The Right began the current cycle of political violence in America

Summary: Left-wing rioters at Berkeley, Portland, and Evergreen College remind us about the Left’s long history of political violence. But during the past several decades the Right  has been more violent. Here is a brief recap about one front of the Right’s war against America. Expect more political violence as our politics become more polarized, with increasingly extreme claims by both sides (e.g., each accuses the others of being traitorous Nazis) –unless we act, showing that this is not acceptable in America.

Update: My prediction of escalating political violence immediately proved correct: “GOP baseball shooting” in today’s WaPo.

“A gunman opened fire Wednesday morning on a baseball practice at a park in Alexandria involving Republican members of Congress, injuring several people including at least one lawmaker, Steve Scalise …The wounded also included at least one Capitol police officer and the suspected shooter …Alexandria Police Chief Michael Brown said two of his officers engaged in ‘gunfire and return fire.’”

CNN: 3 killed at Planned Parenthood
CNN, 27 November 2015.

 Excerpt from “The Abortion Battlefield

By Marcia Angell  (M.D. and Professor of Social Medicine at Harvard).
From The New York Review of Books, 22 June 2017 issue.

Books reviewed.

…In 1986 an evangelical Protestant minister, Randall Terry, started an organization called Operation Rescue, which advocated stopping abortions by nearly any means possible, including firebombing clinics and harassing and threatening clinic doctors and staff and their families. There were more than 60,000 arrests at Operation Rescue actions, according to Haugeberg, and the organization went bankrupt within a few years because of the mounting number of lawsuits.

Wanted Poster for Dr. Gunn
Click to enlarge.

But the turn toward violence continued. There were “Wanted” leaflets posted for Dr. David Gunn, for example, describing him as a “circuit riding abortionist,” and giving his address, car make, and license number, other personal details, and the address of his clinic — where he “kills children.” Gunn was murdered in 1993 by an antiabortion activist named Michael Griffin. One of Griffin’s apologists said, “Defending Michael Griffin’s action came naturally to me. Babies were not murdered on the day David Gunn was shot and a serial killer would never kill again.”

One problem was the lax attitude toward law enforcement at abortion clinics. Firebombing and arson were treated as isolated incidents, and the perpetrators were lightly punished, sometimes again and again.

One repeat offender was Shelley Shannon, who was eventually sentenced to 11 years in prison for the attempted first-degree murder of Dr. George Tiller, an abortion provider, but in the 5 years before that, according to Haugeberg, she had been “arrested nearly 50 times and charged with a crime 35 times, usually trespassing. When she was found guilty, she was typically sentenced to perform community service or serve up to 30 days in jail and to pay nominal fines.”

The murder of Dr. Gunn prompted Congress to pass the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act in 1994. President Clinton, the first president to support abortion rights unambivalently, directed his cabinet to investigate and prosecute activists who interfered with the provision of abortion services. His attorney general, Janet Reno, authorized the FBI to investigate whether Shannon had assistance when she firebombed clinics, and directed federal marshals to protect endangered clinics after two more abortion providers were murdered in 1994.

Haugeberg devotes most of a chapter in her book to Shannon — a sobering account of how an unexceptional young woman became an increasingly violent fanatic. Her motivation, as she said repeatedly, was to save the lives of “unborn children.” In her trial for attempted murder, she explained it this way:

“I believe there are occasions when a person becomes so evil and perhaps to stop the crimes they’re causing or to stop them from murdering all kinds of other people, such as in the case of Hitler…it may take something like their death to stop what they’re doing.”

But there was also a grisly aspect to her. Haugeberg writes:

“Shannon and her comrades encouraged pro-lifers to exact physical pain and suffering on abortion providers ‘by removing their hands, or at least their thumbs below the second digit.’”

Shannon, still in prison and a heroine to the extreme wing of the pro-life movement, was intensely devoted to her network of fellow zealots, which seems to have been dominated by men.

