After killing three and wounding nine at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado on Friday, assailant Robert Lewis Dear reportedly told law enforcement, “no more baby parts”—an apparent reference to smear attacks from last summer that accused the women’s health care provider of profiting from the sale of fetal organs. So far, major news outlets have largely held off on labeling the shooting an ideologically motivated act of domestic terrorism, much to the chagrin of some progressives. It’s not the first time that a white, homegrown extremist has resisted that categorization: As the Huffington Post points out, a University of Illinois study found that the T-word is overwhelmingly applied to Muslims, even though Muslims constituted only about 6 percent of domestic terrorism suspects between 2008 and 2012. As academics Charles Kurzman and David Schanzer wrote in the New York Times opinion pages this past summer, “The main terrorist threat in the United States is not from violent Muslim extremists, but from right-wing extremists.”
The Colorado shooting has amplified an ongoing debate about the value of applying the “terrorism” label to the people who take up arms against abortion providers. Abortion clinics have long been targets for violence; the National Abortion Federation has counted 11 murders and over 200 arsons and bombings at health centers since the 1970s, including last Friday’s attack. Planned Parenthood clinics in particular have experienced an uptick in violence since misleadingly edited videos accused the organization of selling fetal tissue. In October, NARAL Pro-Choice America launched a petition to push the Department of Justice to investigate a series of four arsons and bombings at Planned Parenthoods as domestic terrorism. Now that the worst has happened in Colorado, the view that attacks on abortion providers are tied together by a thread of violent extremism may finally get some traction, both legally and culturally.
But what does it mean for the DOJ to treat an attack as an act of terrorism? Some women’s advocates see practical reasons to vie for that designation beyond the rhetorical force it commands. But others worry that pushing for terrorism charges, however philosophically worthy, is a losing legal strategy.
NARAL’s Sasha Bruce argues that viewing attacks on clinics as terrorism would help law enforcement tackle them more effectively. “What this means to us is, ‘Use all resources,’ ” she says. The DOJ task force that handles violence against clinics is under the department’s civil rights division, but domestic terrorism is part of the national security division; if the national security side isn’t involved, Bruce argues, “We’re leaving expertise on the table.”
“Certainly terrorism is a higher priority than most other crimes under federal jurisdiction at this point,” says Michael German, a former FBI agent and a national security expert at the Brennan Center for Justice. “The designation as terrorism would be more rhetorical than anything else, but it would have some implications as far as how seriously the DOJ and FBI are taking it.”
Trying the Colorado Springs case as terrorism at the federal level could look significantly different than trying it as murder at the state level. For one, terrorism is a capital offense. This could appeal to prosecutors, since it would likely be difficult to convince a jury in a purple state such as Colorado to apply the death penalty. Investigators and prosecutors would likely have greater resources at their disposal in a federal case, says Michael Greenberger of the University of Maryland Center for Health and Homeland Security. And the trial’s visibility would increase, too. “Charging this under a federal statute is probably thought to be the preferred choice because of the deterrent effect of knowing that this is going to be taken very seriously,” Greenberger says. In the context of a national discourse that doesn’t associate white Americans with terrorism, he says, “The most essential thing is that if a white male commits a crime that has a political objective … that can get you into a federal court, with federal resources and sanctions.”
Still, not everyone agrees that terrorism charges are the way to go after Dear and offenders like him. The National Abortion Federation does more than any other organization to track threats and attacks on abortion providers and report them to the DOJ, and though NAF president Vicki Saporta agrees with NARAL that Dear and his ilk are terrorists, she’s not so sure that pushing for an official terrorist designation is the best way to get the public to see them that way. “We have gotten attention from the civil rights division. The task force is there. They take the threats we’ve given them seriously; they conduct investigations,” Saporta says. “That said, I think more needs to be done. But I don’t think that we necessarily want to go to another division where they’re not familiar with our issues and cases and where we wouldn’t get as high a priority in terms of investigations and would be competing for scarce resources with all the other kinds of domestic terrorism threats that might be prioritized.” Much like NARAL’s Bruce, Saporta sees violence against abortion clinics as a “reign of terror.” But she’s less sure that the terrorist classification will help to keep providers and patients safe.
Terrorism charges carry a heavy penalty, but they’re also hard to prove, because the conviction—as with a hate crime—turns on the question of motive. That’s why the FBI will often help investigate a case but then leave the prosecution in the hands of the state, says Brian Levin, head of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. In a case like the Colorado shooting, where multiple murders already make it straightforward to imprison Dear for life or even push for the death penalty, prosecutors might feel that it’s not worth pursuing the federal charge. “For a lot of prosecutors, the simpler the case, the better,” Levin says. “That sometimes is at odds with the community’s desire for a validation of an attack as a terrorist incident.” These same questions have played out in the case of Dylann Roof, who allegedly massacred black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina; Roof has now been charged with murder at the state level and with a federal hate crime.
In the wake of the Colorado shooting, the government will have to decide what role ideology played in this tragedy and whether the picture suggested by Dear’s original leaked statement is an accurate one. (In the meantime, Dear was told he will be charged with first-degree murder when he appeared on Monday in a Colorado court.) Pushing for a terrorism or hate-crime charge may be risky, but to judge from how the Roof case has unfolded thus far, it’s also worthwhile. It’s one of the only tools available to associate our cultural concept of terrorism with the face of a white, right-wing extremist—the profile of the kind of person who actually inflicts the most violence and fear in the country today.