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How the Religious Right is Radicalizing Generations of Fundamentalist Domestic Terrorists

On November 27th, 57-year-old Robert Lewis Dear entered the Planned Parenthood facility in Colorado Springs and opened fire with what was reported to be an AK-47.Most expressed horror as the bloody standoff stretched over hours while others were engaging in mental acrobatics trying to deny the fact that we were watching an ongoing terrorist attack. Some claimed the shooting was taking place over a quarter mile away and the media was blowing it out of proportion. Some insisted it was a bank robbery gone bad and Planned Parenthood just happened to be where Dear had holed up. Fox News allegedly claimed he may have been a member of ISIS while still others on the paranoid fringes starting screaming “false flag.”

On November 27th, 57-year-old Robert Lewis Dear entered the Planned Parenthood facility in Colorado Springs and opened fire with what was reported to be an AK-47.

Most expressed horror as the bloody standoff stretched over hours while others were engaging in mental acrobatics trying to deny the fact that we were watching an ongoing terrorist attack. Some claimed the shooting was taking place over a quarter mile away and the media was blowing it out of proportion. Some insisted it was a bank robbery gone bad and Planned Parenthood just happened to be where Dear had holed up. Fox News allegedly claimed he may have been a member of ISIS while still others on the paranoid fringes starting screaming “false flag.”

Ultimately, they were all wrong. Speaking at a press conference that evening, officers made clear that the shooting had started and continued at the Planned Parenthood.

That didn’t matter to those conservatives, though. Despite the fact that we are facing some of the largest challenges to reproductive rights since Roe v Wade, and the fact that Planned Parenthood has been the recent target of malicious, utterly fabricated propaganda and political attacks, and the fact that GOP leadership has been on the war path trying to shut Planned Parenthood down, and the fact that law enforcement continues to cast right wing extremists as the greatest threat to national security in the U.S., the response from conservatives echoed that of the Charleston shooting:

We can’t possibly know his motives. Planned Parenthood might not have been the target. Stop jumping to conclusions.

The assailant, a 6’4″ white man with ties to the Carolinas, was known by neighbors for being a loner and a little “off.” As such characterizations came out, the conservative narrative shifted from “uncertain motive” to the idea that the shooter was clearly mentally ill. Trump, in true GOP fashion, called him a “maniac.”

Nevermind that rambling and aversion to eye contact are not necessarily indicative of any sort of mental illness that would suggest volatility, or that Dear has no documented history of mental illness, or that family members and friends insist he was generally mild mannered and laid back, or that 1 in 5 Americans who live with a mental illness are 10 times more likely to be victims of violent attacks that perpetrators of them, or that terrorism can take place with or without mental illness in the mix but not necessarily because of it, or that making these continued statements reinforces the stigma that limits desperately needed community health resources and discourages those who need help from seeking it out — many conservatives were quick to jump to their own conclusions about Dear without consideration for the context in which his actions took place.

But as time went on, emerging details poked holes in the mental illness routine. Dear was a man who proudly displayed the confederate flag and handed out anti-Obama pamphlets. He had a history of violence against women, which is often a red flag for continued violence against women without direct intervention. He was a devout Baptist who believed “whole-heartedly” in the Bible and repeatedly crowed that he had read it “cover to cover to cover.” He was registered as an independent but held tightly to conservative beliefs, as well as a gun enthusiast who kept multiple firearms in the house. He was firm in his position that abortion was wrong.

And as he was taken into custody on the day of the shootings, law enforcement reports that he continuously repeated, “No more baby parts.”

Boom goes the dynamite.

The conservative narrative of this being unrelated to Planned Parenthood or abortion or the rhetoric of the Religious Right was blown to smithereens in less than 48 hours. In the back and forth since then, we’ve heard terms like “blame” and “personal responsibility,” but all that misses the point. Though recent revelations might make it easier to do so, this isn’t something we can talk about in the vacuum of one man’s actions. This is about full-blown radicalization on multiple levels. Radicalization isn’t something reserved for Islamic extremism. It’s happening right here, right now, at the hands of the Religious Right, however willfully and criminally blind they may be to the facts.

