In the life of Eric Rudolph, investigators think they see the violent confluence of militias and the fringes of the anti-abortion movement.
Federal agents have been searching for Rudolph for more than three weeks in connection with the Jan. 29 fatal bombing of a Birmingham, Ala., abortion clinic. His survival skills and military training have helped him evade hundreds of agents, attracted to him in part because of his ties to a right-wing militia in North Carolina.
As the anti-abortion movement has suffered a series of frustrating court losses and political infighting over the past decade, investigators and experts say, some members have been driven away. The most radical are seeking outlets in the growing militia movement.
Militias are responding, using social issues they once were silent on, such as abortion and homosexuality, to recruit new members.
“Abortion is an attractive way to attract new people. You see it in militia groups, in neo-Nazi groups. They’re talking about abortion in their literature and at their meetings,” said Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors extremist groups.
Peg Johnston, director of the Southern Tier Women’s Services clinic in Binghamton, N.Y., once the favorite target of anti-abortion protesters from Operation Rescue, said she has noticed the militia/anti-abortion overlap for years. “If anything, this (Birmingham) bombing is alerting federal agents to it,” Johnston said.
Since a law was passed in 1994 that makes blocking a clinic’s entrance a serious federal crime, nonviolent protests have ceased at her clinic, Johnston said. And Randall Terry, once Operation Rescue’s leader, now is a talk-radio host who is running for Congress in New York.
When members of a movement turn to violence such as clinic bombings, it may be a sign of stagnation, say social scientists.
“It’s a sign of the gradual death of the movement,” said Dallas Blanchard, chair of the sociology department at the University of Western Florida and author of two books on clinic bombings.
“Operation Rescue is a dying movement. Some of their people are going to other issues like gays and porn. But some are going to militias.”
The most frustrating events for anti-abortion activists are thought to be the Supreme Court’s decision in 1992 upholding the basic right to choose an abortion and the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act of 1994. However, anti-abortion activists have been able to push laws putting restrictions on abortion, such as by age or through required waiting periods.
Arson at abortion clinics more than doubled after the Supreme Court decision, from eight in 1991 to 21 in 1992. Those arson rates have stayed at historically high levels since, according to statistics from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. And clinic bombings have been climbing steadily since 1992. Last year, there were seven, the most ever.
Vicki Saporta, executive director of the National Abortion Federation, which represents abortion clinics, said the effects of the laws were noticeable.
“After the clinic-entrances law, the number of blockades dropped and the number of violent acts went up, no doubt,” she said. “And we did see increased activity on the part of militia-types, but they’ve always been intolerant - of the government or minorities or gays - so it makes sense.”
But David O’Steen, executive director of National Right to Life, the largest anti-abortion group, said he has not seen this frustration among his membership. He condemned clinic bombings.
“We oppose violence. Our response to those who advocate it has always been: Don’t do it,” he said.
But he acknowledged that overturning the country’s abortion laws is a long-term project that could leave some frustrated.
“It took centuries to win for movements like those that helped Americans of African descent or gender equality. Ours will be like that,” he said.
Authorities have not solved most of the clinic-bombing cases, so ties to the militias have been anecdotal until the Rudolph case.
Renee Chelian, director of three abortion clinics in suburban Detroit, said she is worried that militia members who fight abortion are more confused than anything.
“I don’t know if they really give two hoots about abortion. But we’re an easy target, and they’re angry,” she said.
This junction of frustration and ideology may be embodied in Rudolph.
He is charged with detonating a bomb, packed with nails and shards of glass, at the New Woman All Women clinic, killing an off-duty police officer, Robert Sanderson, 35, and injuring a clinic nurse, Emily Lyons, 41. Lyons is recovering in a hospital with a broken leg, “hundreds” of puncture wounds, major intestinal damage and the loss of her left eye. Last week, she began physical therapy.
Similar bombs were found at the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics, an Atlanta abortion clinic in 1997 and an Atlanta gay nightclub in 1997, and agents are close to establishing a connection between the four incidents.
The bombings were followed by letters to local newspapers signed “Army of God.” They all were written in block letters with a red Magic Marker and contained almost identical messages decrying “the murder of children” and “the policy of ungodly (perversion) that’s destroying our (people).”
“Connecting all the bombings is a crucial part of the investigation,” said Brian Lett, of the ATF’s Birmingham office. “They are separated by a thin line at this point.”
One avenue of investigation is Rudolph’s anti-government attitudes and his connection to a right-wing militia. Rudolph and his mother were followers of the late militia leader and white supremacist Nord Davis Jr., investigators said.
Davis was a Christian Identity preacher who led the Northpoint Tactical Teams, a North Carolina militia that operates out of a 200-acre fenced compound with a guard tower, a 13-star American flag and an underground bunker stocked with enough food, water and gasoline to withstand a long siege.
Potok, of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which is aiding federal agents in their investigation, said, “Davis advocated the death penalty for homosexuals and was violently anti-abortion toward the end of his life.”