Letters filled with white powder and anthrax warnings in insistent capitals. Constant bomb scares and the ever-present sensation of something worse to come. And a single-minded cadre of men who believe that their religious convictions justify violence, destruction and the murder of those whose choices they abhor.
That's what the people who work in family-planning clinics have been living with for years and years.
What most citizens of this country felt this fall is what those who are involved in reproductive services, some of them at facilities that have never performed a single abortion, have lived with a long time. Last week the immediate enemy was a wacko named Clayton Lee Waagner, who was busted at a Kinko's in Ohio after doing time on the FBI's Most Wanted list for sending faux anthrax to hundreds of clinics. Waagner had allegedly told Neal Horsley, who runs an anti-abortion Web site, that he also had plans to kill 42 clinic workers. Horsley quotes him as saying, "If I kill 42 people, by golly I'm going to get some attention!"
But Americans haven't really paid much attention to the campaign of systematic destruction being waged by this group of domestic terrorists over the past quarter century. There's that vague feeling that anti-abortion fervor is largely the purview of principled human beings, women with rosaries and strollers who pray on the sidewalks across from clinics.
Here are some of the principles involved: Arson. Assault. Molotov cocktails. Nail bombs. Glued locks. Blocked sewers. Coming in to work every day wondering if holes have been punched in the roof, the phone lines cut or the files vandalized. If you think a doctor has the right to decide whether to perform abortions, wait until you see the pickets on her lawn or hear strangers yelling at her children as they leave for school. Reading over even thumbnail sketches of what has happened to clinics and clinic owners since abortion became legal makes any sane person wonder how dedicated or stubborn an individual would have to be to continue.
No matter what you believe about abortion, a procedure that more than a million women choose in this country every year, those who believe in human rights have to be repelled by the notion of religious fanatics who believe they can harass, injure or murder people on the say-so of a direct pipeline to God, or Allah. Horsley, who delivered Waagner's threats to the world online, has been in the news before because he is responsible for the site called the Nuremberg List, which provided the names and addresses of clinic workers as well as "miscellaneous spouses and other blood flunkies." If Horsley had a swarthy complexion or the word "al" anywhere in his name and had posted such a list of intelligence officials, he would be in jail now.
There's no real ideological difference between these people and the people who flew planes into the World Trade Center. (One of the leaders of Operation Rescue once sent his followers a letter that concluded, "Return to the training so that God may use you." Sound familiar?) Even law enforcement now refers to them as terrorists. That wasn't always true. Many clinics have stories of local police who responded reluctantly to their calls, and even a few demonstrators who were police officers themselves. In recent years, however, local authorities have gotten sick and tired of the constant drain on their manpower, and the federal authorities have begun to take the threats more seriously. Some of what they've learned about handling letters containing anthrax they learned at clinics, where the staff figured out a long time ago how to open potentially hazardous letters. So far none has contained the real thing. "But you can bet if they could get their hands on real anthrax, it would be real anthrax," says Gloria Feldt, who runs Planned Parenthood.
No matter what you think of abortion, you have to conclude that all this is a waste of scarce resources. If clinics did not need to spend so much for security and insurance, they could be providing more education programs, family-planning services and prenatal care. Instead they are forced to deal with the crazed misogyny of people like members of the so-called Army of God, whose manual offers recipes for plastic explosives and the kinds of bombs used in Oklahoma City.
When will Americans support the clinics in their towns, not because they support abortion but because they support the rule of law? When a wife is followed home from a clinic where she had a Pap test and then harangued on the phone by a zealot who copied down her license-plate number and has a mole in the motor-vehicles office? When a daughter is forced to stand on the cold sidewalk in a hospital gown, midprocedure, because of a bomb scare? Patricia Baird-Windle, who ran a clinic in Florida, writes in her book "Targets of Hatred" that the most difficult part of the ordeal was the ignorance of ordinary citizens, "the disbelief of people, the looks that tell me that what I am describing cannot possibly be real."
It is real: the attacks, the destruction, the escalation. In 1989 James Kopp was chaining himself to a car blocking a clinic entrance in Pittsburgh; less than 10 years later he was allegedly training a gun on the silhouette of a doctor seen through the window of a house in Buffalo, N.Y. That doctor, Barnett Slepian, wrote in a 1994 letter to the local paper: "Please don't feign surprise, dismay, or certainly not innocence when a more volatile and less restrained member of the group decides to react to their inflammatory rhetoric by shooting an abortion provider." Four years later he was dead on his own kitchen floor. People like Waagner and Horsley will argue he brought it on himself by unconscionable action. That's precisely what the men who hit the Trade Center and the Pentagon thought about the soldiers, bankers, lawyers and assorted infidels they believed they had a holy right to murder. Dr. Slepian's wife and children are as much victims of terrorism as anyone who lost a loved one on September 11, and the zealots who abetted and applauded his murder just as un-American.