When it became more difficult to confront doctors at their clinics because of better protection, antiabortion extremists found them at their homes and churches. After Shannon’s attempt on his life, George Tiller was later murdered in his church by a friend of Shannon’s. Another doctor, Barnett Slepian, wrote about the intimidation he experienced…

“The members of the local non-violent pro-life community may continue to picket my home wearing large “Slepian Kills Children” buttons, which they did on July 25. They may also display the six-foot banner…. They may continue to scream that I am a murderer and a killer when I enter the clinics at which they “peacefully” exercise their First Amendment Right of freedom of speech…. But please don’t feign surprise, dismay and certainly not innocence when a more volatile and less restrained member of the group decides to react to their inflammatory rhetoric by shooting an abortion provider. They all share the blame.”

Four years later, Slepian was murdered at his home. The total count between 1978 and 2015, writes Haugeberg, was 11 murders (nine of them physicians), 26 attempted murders, 185 arsons, 42 bombings, and 1,534 vandalizations of clinics.

——————————————

Marcia Angell

About the author

Marcia Angell is an M.D. and Professor of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School and the former Editor in Chief of The New England Journal of Medicine. See her bio and her articles at the NYRB.

Subscribe to the New York Review Of Books!
It deserves to be at the top of your reading pile.

For More Information

See Media Matters collection of news reports about right-wing violence.  To go even further back in time, remember the 1984 assassination of liberal Alan Berg (attorney and talk radio show host) in Denver — by members of the white nationalist group The Order. See the Denver Post’s memorial.

Another example of a liberal accurately describing rising right-wing violence but amnesiac about left-wing violence: “Alt-right hopes to organize street-fighting goon squad: Is it more than macho posturing?” by Amanda Marcotte at Salon — “Far-right fanboys are trying to organize street gangs, and the most effective way to fight back may be mockery.”

If you found this post of use, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. Also see these posts about the the far-right, about political violence, about reforming America – steps to a new politics, and especially these…

Here are the books

Also see Opposition and Intimidation: The Abortion Wars and Strategies of Political Harassment by Alesha Doan (associate prof of political science, U of Kansas).

Women against Abortion: Inside the Largest Moral Reform Movement of the Twentieth Century
Available from Amazon.
About Abortion: Terminating Pregnancy in Twenty-First-Century America
Available at Amazon.

 

24 thoughts on “The Right began the current cycle of political violence in America

  1. The headline is about a violent right-wing, but the text is about violence against abortionists.

    At first I thought you were going to draw a moral equivalence between our elected officials (recently shot by left-winger socialists, left-wing insane persons, etc.) and abortionists.

    As I read further, I also thought you might bring up the violence that late-term abortionists perpetrate against babies, as a counter-point.

    I’m having trouble seeing your message here. I feel I should be reading between the lines.

    1. Andrew,

      “the text is about violence against abortionists.”

      Yes, that’s the specific type of violence by the Right that helped ignite this cycle.

      “I also thought you might bring up the violence that late-term abortionists perpetrate against babies, as a counter-point.”

      No. I am not concerned with the motives of vigilante murderers. They are a pox on society, to be ruthlessly crushed. History is littered with societies that failed to do so, and paid heavily for it.

      “I feel I should be reading between the lines.”

      I suspect you are having difficulty seeing the lines through your ideological filters. Take then off and try again.

    1. Karl,

      Thank you for pointing this out! I hadn’t heard about it. I’ll add it to the post.

      Still, this is an isolated incident. The violence described in this post — from threats and harrassments to assassinations — was systematic, and not strongly condemned by the Right’s leaders. That’s unforgivable and revealing.

      We will see how the Left reacts when the violence of their extremists escalates to those levels (again, back to the levels of the early 1970s).

  2. You started it! No you did! No you started it! Mommmmmy!!!!!

    Forgive those of us readers who expected better from those editors here who actually want to be insightful.

    1. Arctic,

      “You started it! No you did! No you started it! Mommmmmy!!!!!”

      Can you provide a more specific rebuttal? This discusses assassination and intimidation by a political movement (aka terrorism). Most people (but apparently not you) consider this a serious problem.

      Your mocking response to an article posted the same day as political another assassination (this time left on right) is especially odd.

