With the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade, protests, marches and demonstrations for abortion rights have erupted across the country. While most have been nonviolent, since the decision first leaked, attacks have increased on pregnancy crisis centers, churches, and other antiabortion organizations, with dozens targeted by graffiti, property damage, arson and explosives.
These actions mirror many of the same tactics used by antiabortion activists to target abortion rights organizations and abortion clinics over the past several decades. Since 1977, 11 abortion providers have been killed, 26 have survived murder attempts, and their clinics and homes have endured more than 40 bombings and nearly 200 arson attacks. In 2021, incidents of assault on providers increased more than 120 percent.
With issues as morally fraught as abortion, are violent actions ever justified? In the eyes of mainstream Americans, when do actions cross the line from legitimate activism to political violence, or even terrorism?
My new research finds that our political leanings complicate our answers to these seemingly objective questions. Using a U.S.-based survey experiment, I found that respondents’ political ideology (either liberal or conservative) influenced both how they perceived the morality of violence and whether they saw an act as terrorism — even when the severity of violence and the type of action were identical.
How I did my research
For the experiment, I ran an online survey via YouGov in June 2021 with 3,640 American adults, with the sample weighted to match national population estimates for age, race/ethnicity, education, region, ideology and political party.
Each participant read about a hypothetical act of violence perpetrated to advance a right-wing or left-wing agenda regarding abortion, climate change or immigration. The type of violence, a bombing, was always identical. But different respondents randomly read about one of six different targets: a pro-choice organization, an antiabortion organization, an environmental protection group, a fossil-fuel lobbying group, an organization supporting expanded immigration, or an organization supporting tighter border control.
Participants were asked three questions, each on a scale of 1 to 7, indicating whether they viewed the action as morally justifiable, strategic, and constituting terrorism. I then examined whether respondents’ conservative (or liberal) identities meant that they responded differently to violent actions against the other ideology’s organizations compared to responses to violent actions against their own ideology’s organizations.
Respondents: My side’s violence can be justified. Your side’s violence is terrorism.
In short, the answer is yes. Respondents who identified as further to the right viewed violence against liberal targets as more morally justified and less terroristic than violence against conservative targets. Respondents who identified as further to the left viewed violence against conservative targets as more morally justified and less terroristic than violence against liberal targets.
Liberals and conservatives were about equally likely to see “their” side’s violence as morally justifiable. However, liberals saw less justification for far-right violence than conservatives did for far-left violence. That’s counter to some claims that conservatives are more susceptible to partisan bias or more likely to have double standards than liberals.
The strongest and most significant effect came on the issue of abortion. Liberals were much more likely to view attacks on abortion rights organizations as acts of terrorism than were conservatives — and more likely to see attacks on antiabortion groups as morally justified. Conservatives were more likely to view attacks on abortion rights organizations as morally justified than were liberals — and were more likely to see attacks on antiabortion groups as terrorism.
And that was true even a year ago, before the heightened activism that’s come since the Dobbs opinion first leaked.
But most people don’t see political violence as justified or strategic
The good news is that a majority (77 percent) of respondents — conservative, moderate and liberal — viewed the action they read about as terrorism, no matter the target, and 72 percent viewed the action as morally unjustifiable. Further, even when ideologically aligned with the cause, most did not see political violence as strategically effective or useful for that issue.
In other words, most Americans don’t see violence on contentious issues such as abortion as legitimate. Rather, they think that any such violence can backfire on the broader mainstream movements.
Such biases have implications for how the U.S. prevents and punishes political violence
As policymakers develop strategies to counter domestic terrorism, they may wish to keep in mind that political ideology influences how Americans perceive violence, depending on the target. Labeling an action “terrorism” makes it a federal charge, unlike most violent crime, which is prosecuted by states. And a terrorism charge changes how much state, local and federal officials can monitor groups or individuals.
So what counts as terrorism? Should the U.S. Criminal Code include property damage and destruction in its definition of terrorism? Liberals might support defining attacks against abortion clinics as terrorism, while conservatives might support such a definition for attacks on pregnancy crisis centers.
It can be difficult to see one’s own biases in action, but research suggests that many of us rationalize some violent actions as more morally justifiable when we agree with the cause — and are quick to condemn identical actions as terrorism when we disagree with the cause. If political violence continues to increase — around abortion, elections or on other fronts — that human tendency to justify or condemn based on shared ideology may further reinforce Americans’ political identities, polarizing the country still more.
Julie M. Norman (@DrJulieNorman2) is a lecturer in politics and international relations at University College London and co-director of the UCL Centre on U.S. Politics (@CUSP_ucl).