Is Robert Dear Another John Brown?

One pro-life activist made that comparison. It’s actually worth considering.

deadly attack and standoff at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Col,deadly attack and standoff at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs.

Robert Dear poses for a mugshot photo after he was was arrested following a deadly attack and standoff at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Photo by Colorado Springs Police Department via Getty Images

The rampage against a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood clinic last week resurfaced a familiar argument in recent American politics: When does language go too far?

For pro-choice activists, this is easy: The more heated the rhetoric from anti-abortion groups, the greater the odds that someone does something violent. Not only was the alleged assailant, Robert Lewis Dear, an isolated, unstable man with a history of violence against women, but according to one person—who gave an anonymous account to the New York Times—the 57-year-old had previously “praised people who attacked abortion providers, saying they were doing ‘God’s work.’ ” If language incites, then Dear was primed and ready, and now three people are dead and nine wounded in another attack on an abortion provider.

But pro-life groups disagree. Instead, they see the murderous act of a single disturbed man, disconnected from rhetoric in the abortion debate. The National Right to Life Committee said it “unequivocally condemns unlawful activities and acts of violence regardless of motivation.” Likewise, Tony Perkins of the conservative Family Research Council said, “Only through peaceful means—not violence—can we truly become a nation that once again values all human life, born and unborn.”

Speaking to BuzzFeed News, Eric Scheidler of the Pro-Life Action League voiced his dismay with accusations of blame. “It’s extremely frustrating, and I don’t see anything we could possibly do,” he said. “Like anyone, he’s going to pick up on the news of the day but what he does with the news is beyond our control. I don’t know how we’re going to fight abortion without talking about it.” He continued: “Should William Lloyd Garrison have kept quiet about slavery because of madmen like John Brown?”

That’s a big question. And an important one. Even if it’s an idle comment, by raising the specter of John Brown, Scheidler sheds light on the key tension in this discussion, which goes beyond—but is tied to—the question of rhetoric.

When John Brown led his brutal attack on pro-slavery settlers along the Pottawatomie Creek in southeastern Kansas in 1856, slavery was fully entrenched in American life. Slave-grown exports fueled the American economy, from Southern plantations to Northern industry and speculation. The internal slave trade made fortunes for entreprenuers in Baltimore; Norfolk, Virginia; Charleston, South Carolina; and other port cities. Roger B. Taney, a pro-slavery judge, was chief justice of the Supreme Court, and pro-slavery Democrats were poised to nominate James Buchanan for the presidency. (He would win, and do nothing to keep the country from war.) And six years earlier, Congress had passed a new Fugitive Slave Act, which fully federalized slave catching. Now, under threat of fines or jail time, state officials and citizens in the North had to return escaped blacks to enslavers and their agents.

Brown looked at the United States and saw an empire of bondage, in deep defiance of God’s will. By the time he took to Kansas, he saw violence as the only thing that might chasten the country and move it from its path. “Without the shedding of blood,” said Brown, quoting the biblical letter to the Hebrews, “there is no remission of sin.”

Brown killed five people at Pottawatomie, all to “strike terror into the hearts of the pro-slavery party.” Three years later—after Taney’s Supreme Court wrote black inferiority into the Constitution—Brown struck at the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, under a plan to arm slaves and spark a mass revolt. For Brown, the United States government had forfeited his loyalty by facilitating—and even protecting—mass evil. If it took violence to force a reckoning, then violence would have to happen. “I believe that to have interfered as I have done, as I have always freely admitted I have done, in behalf of his despised poor, I did not wrong but right,” he said, in his final address to the court that condemned him.

In the aftermath of Harpers Ferry, abolitionists distanced themselves from Brown, but they didn’t disavow him. Not completely. “I am ever ready to write, speak, publish, organize, combine, and even to conspire against slavery,” said Frederick Douglass, “when there is a reasonable hope of success. Men who live by robbing their fellow-men of their labor and liberty have … voluntarily placed themselves beyond the laws of justice and honor, and have become only fitted for companionship with thieves and pirates.” Douglass opposed Brown’s methods but not his goals.

Robert Dear is not John Brown; he’s not, as far as we know, an anti-abortion activist, and he’s not involved in any movement. But his intense and violent form of religiosity is also not far from the infamous figure, especially if you accept an analogy between slavery and abortion. Indeed, if actual anti-abortion activists style themselves abolitionists—and they do—then what relationship should they have to a figure like Dear, who seems to have killed in service of a shared goal (“no more baby parts”)? After all, abolitionist isn’t just a label for anti-abortion activists—it’s a cause that many conservatives embrace.

“America’s cognitive dissonance in its approach to slavery was so intense as to provoke dissolution of the union and war,” wrote Ian Tuttle for the National Review this past summer. “The abortion debate does not threaten that sort of fracture, but it is every bit as urgent a question of justice, of fidelity to our fundamental tenets.” His colleague David French echoed this comparison in October: “Abortion is worse than slavery, abortionists are worse than slave owners, and America needs to hear that bracing truth.”

If you hold this view, then modern-day America is essentially criminal. Not only does it defend abortion in its Constitution—as interpreted by the Supreme Court—but it facilitates it and has a whole politics built around it, bolstered by one of its two major political parties.

No, pro-life groups and activists don’t have to embrace Dear any more than anti-slavery activists had to embrace Brown. But they also can’t ignore the real tension between their disdain for the Planned Parenthood shooter and their sincere belief that abortion is the moral analogue to slavery, if not its more depraved sibling. If violence isn’t appropriate in their eyes now—in the face of such an apparent depravity—then when is it?

For what it’s worth, it’s hard to say that anti-slavery abolitionists ever resolved this tension. On one end, again, was Douglass, who put some distance between himself and Brown. On the other was Garrison, who on the day of Brown’s death, carried his torch forward. “God forbid that we should any longer continue the accomplices of thieves and robbers, of men-stealers and women-whippers,” he declared. “We must join together in the name of freedom.” Sixteen months later, the Confederate States fired on Fort Sumter. Events—a bloody and catastrophic war—eventually solved what reasoning could not.

This leaves our anti-abortion “abolitionists” to answer for themselves the question that’s vexed Americans since John Brown was hanged: “When, if ever, do we bring violence in the face of evil at home?” Since, as long as slavery is their touchstone, they can’t avoid it.