  3. Interesting. Why did you begin your accounting of political violence with the anti-abortion movement? I suppose the Weatherman/Weathermen/Weather Underground Organization was a sinister (pun intended) right wing plot to discredit the peaceful, left wing opposition to the Vietnam War. After all, most of their victims were law enforcement, you know ‘pigs’, and they don’t count. Some of the cherubic, pacifist Weathermen members were ‘martyred’ when the peaceful explosive device they were building went off prematurely. No doubt that the components of that device were secretly sabotaged by the Young Republicans. Yeah, an interesting selection of the starting point for your timeline.

    1. Just an Old Guy,

      “I suppose the Weatherman/Weathermen/Weather Underground Organization was a sinister (pun intended) right wing plot to discredit the peaceful, left wing opposition to the Vietnam War.”

      These decisions are somewhat arbitrary. But the Weatherman was largely an early 1970s movement, and was done by 1977. The extreme anti-abortion violence was a 1990s movement. By “current cycle” I meant by the current generation. Guys like me of the Weatherman’s generation are in our 60s.

  4. There is an interesting equivalence proposed here: in order to commit political violence (as opposed to simple criminal or psychotic/sociopathic violence), the actor must be convinced that their act will save lives, or will advance the greater good far beyond the risk and cost that they themselves will incur. Clearly this is the case with political violence perpetrated against abortionists. And while one does not need to agree, the case they make is fairly straightforward and logical. If you believe that life begins at conception, then abortion must necessarily be murder. In order to prevent mass murder, all actions are then not only possible but perhaps morally mandatory. I don’t agree with this line of thinking, but I challenge anyone to closely review the Kermit Gosnell story to explore the strength of one’s convictions regarding political violence in this arena. The number of lives that could have been saved depends on how one defines life, but I posit that given the opportunity, the moral conclusion of using violence to prevent Gosnell’s particular actions is difficult to deny.

    Regarding Mr. Hodgkinson, he appears to have arrived at a similar moral calculation for different reasons. Current popular leftist rhetoric includes, for example, that Republican health care reform will kill millions of people, and that Republicans are responsible for suppressing action on climate change that endangers the entirety of humanity. Again, the logic is simple. If one believes that Republicans are all that is standing in the way of the salvation of the entire planet, then how can one argue with the moral conclusion to eliminate these obstructors? If one believes that millions will die because of proposed legislation, then how can one avoid coming to the moral conclusion that political violence is not mandatory?

    Rhetoric is a useful tool to spur the masses to action. Has the left truly considered what actions their rhetoric spurs? One’s answer probably depends on one’s level of cynicism. Sure, this rhetoric raises money and recruits volunteers, but when it also spurs violence, it is probably time to reevaluate the message. This is where I believe the equivalence ends. I am not aware of popular eliminationist rhetoric emanating from the right regarding abortionists at this time. I submit that leftist eliminationist rhetoric is currently far more popular, and thus far more dangerous. From Antifa to BLM to many of the grotesque reactions to Mr. Hodgkinson’s actions, the problem of leftist support for political violence seems to be metastasizing in ways your abortionist examples never did and never could, due to its more limited scope being aimed at abortionists. Leftist political violence is aimed at anyone and everyone they disagree with.

    This is why the author’s equivalence, in the end, is a false one. The sheer scope of the intended targets along with the far greater size of the supporters of political violence makes this current strain of leftist political violence far more dangerous than anything this country has seen since the Civil War. I fear it will get much worse before it gets better. For this reason, this article’s genuine attempt to discuss the history of political violence ends up appearing to excuse or legitimize what the left is currently fomenting. That is the point of using moral equivalence in a debate, is it not?

    1. Obe,

      “This is where I believe the equivalence ends. I am not aware of popular eliminationist rhetoric emanating from the right regarding abortionists at this time.”

      The Right is not the anti-abortion movement. The anti-abortion movement is part of the Right. This article looked this subset of the Right as a thousand word (i.e., brief) look at the dynamics of violent political action (i.e., terrorism) on the Right. It didn’t say that was the entirety of it. What possibly gave you that idea?