Radicalization is best understood as the process by which the beliefs of an individual or group become increasingly extreme under the influence of polarizing voices or movements seeking political and social gains through violent and non-violent means. Extensive research has been conducted on this process, with great emphasis placed on group radicalization as we focus on Islamic extremism, but Robert Lewis Dear provides an excellent case study on the ways in which “lone wolf” individuals may be radicalized, with history demonstrating why we’re not out of the woods yet.

How Radicalization Happens

Throughout a lengthy career, researchers Clark McCauley and Sofia Moskalenko have identified a number of individual pathways through which an individual who, like Dear, might have been characterized as merely odd prior to violent attacks, but eventually reach a point of no return. In considering the influence of the Religious Right on individual radicalization, the pathways of greatest influence include unfreezing, individual and group grievance, and slippery slope. I’ll talk about each of those in turn.

There are a number of issues around which an individual may become radicalized, but as we know, not all individuals holding those beliefs become extremists. That said, under the right circumstances, anyone might begin to drift to the fringes of the groups they’ve agreed with, and one of the most significant of circumstances involved is the isolation that comes from what’s referred to as “unfreezing.” In a 2010 paper on the subject, McCauley and Moskalenko provide a specific explanation:

For many individuals, the path to radicalization is blocked by prior commitments and responsibilities. Supporting a family, building a career, and attachments to friends and neighbors would all be jeopardized by joining an illegal and dangerous organization. But what if these commitments and attachments are lost?

[D]isconnected, an individual is an easy prospect for any group that offers comradeship and connection. If group membership comes with an ideology, it may seem like a reasonable trade.

In other words, if they’re “unfrozen” from their commitments, the pathway to radicalization becomes a little more clear.

But just because someone is in a position where they could be radicalized does not mean they will be radicalized. There has to be some sort of information or influence that pushes them over the edge, or what McCauley and Moskalenko call grievance, both individual and group-based.

Individual and group grievances are a lot like what they sound like. Individual grievance as a motivator for extremism may be the pain felt by the person in question by a force or group, like individuals sympathizing with Islamic extremists after one of their family members becomes a casualty of war. Group grievances often relate to perceived injustice or pain inflicted by a subset of a population onto the population the individual belongs to, like American forces in the Middle East spurring anti-Western sentiment due to civilian casualties in drone attacks, regardless of personal connection. However, as McCauley and Moskalenko point out in their 2009 book Friction: How Radicalization Happens to Them and Us, individual radicalization often occurs at the intersection of individual and group grievance:

Individual radicalization usually occurs with a blending of personal and group grievance, a blending in which personal grievance means hostility or negative identification with a group seen as perpetrators of injustice, and in which group grievance means positive identification with a group seen as victims of this injustice. These reciprocal positive and negative identifications provide stable incentives for intergroup conflict, as successes of the positive-identification group are rewarding and successes of the negative-identification group are punishing.

Again, though, this may not be enough to radicalize someone to the point of violence. You can be isolated and angry about something without riddling other human beings with bullets. This is where the idea of slippery slope, or how gradually increasing exposure to and involvement in advocacy, may foster radicalization. Our authors define it in saying:

Slippery slope is a mechanism of self-radicalization via self-justification, in which new beliefs and values are adopted to make sense of past behaviors. These new reasons then support more extreme behavior in the same direction.

In other words, radicalization trending toward violence may require the individual to be in the right circumstance receiving the right message in an increasingly inflammatory way.

Dear could not be a better example of this. But this was not the work of Muslim leadership. This was our exalted Religious Right.

How the Religious Right Radicalized Dear

Dear’s radicalization navigates each of the three pathways described by McCauley and Moskalenko in very clear manner.

First, Dear was in ideal circumstances for unfreezing. Long considered a hermit of a mountain man, he had been gradually dissolving ties with the world around him for years. When his wife left him, all he had left was his son. When his son left, he was alone. It was during this period that we first saw Dear’s movement towards more active conservative advocacy. While he had always been a conservative, it was then that he had started to pass out anti-Obama pamphlets to members of his community. Eventually, he moved to Colorado on his own, leaving him disconnected and more susceptible to the allure of extreme communities than ever before.

Second, Dear was provided with a demonstrable trigger for the personal and group grievances that accompany individual radicalization: the now infamous Planned Parenthood videos from the Center for Medical Progress.

