Eyal Press

Making Sense of Robert Dear

December 1st, 2015

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A recluse, a drifter, a malcontent who lived in a trailer and once allegedly shot at a neighbor’s dog with a pellet gun, whose former wife reported that he’d locked her out of their home and then pushed her to the ground from a window when she tried to get in: these are among the few things we’ve heard so far about Robert Lewis Dear, Jr., the fifty-seven-year-old alleged gunman who opened fire at a Planned Parenthood health center in Colorado Springs on the day after Thanksgiving. The attack, which left three people dead and injured nine others, stunned many people in Colorado Springs, including shoppers in the commercial plaza adjoining the Planned Parenthood center where the shooting erupted. It came as less of a surprise to Vicki Saporta, president of the National Abortion Federation, which has seen a surge of threats against the doctors and clinics in its network since the release, earlier this year, of a series of deceptively edited videos that falsely suggested Planned Parenthood sells fetal organs for profit.

Saporta has twice in the past been on the receiving end of a phone call informing her that a NAF-affiliated physician has been murdered. Between 1997 and 2012, there were seventy-three violent attacks at abortion clinics across the country. The Colorado Springs shootings came less than two months after an arsonist smashed a window and tossed a container of gasoline into a Planned Parenthood in Thousand Oaks, California, an episode that, like many similar incidents in the past, went largely unnoticed. Also largely unnoticed was an intelligence bulletin issued to law-enforcement agencies in September by the F.B.I., which, as CBS News has reported, warned of attacks on clinics by “lone offenders using tactics and threats all of which are typical of the extremist pro-life movement.”

In many ways, then, what happened in Colorado Springs was neither surprising nor unusual. It took place at a facility that was equipped with security cameras and safe rooms, measures that are increasingly standard at abortion clinics and that may well have saved lives. Yet in other respects, the attack is not so familiar. In the late nineteen-eighties and nineties, the perpetrators of anti-abortion violence tended to be seasoned activists who had spent years picketing clinics and then drifted into the movement’s radical fringe. The handful of zealots who shot abortion providers had ties to militant groups like Operation Rescue and the Army of God.

Robert Dear, as far as is now known, does not fit this profile. A self-described art dealer who was born in Charleston, he was more interested in paintings of the Old South than posters of fetuses. If he has a direct link to militant anti-abortion groups, it has not come to light (Joseph Martone, Jr., the head of an organization in Colorado Springs that protests regularly at the Planned Parenthood Dear attacked, told the Colorado Springs Gazette that “Nobody seems to know him.”) Dear’s ex-wife, Pamela Ross, who had called the police after the window-pushing incident, in 1997 (they divorced in 2000), told the New York Times that, as she remembered, he believed in the Bible and opposed abortion, but that the issue did not consume him. “It was never really a topic of discussion,” she said. She had not, however, spoken to him much in the past fifteen years.

One way to make sense of all this is to conclude that Dear could just as easily have shot up a movie theater or a shopping mall. In other words, that he is a deranged individual who chose his target randomly, oblivious to the increasingly strident campaign to demonize Planned Parenthood in recent months. Not surprisingly, this is the view favored by David Daleiden, the founder of the Center for Medical Progress, the anti-abortion group that produced the inflammatory videos that ignited the calls to investigate Planned Parenthood for supposedly trafficking in body parts. In a statement posted on its Web site, the organization condemned the shooting in Colorado Springs and blamed it on “a violent madman.”

With his tousled hair and vacant stare, Dear certainly looks the part. Some neighbors who have come forward since he was arrested have told reporters that he struck them as mentally unhinged. But whether Dear is crazy or merely eccentric remains unclear. Whatever his hold on reality, moreover, he reportedly issued some telling statements upon his arrest. “No more baby parts,” he said after his five-hour standoff with the police in Colorado Springs, according to law-enforcement officials cited in multiple press reports. Dear also reportedly mentioned President Obama, for whom he appears to harbor an intense dislike.

In a report published earlier this year, the New America foundation found that, since 9/11, many more white, non-Muslim Americans than jihadists have perpetrated acts of terrorism on United States soil. Some of these terrorists have been white supremacists. Others have held radical anti-government views. An alternative way to make sense of Dear’s behavior is to see it in this light: as a case of homegrown terrorism perpetrated by a disgruntled white man who lashed out at an institution that has, in certain circles, become a symbol of thoroughgoing evil.

Dear’s lack of prior involvement in organized anti-abortion campaigns hardly proves that the accusations that Planned Parenthood sells “baby parts,” repeatedly made by Republican Presidential candidates and figures like former House Speaker John Boehner, failed to influence him. The toxic atmosphere of recent months has no doubt drawn more attention to the issue. Ironically, the anti-abortion extremists who took up arms in the nineteen-nineties rarely targeted Planned Parenthood centers. They refrained from shooting indiscriminately into waiting rooms where patients who were there for reasons unrelated to abortion might have been sitting, training their sights specifically on abortion providers and, in a few cases, clinic workers. In that era, extremists who harbored a more diffuse hatred of the government tended to focus on other sites – places like the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, in Oklahoma City, which was blown up in 1995, on the second anniversary of the Waco Siege. But these are different times. Dear clearly had tendencies that frightened people he crossed paths with in recent years. We still don’t know his motives. But we do know the context in which he operated.

Read more from 00 The New Yorker.

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