In my last column, I wrote about the acts of violence being leveraged against abortion and women’s healthcare providers across the country. I penned it just weeks after the September firebombing of our Pullman health center. It was clear to us that things were escalating. Others thought so too, including David S. Cohen, an anti-abortion terrorism expert I quoted in that piece.
“It’s scary to contemplate what might happen next,” the quote from Cohen read. In the context of what has occurred since then—a man going into a Planned Parenthood health center in Colorado Springs, holding staff and patients hostage and murdering three people—it’s chilling to read Cohen’s words again.
When horrific acts of violence such as this are expected, there is a problem. And since the shooting, it’s become clear that it’s not just Planned Parenthood that faces predictable attacks. Hateful rhetoric and the violence it inspires targets many groups. It’s time to stand together.
Fear as a Tool
People respond to fear. Peer-reviewed research published December 2015 in Psychological Science points to how fear influences political affiliation, specifically in regard to perceived threats of terrorism.
“Our findings show that terrorism shifts public attitudes towards greater loyalty to the in-group, less concern with fairness, and greater prejudice against Muslims and immigrants, but it seems that this effect is stronger on those who are politically left-leaning than those who are right-leaning,” explain the study’s scientists.
In short, creating terror can get you more votes, even from those who don’t typically agree with you.
This tactic isn’t new. While on trial for the horrific war crimes he perpetuated as a Nazi leader, Hermann Goering laid it out in blunt detail:
“It’s always a simple matter to drag the people along whether it’s a democracy, a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism, and exposing the country to greater danger.”
This is routine. In his 2009 book, Tom Ridge, former Secretary of Homeland Security, revealed that on the eve of George W. Bush’s 2004 re-election, he was pushed to raise the national security terrorism alert without actual cause. The move was a political tactic, Ridge explained. He resigned because of it.
Stoking fear has become a pattern used against entire groups. Politicians have recently said that transgendered people are pedophiles, abortion providers are murderers, immigrants are rapists and drug lords, people of color are criminals, and Muslims and refugees are terrorists.
Following hateful rhetoric, countless acts of violence have been leveraged against these groups—in 2015 murders of transgendered people reached an all-time high in the US, a Muslim center in Spokane was vandalized with the words “Death to Islam” while prayer was in session, instances of unarmed black men being killed continue to multiply, and women who have contributed their stories to the #ShoutYourAbortion movement have received death threats, to name just a few examples.
“Sticks and stones can break our bones, but we are seeing words actually hurt people,” said Jackie Vaughn, Planned Parenthood community organizer in response to the escalation in violence.
These generalizations and hate speech are put out by politicians for a reason—they take away an individual’s humanity, shut down progressive movements, silence activists, and foster a culture of fear that ensures they remain in control. And when you start a conversation with the most false and inflammatory rhetoric you can muster, it’s impossible to respond. There’s no negotiating, progress, or resolution with the playground bully.
We Stand Together
On a rainy, cold Saturday night, dozens of people filtered into the darkened sanctuary of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Spokane for a vigil called We Stand Together. Each person cupped a little candle in their hands, softly illuminating their faces. The room was quiet, save for the voice of Reverend Todd Eklof and his bell.
At first a warm quiet sound, the sound of the bell grew louder in the room. It was struck each time Eklof read the names of victims of violence that was motivated by hate speech. By the end of the list, the bell’s sound filled every inch of the room.
“Let’s remain awake in our culture of violence and remember those we’ve lost, stand in solidarity with those who must now live in fear, and commit to taking action to make our world a more peaceful and just place for everyone,” Eklof said, with the bell still sounding in the background.
Like Eklof, we at Planned Parenthood, along with many other community partners and targeted groups, are calling for an end to this violence. We commit to being awake and aware, and to fostering productive and accepting conversations that reach real solutions.
We stand together to ensure the bell never grows loud again.