Less than two weeks ago, Dr. George Tiller, one of the few health providers who would still perform late-term abortions, was murdered. (Judith Warner’s column on Dr. Tiller’s important work is well worth a read.) Police arrested Scott Roeder of Kansas City, and the office manager of a Kansas City women’s clinic says that Roeder matches the description of a man found vandalizing the clinic on two recent occasions, including the day before Tiller’s murder. The office manager filed police reports after both incidents and gave details to the FBI, including the suspect’s license plate number. Could a swift response by police or the FBI have prevented Tiller’s death?
Yesterday, another ideologically motivated killer struck. The attacker shot Stephen T. Johns, 39, of Temple Hills, Maryland, a security guard at the Holocaust Memorial Museum. Police arrested James von Brunn of Annapolis, who is said to be a leading writer in the white supremacist movement.
This kind of terrorism aims to instill fear in people who work for organizations targeted by extremist groups. Employees at women’s clinics nationwide are increasing security measures, and the Anti-Defamation League is encouraging Jewish institutions to review security protocols and use increased alert statuses. While law-enforcement patrols at these types of sites have evidently increased in the wake of these shootings, there are also questions about what kinds of larger efforts the government should be making to prevent such acts of terrorism.
Alex Kingsbury at U.S. News & World Report notes that the Department of Homeland Security has been warning about just these sorts of events:
A month before a suspected white supremacist walked into the Holocaust Memorial Museum in downtown Washington and opened fire, the Department of Homeland Security warned that domestic right-wing extremism was the most pressing domestic terrorist threat that the country faced.
Conservatives were outraged that the DHS analysts had singled out antiabortion and antitax radicals for scrutiny. But the report was part of a series that DHS compiles on domestic dangers from all sides of the political spectrum, an area that’s taken a back seat to overseas threats.
A series of recent incidents shows the prescience of those reports and illustrates the worrying reality that terrorism often comes from inside the homeland. Worse still, the reports caution that such attacks are likely to happen again.
Congress and the White House must make sure that national security officials devote appropriate resources to addressing domestic terrorist threats – and stand up to any conservative complaints about domestic anti-terrorism and law-enforcement activities.
At The American Prospect, Ann Friedman explains some of the measures that can help protect health clinics specifically:
From the immediate post-Roe years to the mid-1990s, clinic violence and blockades were a constant threat. After Dr. David Gunn was assassinated in 1993, Congress passed the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act, which specifically banned such acts as blocking clinic doors, trespassing, making violent threats, arson, vandalism, stalking clinic employees, and other forms of violence. Many of these acts were illegal already, but the law made clear that targeting a clinic with these crimes merited a federal response.
While FACE improved the situation (the number of clinics experiencing severe violence dropped from 52 percent in 1994 to 20 percent in 2000), it didn’t succeed in ending the violence. Attacks against women’s health clinics — both those that provide abortions and those that do not — continued throughout the Bush years. According to the National Abortion Federation, since 2000 abortion providers have reported 14 arsons, 78 death threats, 66 incidents of assault and battery, 117 anthrax threats, 128 bomb threats, 109 incidents of stalking, 541 acts of vandalism, one bombing, and one attempted murder.
Add one murder to that list.
The last time an abortion provider was murdered, when Dr. Barnett Slepian was killed in 1998, it was a wake-up call to the fact that passing the FACE Act wasn’t enough. Attorney General Janet Reno established the National Task Force on Violence against Health Care Providers, which committed the Department of Justice to enforcing FACE, coordinating information on national anti-abortion extremist groups, funding clinic safety efforts, and training local law enforcement. The following year, the White House budget requested $4.5 million to beef up security at abortion clinics. But other than finally bringing James Kopp, Slepian’s killer, to justice in 2003, the task force was largely dormant for eight years under the Bush administration.
Friedman notes that statements following Tiller’s murder from Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder didn’t mention FACE or reviving the task force, and she urges that we have some means of accountability (either an active task force or something else) to ensure that existing laws against clinic violence are fully enforced.
In the meantime, many of the people going to work at facilities that have been threatened by extremist groups are probably feeling worried. Officials should take the necessary steps so that they don’t have to fear going to work.