The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A Planned Parenthood was firebombed, and the alleged motive isn’t what I expected

Investigators say a man they’ve charged was upset about a girlfriend’s abortion three years earlier

A front window is boarded up at the Planned Parenthood Health Center in Peoria, Ill., the site of a suspected arson. (Matt Dayhoff/AP)
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A couple weeks ago, police officers in Peoria, Ill., responded to a call about the local Planned Parenthood, where an unidentified person had been spotted pulling up to the clinic in a pickup, smashing a flaming laundry detergent bottle into the building’s front window, and then peeling away. Nobody was harmed — this all happened late on a Sunday night — but the fire caused extensive damage and the clinic is closed indefinitely..

I followed the news coverage with personal and professional interest. A few days before the firebombing, Gov. J.B. Pritzker had signed a law protecting Illinois abortion-care providers. The National Abortion Federation has reported that invasions and assaults on abortion clinics increased by about 130 percent in 2021, and the overturning of Roe v. Wade last summer forced many clinics to close and blasted negative attention onto the ones that remained open.

In short, I was pretty sure I could guess what kind of perp we were looking for, and I fully expected to see the Peoria firebombing case culminate with the arrest of someone wearing an “Abortion is the American Holocaust” crew-neck and earnestly explaining how they did it to save the babies.

But also, I’m from there. Peoria is 40 minutes away from my hometown, a straight shot west on Interstate 74. This particular Planned Parenthood is where high school girls in my town would go if they needed birth control and didn’t want any busybodies ratting them out if they were spotted at the local clinic. The area is a mixed bag of insurance wonks (State Farm), gearheads (Rivian) academics (go Redbirds!) and farmers (go corn!), which is to say, we’re just about as likely as anyplace else to produce a crusader who believes he’s saving lives by throwing molotov cocktails.

But I digress.

On Wednesday, the Justice Department announced that an arrest had been made. Tyler W. Massengill, 32, has been charged with “maliciously damaging and destroying, and attempting to damage and destroy, by means of fire and an explosive, a building used in interstate commerce,” according to a DOJ criminal complaint. The accompanying news release stressed that criminal complaints are accusations, not convictions — we’re still in the “allegedly” territory here — but it also said the alleged perpetrator confessed to the crime.

According to the DOJ, Massengill told investigators that, three years ago, his Peoria-based girlfriend became pregnant — and informed him that she intended to terminate the pregnancy, which made him upset. On or around January 15, the day of the fire, Massengill heard something that “reminded him of the abortion, again upsetting him,” the complaint read. Next up: the laundry detergent, the total lack of awareness that a place like Planned Parenthood might have security cameras (the perp was documented from multiple angles), the hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage. Per the complaint, he told investigators that if his actions had caused even “a little delay” in patients receiving services at that clinic, then his actions might have been “all worth it.”

Look, there may be a lot more to this story, which may or may not be revealed in an eventual trial. But what I couldn’t help but notice was this: The alleged arsonist did not appear to engage in any save-the-babies, Isaiah 44:2 rhetoric. There’s nothing so far about Gov. Pritzker, or state-level abortion legislation, or any personal commitment to antiabortion activism, or a guiding moral theory about when life begins.

Rather, the story told in the complaint goes like this: A guy once had a girlfriend who didn’t want to have his baby, and he was so bothered by this three years later that allegedly he set out, in a comically distinctive Dodge hooptie with a white body and bright red doors, to make sure that other women couldn’t make the same decision she had. Or if they did, they might at least encounter “a little delay.”

On the one hand, this isn’t the kind of guy I expected to be arrested for this particular crime. On the other hand, this alleged vandal seems to have said the quiet part loud, hasn’t he?

Some antiabortion activists may operate from deeply held beliefs about right and wrong, guided by their faiths or forged via wrestling with their own philosophical codes. And some of them ... may just really dislike it when women get to be the ones to decide whether to carry a pregnancy to term. When a woman makes a decision with her body that is different from the decision he would have made for her. When a woman gets to choose.

I am going to think of Peoria the next time a state lawmaker tries to introduce legislation preventing women from crossing state lines to access an abortion. So much for “It should be a state issue” — this lawmaker just doesn’t like women choosing.

I am going to think of Peoria every time a pundit does mental backflips explaining why fertilized eggs are just eggs when they’re in an IVF petri dish but babies when they’re in a woman’s uterus. (So much for “life begins when the sperm meets the egg” — this pundit just doesn’t like women choosing.)

I’m going to think of Peoria the next time I remember an assembly I once attended in my beautiful, Midwestern, not-far-away high school, where the speaker encouraged the girls to take chastity pledges, lest they resemble chewed-and-spit-out gum.

It’s about women choosing. It’s always about that. At the root of so many of these discussions, the discomfort of women choosing, and the lengths to which some people will go to reclaim that choice.