      That statement also reveals an impressive amnesia — quite common among American’s talking about politics. Obamacare was slavery. Obama was Hitler, an islamic mole, an anarchist, a communist. Hillary was, of course, even worse. Right-thinking people bought guns — lots and lots of guns — and joined militia. White supremacist groups grew like weeds. Sovereign Citizens popping cops became commonplace.

      “Has the left truly considered what actions their rhetoric spurs?”

      Probably not. Has the Right?

      “leftist support for political violence seems to be metastasizing in ways your abortionist examples never did and never could, due to its more limited scope being aimed at abortionists.”

      Really missing the point. Let’s replay the tape, from the summary: “Expect more political violence as our politics become more polarized, with increasingly extreme claims by both sides.” This is about an escalating cycle of violence on both sides. That means the early stages (i.e., antiabortionist on the Right, green anti-lumbering on the Left) were narrower than later stages.

      “The sheer scope of the intended targets along with the far greater size of the supporters of political violence makes this current strain of leftist political violence far more dangerous than anything this country has seen since the Civil War.”

      A nice statement of tribal thinking. Keep those eyes closed, else you’ll see what’s happening on the Right! Yesterday’s shooting was a lone-wolf result of the Right’s extremist rhetoric. The growth of armed militea is another. To say that these have less potential to grow than the left’s ideology is six steps beyond absurd.

  5. “Expect more political violence as our politics become more polarized, with increasingly extreme claims by both sides.”

    We are in agreement here. My comment was not made in the spirit of an attack. Only that the timing of your examination of political violence as it regards abortionists, without any such examination of the motives of yesterday’s shooter, invites the charge of moral equivalency. I understand your point about the escalating cycle of violence, it is well made.

    I was careful to state that I am currently unaware of the same type of broad support of political violence on the right as there appears to be on the left. I grant you that this could be the result of confirmation bias. Or simply could be the result of the always heightened rhetoric among the out-party. I admit that I do expect leftists (and statists of any kind) to tilt more rapidly towards political violence as a solution. I like to believe this is rooted in the factual history of societies where leftists have gained enough power and influence to do as they please. Perhaps your view of history is different? I fear more the tyranny of the do-gooder than that of the robber baron, to paraphrase CS Lewis.

    “Yesterday’s shooting was a lone-wolf result of the Right’s extremist rhetoric.” It was? How so? I am genuinely inquiring how you make that connection? In the sense that the leftist rhetoric that was directly responsible is only the reaction to the other side? People and organizations are responsible for what they do and say, regardless of what came before. This realization is the only way out of the circle. Political rhetoric that lays the foundation for political violence must be refuted everywhere if our system is to continue to utilize politics (instead of force) as a mechanism to resolve differences. Unfortunately, the current incentive structure does not make me optimistic. Fear sells. Pragmatism does not.

    1. Obe,

      “without any such examination of the motives of yesterday’s shooter”

      My TARDIS (Time And Relative Dimension In Space) was in the shop. This was written before the shooting incident.

      “In the sense that the leftist rhetoric”

      Yep. We have had two Congresspeople shot in the past decade. The previous political attacks were in 1954 (PR separatists) and 1856 (slavery). The increasingly extreme political rhetoric of left and right are the most likely causes.

      “People and organizations are responsible for what they do and say, regardless of what came before.”

      I love philosophy, but not when its used like that — as a blindfold.

    2. Obe,

      I ran out of time when replying to your comment. Here is more detail.

      “People and organizations are responsible for what they do and say, regardless of what came before.”

      I believe we all agree with that. But it’s a gross oversimplification. People who encourage others to act against the public interest also have responsibility. They are entitled to their views, but not to encourage others to break laws. As the King of Brobdingnag said to Gulliver: “A man might be allowed to keep poisons in his closet, but not to vend them about as cordials.”

      Which is why sedition and incitement to riot are crimes. The behavior of the Left’s and Right’s leaders is not (yet) criminal — but enough for them to have responsibility for the fires they have ignored in America.

  6. I hate it when people think that because you criticize one side, you necessarily approve of the other.

    One other example of hard-right violence: my mother tells me that she’ll never forget the Oklahoma City bombing back in 1995, no matter how long she lives. That picture of the baby being strewn from the wreckage by that fireman… and then Tim McVeigh’s cold stare into the camera as he was escorted out the courthouse. Not a shred of a remorse. McVeigh had been involved in hard-right “militias” for a while-and this was back in the early 1990s.

