Jul
01
1995

Far-Right Militias and Anti-Abortion Violence

When Will Media See the Connection?

When the Oklahoma City bombing captured the attention of the mainstream media, some women's rights activists expected that the attack would end mainstream media's reluctance to report on violence against abortion-providers and other domestic terror threats. That reasonable hope was dashed.

With its first reporting of the Oklahoma story, the New York Times (4/20/95) ran a list headlined "Other Bombings in America", which spanned four decades and included some attacks that claimed no injuries or lives. But none of the 40 officially documented bombings that have targeted women's clinics in that period was mentioned.

Media investigations of where right-wing militants get their violent ideas generally ignored the Army of God manual, which recommends 65 ways to destroy abortion clinics and includes an illustrated recipe for making a "fertilizer bomb" from ammonium nitrate and fuel oil. The manual turned up in 1993, buried in the backyard of an anti-abortionist indicted for arson and acid attacks on nine clinics. But headline-writers avoided describing it as a "Manual for Terrorists," as the New York Times identified a militia document in 1995 (4/29/95).

The first person convicted of violence against a women's health center ignited a gas can in a crowded New York City clinic in 1979. Since 1982, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, there have been 169 arson and bomb attacks on women's health centers in 33 states. In the '90s, when five workers in such clinics have been murdered, people calling themselves "pro-life" publicly advocate violence as a way to make legally sanctioned abortion impossibly unsafe.

In January 1994, the Supreme Court agreed with pro-choice groups that anti-abortionists could legitimately be investigated for conspiracy, but influential media have been harder to convince. In fact, the national media's gentle handling of the anti-abortion story has amounted to a quasi-conspiracy itself.

See No Terrorists

Four days before the first abortion provider was killed in Florida in 1993, directors of women's health centers in that state and Texas held a news conference to call attention to an organized campaign of terror that was striking clinics across the U.S. The New York Times (3/6/93) portrayed that event as a pro-choice publicity stunt: "Like a conclave of unreconstructed Cold Warriors, [pro-choicers] appeared intent on fighting new battles, to avoid becoming victims of their own success," the Times' Felicity Barringer wrote.

When Dr. David Gunn was shot three days later outside his clinic in Pensacola, rather than investigate the feminists' claims that Gunn's killing was part of an organized strategy, the newspapers of record reported the death as if it had been fated: "A Collision of Causes", the Washington Post labeled it (3/13/93); "Separate Visions on Bettering Lives Collide" was the New York Times' headline (3/14/93). Dr. Gunn and his killer were presented as somehow equivalent: both men were "consumed by abortion," according to another Post story (3/12/93) that was headlined "Doctor, Accused Killer Both Impassioned."

The World Trade Center bombing, a month earlier, had been reported without the talk of "impassioned" victims and terrorists "colliding." Nor were advocates of anti-Western terrorism turned into credible media commentators.

But after Pensacola, anti-abortion zealots, even criminals, were regularly sought out by media for their views. Many news organizations quoted John Burt, the regional director of Rescue America, the group whose anti-choice demonstration Michael Griffin attended on the day he shot Gunn. The Washington Post (3/13/93) cited Michael Bray, "another Project Rescue leader," without mentioning that Bray was a convicted clinic-bomber. (He'd targeted several abortion clinics and the offices of the National Abortion Federation and the ACLU.)

In late 1993 (12/8/93), Nightline's Ted Koppel hosted an in-studio discussion of doctor-killing. His only guests were Helen Alvare, a representative of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (which issued a statement post-Pensacola comparing the violence of murder with the "violence of abortion"), and Paul Hill, director of the anti-abortion group "Defensive Action," which advocates killing doctors on the grounds that abortion is violence.

Ted Koppel echoed this definition of violence when he opened the show by comparing the number of legal abortions with the number of murdered doctors--what he called "the latest casualty count from the battlefield between the pro-life and the pro-choice movements." Although terrorism is one of Koppel's favorite subjects--FAIR's study of Nightline counted 52 programs on the topic in 40 months (Extra!, 1-2/89)--the word "terrorism" was never used by him to describe anti-abortion violence. Instead, a sympathetic Koppel said that Hill's advocacy of murdering doctors raised a"very, very difficult moral question." (See Extra! Update, 2/94.)

