Thursday, July 22, 2010

Bomb Threats and Weak Links

There’s a Planned Parenthood a few blocks from my work, one of a handful in Chicago offering pregnancy termination. This morning clinic workers showed up to find a box waiting on the sidewalk outside their office. Later, someone called threatening to detonate the bomb inside.

Police moved quickly. In a few minutes they’d cordoned off most of the neighborhood, rerouting buses and frustrating the last of the morning commuters. We watched the lockdown from our window. Displaced nurses stood on the corner hugging each other and glancing over their shoulders. My boss fretted over whether to send us home.
In the end the box held nothing more dangerous than an animal carcass – an opossum – with a note reading ‘For all the doctors for all you do to women.’ Unsettling, yes. Stomach-curdling, definitely. But no one got hurt, no one exploded. The police rolled up their caution tape, traffic started moving again and I sat down to work.

Still, I find myself distracted. The threat made to individual lives this morning was unforgivable. But the violation I keep dwelling on is a societal one. By forcing their ideas of morality on the clinicians at Planned Parenthood, those activists bypassed the social and political institutions set up to address such differences in belief among American citizens. Their vigilantism showed lack of faith in and respect for those institutions. When people act lawlessly, using threats of violence instead of productive civil engagement to get their message across, everyone suffers. The social contract that binds us weakens. The institutions we rely on to shore up our democracy – flawed though they may be – weaken. Non-participation on the part of extremists encourages others in turn to disregard the law, encourages them to abandon collaboration and communication for more violent methods. The words ‘domestic terrorism’ come to mind.

I want to believe this kind of violence is isolated, the work of a lone sociopathic mind pursuing some twisted internal vision of righteousness. I know that’s not true. Targeting clinics is a well-established anti-abortionist strategy. A recent New York Times article describes a rally held in 1993. Randall Terry spoke to the crowd: “We’ve found the weak link is the doctor...we’re going to expose them. We’re going to humiliate them.” The article goes on to mention that mere days later an abortion provider was shot and killed outside a nearby clinic.

I’ve been meaning to post that article for a while now. It explores a growing movement to bring abortion procedures back to hospitals, back into family practices. Medical schools are starting to offer more challenging, prestigious programs in family planning that are drawing bright, dedicated students to the field. The majority of abortions will probably always take place in clinics. But incorporating them into mainstream medicine may go a long way towards making terminations more socially acceptable and less a target of violence and vitriol. As the article states, this may change doctors from “a weak link in abortion to a strong one.”

Like I said, I’ve been meaning to post that article. I just didn’t think I’d have to post it like this.