    A particularly creepy aspect of it was that McVeigh was a veteran, clearly on what was more or less a suicide mission-he didn’t try all that hard to get away. Precisely the last group in society you want to alienate to the point where they listen to extremists is your warrior class. Your prison guards, your cops, your former soldiers who can only get some Walmart job… you have to really, really dumb to do that.

    The tit-for-tat escalations are Weimar Germany-like. But one huge difference-the hard-left in Weimar Germany was very well armed, had their own paramilitaries, and was very much a masculine “fighting” culture that employed former well-trained WWI vets and dissolute young, unemployed young men as much as the Right did. Not exactly like the social justice/bien-pensant crowd of today. Whereas if there were to be a massive civil conflict between the hard-left and the hard-right in today’s America, my money would be mostly on the latter because they have the guns-and as I alluded to above, they’ll also probably have more people from professions that train you to use them and mentally immunize you to violence. Unless it goes into racial conflict, of course, in which case, all hell breaks lose.

    1. Leaving,

      I agree on all points. Esp this:

      “The tit-for-tat escalations are Weimar Germany-like. But one huge difference-the hard-left in Weimar Germany was very well armed, had their own paramilitaries, and was very much a masculine “fighting” culture that employed former well-trained WWI vets and dissolute young, unemployed young men as much as the Right did. Not exactly like the social justice/bien-pensant crowd of today.”

      I’ve said that, but not so clearly. The Left’s recourse to violence seems tactically mad, facing a hard-right armed and eager for violence. Left and Right have alternated using violence in America. We’ve never really had the Weimar-like violent conflict between the two. Perhaps now is our turn. Our ability to handle this might be our greatest test in many generations.

  7. This is written with an extreme bias and cherry picks data ignoring the history of violence by the Political left. A

    lso, pinning the cycle on “anti-abortionist” ignore the lefts cyclical history of violence pre-abortion issue, i.e. Malcom X, Black Panthers, Weathermen, Riots in Watts, The Riots at the ’68 DNC convention, not to mention both Kennedy’s were assassinated by leftist.

    Further, Giffords was shot by Loughner – a follower of the “Communist Manifesto.” Harley right wing. Sarah Jane Moore inspired by Patty Hearst and the SLA to tried to assassinate Gerald Ford. The left praised and idolized the heroes of socialism and communism while ignoring the countless millions tortured, imprisoned, and or killed by Che, Castro, Stalin and Minh not to mention the Viet Cong.

    Are there egregious acts committed by the alt right? Of course, but trying to pin this “cycle of violence” on the right while ignoring the acts of the left is short sighted and intellectually dishonest. The extremist in every group turn to violence and none are exempt. However, today you have main stream media, the Democratic party leaders, and Congressmen condoning and legitimizing violence supporting BLM and Berkely rioters. Hollywood celebrities and comedians putting on acts and plays of assassination. Talk show hosts legitimizing what was was the extreme fringe. This is the new facet of political violence. And, it’s birth is on the left.

    1. Leftist leaders are doing everything they can to encourage violence and have done since the 2016 elections. In other words, modern leftist violence is sanctioned and encouraged by leftist leaders in politics, popular media, by leftist academics, by pundits on the left, and by leftist billionaires who fund the movements that spawn violent attacks.

      This is now, that was then. Muslim violence is so common as to be a cliche, and leftist violence is rising to match. This is not as odd as it seems, since the increasingly violent left has made common cause with the increasingly violent Islamist movement on many fronts.

      Apologists for blood thirsty violence are a dime a dozen on the left these days. Just as leftists willing to do violence are quite common these days. Please stop apologizing for today’s killers on the basis of lunatic actions of the distant past.

    2. Grapevine,

      “Please stop apologizing for today’s killers on the basis of lunatic actions of the distant past.”

      That’s a powerful observation! Excusing (or worse, justifying) today’s violence by incidents decades — or generations, or centuries — ago is a characteristic of violent societies, and especially failed states. Let’s not go there!

