On the right, they see it as the moment when the left's "culture of death" was seriously confronted for the first time. On the left, it's being hopefully viewed as the moment when the right finally jumped the shark and revealed their ugly, intrusive underside to the public at large.
It will take some time, of course, to ascertain which of these views is closer to the truth, though obviously I've already endorsed the latter wholly.
However, I think that we can defintively say that it was a watershed event in a gathering trend we've been observing for some time here: It clearly marked the open embrace of extremists by the mainstream Republican Party.
It was apparent that the "fight for Terri" attracted a large number of extremists to the cause, notably Bo Gritz and Hal Turner. But they were not as openly adopted by the supposedly mainstream conservatives who joined in the fray as the anti-abortion extremist Randall Terry.
Terry, of course, was everywhere: Popping up on Fox News, MSNBC, CNN, and various local networks as the chief spokesman for the Schindler family, who sought him out for support.
Numerous others have remarked on Terry's long career in anti-abortion radicalism, including Media Matters, Mark Kleiman, World O'Crap, and TalkLeft. Sean Baptiste has put together a six-part series on Terry that has even greater detail.
But what few have remarked upon is Terry's long history of association with the most violent elements of right-wing extremism, and his early role in fomenting the formation of "citizen militias" and the "Patriot" movement. Terry's extremism is very broad-ranging, and includes some of the most dangerous and nakedly anti-democratic elements in American society.
In fact, my first awareness of the existence of a "militia movement" came in 1994, when I watched a video tape of Terry and his frequent cohort, Matthew Trewhella, exhorting a gathering of Howard Phillips' U.S. Taxpayers Party (now known as the Constitution Party). Terry called for the "justifiable" killing of abortion doctors, while Trewhella painted militias as one of the solutions for dealing with abortion.
An earlier report from 1995 describes some of his activities in this regard:
- Randall Terry, founder of Operation Rescue, is working with the radical right U.S. Taxpayers Party (USTP) launching a new "leadership institute" to train "militant" and "unmerciful" activists. Terry has recently assumed a leadership position at the USTP, writing newsletters and speaking at events. He says he plans to run as a USTP candidate in the state of New York in 1996. "I'm anxious to run," he said "I am chomping at the bit to actually be in office."
Terry said a new "leadership institute" will be held near his hometown of Binghamton, New York in October and will offer "three days of intense training on vision, courage, biblical ethics, raising up a cadre of people who are militant, who are fierce, who are unmerciful to the deeds of darkness, unmerciful to the ideologies of hell." At the same conference Matthew Trewhella, leader of Missionaries to the Pre-born urged delegates to form armed militias and to establish a "militia day" in their churches. Conference organizers sold copies of a manual on how to create an armed underground army. Jeffrey Baker, USTP National Committee member touted that "Abortionists should be put to death" during his convention speech. The audience erupted in applause.
The U.S. Taxpayers party is headquartered in Vienna, Virginia. In 1992 the USTP presidential candidate, Howard Phillips, ran a series of controversial campaign commercials which featured the photograph, name, and home address of medical directors at a Planned Parenthood in Iowa while the narrator stated "Howard Phillips urges you to contact these baby killers and urge them to mend their ways. A vote for Howard Phillips is a vote to prosecute the baby killers for premeditated murder."
Some other significant quotes from Terry make clear the depths of his anti-democratic inclinations:
- "I want you to just let a wave of intolerance wash over you... I want you to let a wave of hatred wash over you. Yes, hate is good... Our goal is a Christian nation. We have a biblical duty, we are called by God, to conquer this country. We don't want equal time. We don't want pluralism."
He also is clear in his advocacy of a singularly intolerant "Christian nation", especially for abortion providers:
- "When I, or people like me, are running the country, you'd better flee, because we will find you, we will try you, and we'll execute you. I mean every word of it. ... I will make it part of my mission to see to it that they are tried and executed.
"You say, 'This is extreme!' Yeah, you're right. But imagine God Almighty sending people to hell just because they didn't follow His son? That's extreme. That's intolerance. Imagine Jesus saying that all other religions are false. Christianity claims to be the only way."
