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June 8, 2009

Anarchy and Vigilantism

On May 31, Americans across the country were shocked to learn that Dr. George Tiller, an abortion provider, had been shot and killed in the foyer of Reformation Lutheran Church in Wichita, Kansas. Just three hours after the shooting, authorities apprehended a suspect—Scott P. Roeder of Merriam, Kansas—on Interstate 35.

Initial reporting on the case linked the murder to Roeder’s extensive history as a pro-life activist. One Kansas City pro-life protestor, Regina Dinwiddie, commented that Roeder, “believed in justifiable homicide. I know he very strongly believed that abortion was murder and that you ought to defend the little ones, both born and unborn.” A September 3, 2007, post from a “Scott Roeder” on the website www.chargetiller.com reads as follows: “It seems as though what is happening in Kansas could be compared to the ‘lawlessness’ which is spoken of in the Bible. Tiller is the concentration camp ‘Mengele’ of our day and needs to be stopped before he and those who protect him bring judgment upon our nation.”

Subsequent investigation, however, revealed that Roeder’s ties to right wing extremist groups were far more extensive. In the words of Anti-Defamation League National Director Abraham Foxman, Roeder’s “extremism cross-pollinated between anti-government extremism and anti-abortion activism.”

In April 1996, Roeder was pulled over in Topeka, Kansas, for driving with a homemade license plate. Police found a military-style rifle, ammunition, a blasting cap, a fuse cord, a one-pound can of gunpowder, and two 9-volt batteries in his car. He was subsequently convicted on one count of criminal use of explosives and several driving-related misdemeanors, and ordered to stop associating with violent anti-government groups. The convictions were overturned on appeal a year later, however, after a court determined that the evidence was illegally gathered.

At the time, the FBI listed Roeder as a member of the Montana Freemen, a radical anti-government group. From March-June 1996, the group engaged in an armed standoff with FBI agents who were attempting to serve warrants at their compound. Federal prosecutors had alleged that Freemen members wrote worthless checks and money orders to pay taxes and to defraud banks and credit card companies. Though no shots were fired, the heavily-armed Freemen remained in their Jordan, Montana, compound for 81 days before allowing the FBI to enter. Several of the group’s members were subsequently convicted on a range of charges.

This information suggests that Roeder’s killing of Dr. Tiller could be the latest manifestation of the Department of Homeland Security’s warning that, “the combination of environmental factors that echo the 1990s, including heightened interest in legislation for tighter firearms restrictions and returning military veterans, as well as several new trends, including an uncertain economy and a perceived rising influence of other countries, may be invigorating rightwing extremist activity, specifically the white supremacist and militia movements.” One cannot ignore the parallels between Roeder and right-wing extremists like Neo-Nazi Richard Poplawski, who killed three police officers in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in April; Joshua Cartwright, who killed two police officers in the Florida panhandle in April; and Jim Adkisson, who killed two parishioners at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in July 2008.

It is unclear at this point what type of gun Roeder used in the shooting or how he acquired it. Because Roeder’s felony conviction for criminal use of explosives was thrown out in the late 1990s, that would not have stopped him from passing a criminal background check. During a custody battle over a girl Roeder claimed was his daughter, a 2005 court ruling noted that Roeder had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and did not take medication, "which may pose a clear and present danger to the minor child." Had Roeder been adjudicated “mentally defective” or involuntarily committed to a mental institution, he would have been prohibited under federal law from purchasing or owning firearms.

Though the shooting of Dr. Tiller has obvious religious overtones due to Roeder’s pro-life activism, it is also clear that Roeder felt that violence was an appropriate way to oppose what he viewed as an illegitimate government that refused to ban abortion. Such insurrectionist beliefs pose a direct threat to any constitutional democracy, a fact recently noted by conservative FOX commentator Bill O’Reilly, who said, “Anarchy and vigilantism will assure the collapse of any society. Once the rule of law breaks down, a country is finished. Thus, clear-thinking Americans should condemn the murder of late-term abortionist Tiller. Even though the man terminated thousands of pregnancies, what he did is within Kansas law.”

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