Hill, like Griffin, was a protege of John Burt, whose group issued a wanted poster for Dr. John Bayard Britton, Gunn's replacement. The poster "exposed" Britton "for the butcher that he is." Seven months after his appearance on Nightline, Hill gunned down Britton and James Barrett, his escort, at the same Pensacola clinic.

See No Agenda

With all the media's familiarity with these "pro-lifers," it's surprising that Koppel, the Washington Post, the New York Times, et al. have had such a hard time cottoning on to the fact that militia men and anti-abortion zealots can sometimes be one and the same.

Not all anti-abortionists are advocates of violence, nor do all militias put stopping abortion on the top of their list of goals. But while it would be wrong to lump both groups entirely together, it's equally indefensible for mainstream media to have kept militia who target federal agents, and the anti-abortion militants who target feminists (and women, especially poor women), so far apart.

John Burt, a former Klansman, borrows tactics like his "wanted" posters from the KKK, and says that "fundamentalist Christians and those people [the KKK] are pretty close." (The Progressive, 10/94) Paul Hill told USA Today (3/7/94), "I could envision a covert organization developing--something like a pro-life IRA."

Anti-abortion activists like these share agendas, rhetoric and tactics with the militia. Others, like Matthew Trewhella, director of Missionaries to the Preborn, have formed militia groups of their own. Trewhella pastors a church-based militia whose priority is defeating abortion. He's also a member of the National Committee of the U.S. Taxpayers Party (USTP), what Covert Action (Spring/95) calls "one of the largest political manifestations of the theocratic wing of the Christian right."

In 1994, Planned Parenthood released a video showing Trewhella speaking at a Wisconsin state USTP convention. "What should we do?" Trewhella asked. "We should do what thousands of people across the nation are doing. We should be forming militias." According to Planned Parenthood, the USTP sold a Free Militia manual on how to form an underground army. Defending the "right to life" against "legalized abortion" is the first of the manual's stated reasons why one should take up arms.

Following the December 1994 shootings of two health clinic workers in Brookline, Mass., Reuters ran an investigative story, "Chilling New Link Suspected Among Anti-Abortion Activists" (1/13/95), that connected Brookline murder suspect John Salvi with militia activism, but the Reuters piece was overwhelmingly ignored.

See No Link

In December 1994, NBC refused to air a segment of the program TV Nation in which Roy McMillan of the Mississippi-based Christian Action Group said that assassinating Supreme Court justices would be justifiable homicide, and that the president was in "probable harms way." TV Nation producer Michael Moore believes that the airing of the segment could have led to arrests that might have prevented the Brookline clinic killings. "It's a federal offense to say the president should be killed," Moore told USA Today (1/16/95). Eventually the interview aired on the BBC in Britain, but not in the U.S.

Long before the Oklahoma bombing sent reporters scrambling for militia information, mainstream media had Planned Parenthood's research. "All the national networks and the major dailies have had our material for over a year," Planned Parenthood's Fred Clarkson said in May 1995. But most national news outlets skipped the story. Last fall, in the wake of Paul Hill's arrest, Newsweek went so far as to commission a special investigation of rising right-wing violence, including anti-abortion militants and extremist militias.

After the Oklahoma City suspects turned out not to be Arabs, the networks' favorite terrorist experts were flummoxed, so producers had to find other people who knew something about militias. And national news outlets did turn to researchers like Clarkson and others who could draw the lines between various violent far-right movements. A news producer at one major cable network, however, rescinded an invitation for Clarkson to appear just hours before the scheduled broadcast. "He said they couldn't have someone from Planned Parenthood on about militias," Clarkson told Extra!, "because they'd have angry pro-life viewers calling in and they didn't want to take that heat."

That kind of intimidation does influence how these issues are covered. New York Times columnist Frank Rich has been one of the few journalists to pickup on the Planned Parenthood's information about Trewhella's involvement with militias--his column "Connect the Dots" ran April 30--but it's a connection that his own paper has been loath to make. After a May 15 press conference, Clarkson heard from reporters that the "evidence of a link" between anti-abortion and militia activity was inadequate.

"For some reason, the same blind eye that's been turned to the domestic terrorism we call clinic violence remains turned that way even when we have militia groups among whose major issues is being opposed to abortion," Clarkson told FAIR's CounterSpin radio show (5/19/95).

"When people say can you prove a link between militias and anti-abortion groups, I have to say no," said Clarkson. "There's no link. They're the same people in very many cases.... Abortion is part of the agenda. It's not a separate issue, it's the same."