The videos have been discredited over and over again. While heavily edited to show Planned Parenthood representatives purportedly haggling over the price of “baby parts,” fact checkers point out that those discussions related to making sure the costs of procurement, storage, and shipping were covered. While it’s illegal to sell fetal tissue, it is not illegal to donate tissue and ask the recipients to bear the financial burden of the donation process. The video also displayed things like images of stillborn children with the implication that it was an aborted fetus, while showing the dissection of fetal tissue for medical purposes — fetal tissue that otherwise, mind you, would have been incinerated — under the context of infanticide.

But for those unaware of the facts or informed by a monolithic stream of media or who are unwavering in their anti-choice beliefs, those videos sparked riotous outrage. Dear, with his conservative religious leanings and anti-choice stance, would likely have been one of those individuals, ultimately fostering the group and individual grievance that leads to radicalization. Individually, those videos, to the ignorant eye, paint Planned Parenthood as perpetrators of evil and the fetuses as innocent victims. As the political rabble surrounding the videos piled up, the idea that a win for Planned Parenthood was a loss for the innocent became more potent on the anti-choice side. As pro-choice organizations won cases against the Center for Medical Progress, it is possible that Dear was pushed to feel as though the innocent needed a win derived from a loss of the evil.

The escalating vitriol surrounding Planned Parenthood didn’t help, either, often doubling down on the lies contained in the videos. The Right provided more and more extreme characterizations of the organization — or, in Dear’s eyes, the “evil.”  Consider the comments of just some of the Religious Right’s activists in the wake of those “exposes”:

“And I just think you’ve created an industry now, where you create the situation where very much you’ve created an incentive for people not just to look forward to having more abortions but being able to sell that fetal tissue for purposes — these centers — for purposes of making a profit off of it, as you’ve seen in some of these Planned Parenthood affiliates.”

– GOP Presidential Candidate and Senator Marco Rubio

“This legislation is a very real manifestation of a war on women, given the health consequences that unlimited abortion access has had on many woman.”

“On these videos, Planned Parenthood also essentially confesses to multiple felonies. It is a felony with ten years’ jail term to sell the body parts of unborn children for profit. That’s what these videos show Planned Parenthood doing. Absolutely we shouldn’t be sending $500 million of taxpayer money to funding an ongoing criminal enterprise.”

– GOP Presidential Candidate and Senator Ted Cruz

“Hillary Clinton… believes in the systematic murder of children in the womb to preserve their body parts.”

– GOP Presidential Candidate and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie

“As regards Planned Parenthood, anyone who has watched this videotape, I dare Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama to watch these tapes. Watch a fully formed fetus on the table, it’s heart beating, it’s legs kicking while someone says we have to keep it alive to harvest its brain.”

– GOP Presidential Candidate and Former HP Executive Carly Fiorina

“Planned Parenthood has proven to be a repulsive, revolting, stomach-churning enterprise that should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Destroying innocent human life and harvesting human organs is beyond barbaric — it is unimaginably immoral, grotesque, and evil.”

– GOP Presidential Candidate, Former Arkansas Governor, and Christian Minister Mike Huckabee

“It’s interesting, that we sit around and call other ancient civilizations ‘heathen’ because of human sacrifice, but aren’t we actually guilty of the same thing?”

– GOP Presidential Candidate and Neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson

“Abortion is a sin and is clearly murder in God’s eyes. The people who perform it have no conscience, so I’m not at all surprised that they would be selling organs, tissue, and body parts from babies. Planned Parenthood should be put out of business. They’ve done enough damage. Sin has an enormous price. Our nation will one day have to answer to God for the millions of innocent lives taken by abortion, and that applies to every politician who voted for and defended abortion.”

– Evangelist Franklin Graham

And we wonder why Dear was babbling about “baby parts”?

But this isn’t new. Radicalizing rhetoric has been coming from the Religious Right for years and years:

“If babies had guns, they wouldn’t be aborted.”

– Former Rep. Steve Stockman (R-TX)

“Planned Parenthood needs to be defunded and shut down. It is such a sham business. This BS of them touting all the medical services they provide women and the free healthcare — They don’t provide all these services. They are able to refer out services. It’s immoral, it’s unethical, it’s disgusting, it’s despicable, this butcher shop that we see now that they are.”

