era FBI Director William Webster who turned the most infamously blind eye toward the growing pattern of clinic violence and set the tone for federal law enforcement agents. In a 1984 appearance on CBS's Face the Nation, he bluntly declared that bombing a "bank or a post office is terrorism. Bombing an abortion clinic is not an act of terrorism."
The recent book "Targets of Hatred: Anti-Abortion Terrorism" catalogs many examples of what Webster's view meant to abortion providers, including repeated suggestions by local, state and federal authorities that clinic fires might have been set by clinic owners themselves, although no clinic owner has ever been so charged. Authors Patricia Baird-Windle and Eleanor Bader conceived their book following the murders of abortion providers in 1993 and 1994; it was intended, they write, to get the "media and legislators and most important law enforcement to believe us when we described anti-abortionists as domestic terrorists."
Although much progress has been made in recent years, attitudes among law enforcement officials seem to have changed dramatically and widely in light of Clayton Waagner's career as an anti-abortion terrorist, and in the wake of Sept. 11. As a society, maybe--just maybe--we have learned that terrorism and threats of terrorism against any of us are attacks on all of us. And that terrorism and threats of terrorism against abortion providers are no exception.
Frederick Clarkson has reported on politics and religion for 20 years. He is the author of Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy, Common Courage Press.
Army of God:
U.S. Marshals Service:
Feminist Majority Foundation National Clinic Access Project: