The entries in the daily log are almost routine now. A bomb threat in Washington, D.C. Two more in Maryland. Another in Pennsylvannia. A ketchup-covered long-bladed knife found against a door in South Dakota.
Nothing extraordinary. No devices have gone off this week. Nobody has been hurt. You might even say that things have settled down since Nov. 19, when an abortion clinic and a family planning clinic, both in Maryland, were bombed. Certainly there has been no event as freakish as the one in Alabama on Nov. 15, when a part-time abortion counselor who had been harassed by anti-abortionists came home to find her cat decapitated.
But Barbera Radford, the head of the National Abortion Federation, which keeps track of these acts, has no illusions that the worst is over. Quite the contrary. "We've seen a rise in bombings, a rise in arson, a rise in death threats to clinic personnel," says Radford. This year alone 24 centers in seven states have been damaged by fire or explosion, and so has her NAF office. In addition, there have been 150 reported cases of vandalism and harassment.
There is no proof that anti-abortion groups are behind these incidents, nor do we know for sure that these acts are connected. But we do know that the bombings, the fires, the crimes are occurring in an atmosphere of general frustration, of escalating anger and mounting pressure for action among anti-abortion activists.
These groups have not won a legislative or legal battle in a long time. A constitutional amendment to ban abortions is stalled. The Supreme Court last spring reaffirmed abortion rights. Thwarted in ome direction, some right-to-lifers have been shifting in another direction: toward direct action against clinics and patients and doctors. As Alice Wolfson of the Committee to Defend Reporductive Rights has said, "If they can't make abortion illegal, they're going to try to make it impossible."
Inside the pro-life movement, moderate leaders are losing ground to extremists. Once, a man like Joe Scheidler, the head of the Chicago-based Pro-Life Action Group, was scorned by the mainstream. While the moderates work to change the law, Scheidler specializes in harassing patients, disrupting clinics, invading with "truth squads."
Scheidler calls the moderate leaders the "wimpish pro-lifers," "the lilypads for life." Yet this year, he was not only welcome at the annual convention of the National Right to Life Committee but in the White House. He joined other anti-abortion leaders when they met with President Reagan.
As the center has shifted, so has the radical fringe moved farther into more dangerous territory. The acceptance of aggressive tactics by moderate makes it easier for the bombers and burners to flourish. The radical ground is fertilized with rationalization.
Scheidler, for example, says that "we intend to shut down the [abortion] industry." Of the bombers and burners, he merely reports, "I don't condemn them, I don't promote them. What we've seen is some damaged real estate. . . . It's like bombing Dachau and getting away without hurting anyone." So, in turn, a criminal like Curt Beseda, convicted of four felonies against clinics in Washington State, uses this same reasoning to justify his acts: "Tomorrow, no child will be put to death there."
The tactics of "direct action" have escalated into a form of domestic terrorism. A small band of fanatics has set out to impose its political will through fear rather than persuasion. Those who cannot change the law by peaceful means justify violence. The most bizarre among them are even risking murder out of the conviction that they are stopping murder.
This terrorism has had no measurable effect on the number of abortions being performed. Women are rarely scared or harassed into maternity; we know that from years of illegal abortions.
But it does offer a close-up, a portrait of fanaticism at work in our culture. Fanaticism wears the same face whether it's in Lebanon or Maryland. Sometimes it even carries the same weapons.
Reagan once described terrorists this way: "They are possessed by a fanatical intensity that individuals in a civilized society can only barely comprehend." This week, his administration launched its program to "get tough" on international terrorism. But we're still waiting for the condemnation of domestic terrorism that has taken place right down the street from the White House.