– Former Alaska Governor and GOP VP Candidate Sarah Palin

“First of all, we have to start with the fact that since 1973…. These kids are survivors. They could have been aborted. And that’s a fact. And people don’t realize. They’re post-Roe v Wade, and therefore there’s a thing called “survivor syndrome.” There’s a psychiatrist up in Canada, Dr. Philip Ney, has studied this for decades and shown the effect. Just the fact that you could have been aborted can affect you as a survivor of Roe v Wade.”

– Executive Director of Priests for Life Janet Morana explaining why three teenagers in Oklahoma allegedly murdered an Australian student

“You know how to stop abortion? Require that each one occur with a gun.”

– Conservative radio personality Rush Limbaugh

“Together, abortionists are destroying humanity at large and the black community in particular.”

– Activist Alveda King

The argument that abortion is murder is oft repeated:

“Both science and Scripture are absolutely clear that life begins at conception. Taking a human life is murder, by definition, which makes abortion a murderous act.”

Mark Driscoll, former pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle

“Abortion is the ultimate violence.”

Joseph M. Scheidler, head of the Pro-Life Action League

“I do believe if you have an abortion you are committing murder.”

– Former First Lady Nancy Reagan

“Let’s not pretend that abortion isn’t about the mass slaughter of innocents.”

– Artist Michael Aston

And then there are those who want punishment of anyone participating in an abortion — ranging from imprisonment to execution. Despite indignant proclamations that the pro-life movement has never encouraged violence against pro-choice advocates and practitioners, their record says otherwise:

“[Abortion in the case of rape victims] would be taking a life. I would advocate that any doctor that performs an abortion should be criminally charged for doing so.”

– GOP Presidential Candidate and Former Senator Rick Santorum

“In addition to our personal guilt in abortion, the United States government has abrogated its responsibility to properly deal with the blood-guilty. This responsibility rightly involves executing convicted murderers, including abortionists, for their crimes in order to expunge bloodguilt from the land and people.

[…]

[A] mother of an aborted baby is considered untouchable where as any other mother, killing any other family member, would be called what she is: a murderer.”

– Endorser of Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign and Operation Rescue President Troy Newman

“I say, tonight, we punish Planned Parenthood. I think it’s time that abortion doctors should have to run and hide and be afraid for their life.”

– American evangelist Joshua Feuerstein

“And if I could get my hands on Tiller — well, you know. Can’t be vigilantes. Can’t do that. It’s just a figure of speech. But despicable? Oh, my God. Oh, it doesn’t get worse. Does it get worse? No.”

– Political Commentator Bill O’Reilly

And this is little more than a smattering of the rhetoric spewing out from leaders and influencers on the Religious Right. Is it any surprise, then, that someone like Dear — having walked the pathway of unfreezing and established individual and group grievance related to Planned Parenthood’s abortion services — might be pushed down a slippery slope to extremism by spiraling violent rhetoric from this hateful crowd?

This Radicalization is Not New or Dying Out

Dear wasn’t the first to be radicalized in this manner. That quote from O’Reilly? It was one of the more inflammatory statements he made about abortion provider Dr. George Tiller — or as O’Reilly called him, “Dr. Killer” — in his repeated attacks against the man during the 90s. Though he followed up his aggressive comments with a light caveat about vigilantism, the comment was a dog whistle heard loud and clear among rabid supporters of the Religious Right. On May 21st, 2009, Dr. Tiller was shot and killed at his church where he served as an usher by a man who viewed him as a murderer because of his profession. Apparently, he didn’t see Tiller as a “true believer.”

Though some may point to the time gap between Tiller’s death and the shooting in Colorado to dismiss the radicalizing impact of rhetoric from the Religious Right, these deaths are only part of the bigger picture. Violence against abortion providers is on the rise. As Vox’s Sarah Kliff points out:

Shootings at abortion clinics are rare. But violence against clinics is not: there have been at least 73 successful attacks on American abortion clinics since 1997, according to the National Abortion Federation.

Forty of those acts of violence are arson attacks, including four in 2012. There have also been 20 attacks aimed at abortion providers themselves with different weapons, either shootings, stabbings, or acid attacks.

