(WOMENSENEWS)–It’s been more than a decade since I’ve covered a murder of an abortion provider.
But I can’t say I was surprised by the horrifying news of Dr. George Tiller’s killing this past Sunday, on his way to church.
The threat has been ever present, sometimes quietly, sometimes dramatically. Abortion providers and abortion rights organizations remember well how Clayton Waagner spent nine months threatening to shoot clinic workers and mailing anthrax threats to hundreds of clinics and abortion rights organizations in 2001-2002.
Now, newsgathering on Tiller’s murder is intense and there is much that can’t be known about the circumstances.
But as the coverage unfolds those searching for clear-cut justice at the end of this ghastly murder shouldn’t hold their breath.
Political crimes like the assassination of Tiller are messy affairs.
That has certainly been true in the case of the 30-year history of antiabortion bombings, arsons and assassinations, some of which, including the Clayton Waagner capers, I have covered for Women’s eNews in the past.
Media coverage of these crimes over the years, has tended to be partial and not particularly well informed. But times have changed and we are already experiencing a deluge of mainstream press and blog coverage.
Here are a few things to help sort through the likely frustrations of an investigation of a political crime in a white hot media environment
Beware the ‘Lone Nut’ Theory
Few major antiabortion crimes are carried out by lone nuts.
In fact, the known perpetrators have historically been neither nuts nor alone. The crimes are generally well planned and involve a number of people who provide varying degrees of support, before and after the fact, witting or unwitting.
Tiller was the victim of a previous assassination attempt, in which he was wounded in both arms. His assailant was the then Oregon-based Rachelle "Shelly" Shannon, a longtime antiabortion militant who had previously protested at Tiller’s clinic and knew the layout.
In the wake of her arrest, the feds dug up from her backyard the first real evidence of the existence of the underground Army of God, in the form of the "Army of God Manual," which detailed how to engage in attacks on clinics and staff.
Shannon had traveled the west in a remarkable crime spree, squirting butyric acid into clinics (which produces a horrifying, unbearable stench) and committing a series of arsons. Among her un-indicted co-conspirators was a couple who provided a safe house on her journeys–as well as gas cans later used in the arsons.
Prosecutors do not always have enough evidence to prove that such people are witting participants in the crimes. But this is no surprise. We are familiar with such underground networks from real and fictional stories of criminal gangs and covert intelligence operations. People understand that information is often on a need-to–know basis and often the less one knows, the better for everyone.
Separate the Crime From Its Politics
Tiller’s death will be ruled, legally speaking, as a homicide or murder and the criminal case that will necessarily be based on a set of forensic evidence. Such findings may or may not determine whether the suspect, Scott Roeder, acted alone and why. But premature conclusions that the alleged shooter acted alone, are just that, premature.
But this was no ordinary high-profile murder.
This one is politically charged and may fairly be called an assassination.
Tiller, after all, has been a prime strategic target of the full range of the antiabortion movement for a generation. His clinic has been bombed, burned, vandalized (as recently as early May) in addition to the previous attempt on Tiller’s life. Unsurprisingly, the Army of God is celebrating; stating at the top of its Web site:
"The lives of innocent babies scheduled to be murdered by George Tiller are spared by the action of American hero Scott Roeder. George Tiller the Babykiller reaped what he sowed and is now in eternal hell."
Political statements of pro-choice and antiabortion groups also demonstrate the political context of this crime.
Pro-choice groups immediately denounced the inflammatory rhetoric against abortion providers in general and Tiller in particular.
Anti-abortion leaders are worried that the murder will reflect poorly on their movement.
"George Tiller was a mass murderer and we cannot stop saying that," Randall Terry, the former head of Operation Rescue told the Associated Press. Terry said he was now concerned that the Obama administration "will use Tiller’s killing to intimidate pro-lifers into surrendering our most effective rhetoric and actions."
(Operation Rescue was the premier militant direct action group of the 1980s, conducting massive and often violent protests. It has since fractured and consists of smaller, but no less dedicated groups around the country.)
Patrick Mahoney of the Christian Defense Coalition told the AP: "I’d hope they wouldn’t try to broad-brush the entire pro-life movement as some sort of extremist movement because of what happened in Wichita."
Be Alert to Anniversaries
Anniversaries are important to those engaged in long-term revolutionary struggles including those on the American far right.
Tim McVeigh, for example, blew up the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995 on the anniversary of the federal assault on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas.
It may be no coincidence that Tiller’s assassination occurred on the sixth anniversary of the capture of Eric Rudolph who was convicted of pipe bombings the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, a gay bar, and two abortion clinics.
Rudolph’s bombing of the clinic in Birmingham, Ala., resulted in the death of an off duty police officer and the horrible maiming of a nurse. (The pipe bombs were packed with nails which functioned as shrapnel.)
This context becomes significant because Roeder, the suspect in Tiller’s killing, was, according to a McClatchey newspapers report, affiliated with the "Freemen," a far right movement that does not recognize the legitimacy of the government of the United States and declares themselves "sovereign citizens." These, in turn, provided the hard core of the militia movement of the 1990s.
In 1996, Roeder was arrested while driving a car without a license plate (sovereign citizens don’t believe in such things as drivers and marriage licenses). Officers found bomb making materials in the trunk.
Many of the proponents and practitioners of antiabortion violence, such as those affiliated with the antiabortion Army of God, have emerged from this stew of extreme far right movements.
As the legal case against Scott Roeder gets pressed in the days and weeks ahead, all of this will be in the air; but only so much of it will make its way into court evidence.
Frederick Clarkson has written about politics and religion for 25 years. He is the author of "Eternal Hostility: the Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy;" and most recently, editor of Dispatches from the Religous Left: the Future of Faith and Politics in America.