Terry also has a thing about insisting on masculine leadership:
- "The greatest crisis we face is not child killing, it's not the sodomites, it's not land tax, it's not the intrusion of the federal government into our lives, our families, as they crush our liberties. The greatest crisis we face tonight is a crisis of leadership. We are facing a crisis of righteous, courageous, physically oriented, male leadership. Male leadership!
"God established patriarchy when he established the world. God established a patriarchal world. If we're going to have true reformation in America, it is because men once again, if I may use a worn out expression, have righteous testosterone flowing through their veins. They are not afraid of the contempt of their contemporaries. They are not here to get along. They are not even here to take issue. They are here to take over!"
While Christian Reconstructionists often paint a benign picture of the "Christian nation" they intend to create, Terry is more straightforward:
- "Christian government, folks, would prosecute abortionists. Christian government would say that consensual homosexual acts are a criminal offense. Christian government would say that the government cannot property tax your land. The foundation of self government is private ownership of land. Look at the Bible. Look at how much time God spent making sure that the land was distributed, and that you could never lose your land.
"Courage, by definition, is the willingness to die. You've got to be prepared to die before you can be the most courageous man or woman you can be. Because once you're prepared to die for something, or someone, you can't be intimidated; you can't be bullied; you can't be bribed; there's nothing that anyone can do to stop you."
Of course, this kind of rhetorical threatening was a significant part of the right-wing discourse in the Schiavo matter, promulgated at every step by Terry. Nancy Goldstein at Raw Story had an excellent summary of the way things quickly spiraled:
- Invariably, things got a little out of hand, as things often do when people are encouraged to believe that innocents are being murdered and God sanctions their every retaliatory action. Typical theo-con incitement-to-riot rhetoric from the "Priests for Life" describes the courts as "un-elected judges" who "authorize violence," then prescribes revolt: "When government fails to protect life, the people must do so directly."
Incendiary rhetoric wasn’t contained to the fringes. House majority leader Tom DeLay warmed up the crowd with his declaration that "murder is being committed against a defenseless American citizen in Florida." And that's just what he said in public. In private, while speaking to the rabidly theo-con Family Research Council in remarks secretly taped and later released to the press by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, DeLay warned his audience of "a huge nationwide concerted effort to destroy everything we believe in," urged them to "participate in fighting back," and claimed that staying out of politics is "not what Christ asked us to do."
Of course, after Terri Schiavo finally died, DeLay continued the attacks on judges in a way that clearly smacked of the threat of violence:
- Mrs. Schiavo's death is a moral poverty and a legal tragedy. This loss happened because our legal system did not protect the people who need protection most, and that will change. The time will come for the men responsible for this to answer for their behavior, but not today.
The same theme continued yesterday with similar remarks by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas:
- "I don't know if there is a cause-and-effect connection but we have seen some recent episodes of courthouse violence in this country. Certainly nothing new, but we seem to have run through a spate of courthouse violence recently that's been on the news and I wonder whether there may be some connection between the perception in some quarters on some occasions where judges are making political decisions yet are unaccountable to the public, that it builds up and builds up and builds up to the point where some people engage in -- engage in violence."
Who could have predicted that a United States Senator would begin channeling Hal Turner and other extremist ideologues who argue that judges have it coming when they make "bad rulings" (that is, rulings the right doesn't like)?
As Nancy Goldstein put it:
- You'd better get to know these folks, because Schivao was a coming-out party for an emboldened radical right wing, not an isolated incident. The GOP gave theo-cons every indication that they would be allowed to set the agenda. The news media gave them carte blanche, never once explicitly connecting prime players like Randall Terry to their violent pasts. And the Democrats went limp. Now theo-cons are going to be taking their show on the road whenever and wherever they want: over the judiciary, gay marriage, and abortion -- whatever God wills.
The Schiavo case indeed could prove to be a watershed event. But if centrists and progressives cannot muster the will to make clear to the public just how deeply enmeshed with the mainstream the extremist right has become, it will not mark a happy turning point for our nation, but a disastrous one.