    3. T willie,

      I don’t believe you are reading this article closely. Or at all.

      (1) “pinning the cycle on “anti-abortionist” ignore the lefts cyclical history of violence”

      How did you not see the very first sentence of this post? “Left-wing rioters at Berkeley, Portland, and Evergreen College remind us about the Left’s long history of political violence.

      (2) “Malcom X, Black Panthers, Weathermen, Riots in Watts, The Riots at the ’68 DNC convention, not to mention both Kennedy’s were assassinated by leftist.”

      All you examples are from previous generations. Why not include the French Revolution? This discusses “the current cycle of political violence in America.”

      (3) “Further, Giffords was shot by Loughner –”

      Neither the New York Times nor Loughner’s own writings agree that Loughner was a leftist. That’s a urban legend, believed through repetition. Follow the links given here. His views were incoherent, including left and right — as usual for someone with severe mental illness.

      (4) “today you have main stream media, the Democratic party leaders, and Congressmen condoning and legitimizing violence supporting BLM and Berkely rioters. Hollywood celebrities and comedians putting on acts and plays of assassination.”

      Yes, exactly. That is the theme of these posts. Both Left and Right defend their violent extremists and condemn those of the other tribe.

  8. Editor,

    This may be a bit off topic. If so, I apologize. But this has been on my mind for a while as I start to step back and watch my friends on the left and right see-saw with such predictable responses to the latest violence, outrage, or even rude behavior.

    One tribe is offended or attacked and immediately begins to wail that this is proof that the other side has lost all sanity and morals. The other side will then come out with various arguments: some condemning, some justifying, some denying the connection, and some pointing out past incidents that prove the hypocrisy of the other tribe. The next day, week, month, whenever, they will switch fields and play it all over again from the opposite side. Isn’t it just so predictable? Yet we seem to go round and round feeling hopeless; how did it come to this and is there any hope for our future?

    Now, both sides obviously believe there is a connection between rhetoric and violence. I’m not trying to argue one way or the other, but I’m just saying that both sides believe it. The left made the connection after the shooting of Rep. Giffords and the right has made the connection in numerous recent incidents in Berkeley, Portland, and, most recently, the shooting of Rep. Scalise. If so many of us believe there is a connection, then there is something we all can do to make things better. We can stop buying and selling this escalating rhetoric and insist upon civil discourse.

    From Kathy Griffin holding the severed head of President Trump to the many instances of hanging President Obama in effigy. From calling President Trump or his supporters Nazis to calling President Obama and his supporters names. Even down to small bullshit from “President Drumpf” to “President Obummer” to “Crooked Hillary”. We’re hurling the ad hominims back and forth and it does nothing but raise the volume. We’re shouting at and past one another and were not communicating at all. This crap contributes nothing yet were buying and selling it like gangbusters. It’s lazy to simply call people names rather than argue logically against their ideas and it serves only to inflame, not enlighten. If we take it far enough, it demonizes and dehumanizes those against whom we use it and that leads to bad things.

    We should all take responsibility to step outside our tribe and push back against this behavior in our personal circles. I was listening to Stefan Molyneux a few days ago and he was talking about what his listeners could do to make a better world and his answer was to simply never let a bad idea go by without challenge. Now, Stefan seems to see the world as purely good versus evil, with which I’m not comfortable, but the idea that calling out bad ideas or bad behavior at the personal level is one way we all may be able to make a difference, at least in our personal circles. We should police our own language and argument, but we should also stop rewarding that of others. It’s so easy to repeat a meme or share an article by someone else because it reinforces our beliefs, but it if contains the ad hominem we’re just rewarding and contributing to the problem.

    I, for one, have had enough and I’m committing to pushing back. Go ahead and call me naive. I’m sure I deserve it.

    Roll Tide, y’all.

    1. Dell.

      “We should all take responsibility to step outside our tribe and push back against this behavior in our personal circles.”

      Yes, that is the key insight. Since I see zero signs of that happening, I’ll bet that both the rhetoric and violence will increase for the foreseeable future.

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