[…]

Violence against abortion clinics peaked in the late 1990s, as extreme anti-abortion groups like Operation Rescue advocated aggressively for attacks on clinics and providers. But it hasn’t disappeared: in 2012 alone, there were four arson attacks on clinics in Florida, Wisconsin, and Georgia — and one failed attempt in Missouri.

The NAF database ends in 2012 — but more recently, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has reported an uptick in abortion against clinics in the wake of sting videos taped inside Planned Parenthood locations, which purported to show the sale of fetal body parts.

Those statistics are chilling, but may not be enough to clarify the harm done by radicalization from the Religious Right. Yes, shootings may be rare, and violence may not be a daily occurrence, but many abortion providers still live in fear, and with good reason. As David S. Cohen and Krysten Connon reported in Slate:

Personal targeting of abortion providers is rising precipitously. The 2014 National Clinic Violence Survey tallied the responses of 242 abortion providers from around the country.

The study’s findings are alarming. The Feminist Majority Foundation compared the 2014 findings with its previous report on the subject in 2010 and found large increases in personal targeting.
The report concludes: “[T]he overall percentage of clinics impacted by these types of threats and targeted intimidation tactics increased dramatically since 2010, from 26.6% of clinics to 51.9% of clinics.”

[T]his kind of individualized targeting is not a relic of past decades, when Operation Rescue made nightly news with clinic blockades and bombings. Rather, it continues with new harassment to this day. Providers told us about being physically assaulted, picketed at home, threatened over the phone, and stalked around town. Providers’ children have been the subject of protests at school, providers’ parents have been harassed in nursing homes, and their spouses have been targeted at work. The list of tactics is almost endless.

This isn’t just about Dear’s radicalization or the Colorado shooting. This is about the ongoing impacts of the Religious Right’s longstanding radicalization efforts.

Why have these efforts been so successful? Additional insights from McCauley and Moskalenko explain how this radicalization escalates on a group level with the principles of isolation and polarization. Isolation, they explain, occurs when people’s interaction on a subject becomes limited to interactions with like-minded individuals. Increasing partisanship and politicization of the media in the past two decades may be facilitating this. If individuals ascribing to a certain ideology are only exposed to groups and influencers who reinforce their beliefs, they become more self-righteous about their position and more susceptible to radicalization.

The second element here is polarization, or the increasing rabidity of a group’s beliefs that comes from escalating affirmation of their worldviews. As their positions are further and further validated by their echo chamber and their proclamations grow louder and louder, a drive to “walk the walk,” so to speak, becomes more and more poignant. Sometimes that has to do with picketing or writing legislators or using their voice at the ballot box. But sometimes, it means proving the strength of their convictions through alliances with groups like Army of God or taking matters into their own hands.

There is a case to be made that both isolation and polarization has led the Religious Right and its adherents to an extremist position. That position, however, does not guarantee full radicalization nor the embracing of violence as a means of protest. But when a wide swath of the population has been primed in this manner, those presented with individual pathways to radicalization are more likely to take them. In other words, the Religious Right is grooming the next generation of domestic terrorists under the guise of evangelism.

A Grim Outlook on Continued Radicalization

Is the Religious Right solely responsible for the violent radicalization of their followers? No, just as Muslim influencers with a more fundamentalist view of the faith are not inherently spurring terrorism. But both of these groups cultivate cultures whose populations are more likely to radicalize and are either drawn to connecting with groups who do overtly support violence or embracing violent tactics themselves.

Unfortunately, members of the Religious Right aren’t going to change their tactics, and it is their Constitutional right to continue with their rhetoric. While those with an understanding of how radicalization works may liken the Religious Right’s vitriol to yelling fire in a theater full of their self-made zealots, without explicit calls for imminent violence that can be directly linked to the actions of the violent perpetrator, the courts won’t take action. And even though the government is all too willing to pounce on Muslims who may have been exposed to potentially fundamentalist Islamic content, you’re never going to see them do the same with radicalized Christians.

Until something changes, the Religious Right will continue to radicalize Americans, and there’s nothing we can do about it. They can balk in the meantime at such analysis, but at the end of the day, the blood from past violence, Colorado, and inevitable attacks in the future is on their hands.

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