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OpinionColumnistsCathy Young

Extremist violence brings out the broad brushes

Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood shooting suspect Robert Dear,

Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood shooting suspect Robert Dear, right, appears via video hearing during his first court appearance, where he was told he faces first degree murder charges, Monday, Nov. 30, 2015, in Colorado Springs, Colo. At left is public defender Dan King. Credit: AP / Mark Reis

Even before the full facts of the shooting at the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood facility were known, social media lit up with talk of "Christian terrorism."

In a sarcastic allusion to Donald Trump's controversial suggestion that mosques involved in Islamic radicalism should be shut, journalist Anna Marie Cox asked on Twitter, "Will Trump call for closing all churches or just the ones that preach 'radical Christianity'?"

A widely distributed article by blogger James Schlarmann chided "moderate white Christians" for not denouncing the Planned Parenthood attack as "moderate Muslims" are often asked to denounce Islamist terrorism. But does the tragedy in Colorado Springs really tell us that "radical Christianity" has as much of a terrorism problem as radical Islam -- or do the facts show the opposite?

To start with, we don't know much yet about the motives of the shooter, 57-year-old Robert Lewis Dear. After he surrendered to the police, he reportedly made a comment about "baby parts" -- presumably a reference to recent videos that accused Planned Parenthood of trafficking in the organs of aborted fetuses. His ex-wife, Pamela Ross, told The New York Times that he was a Bible-believing Christian but not a regular churchgoer, and opposed abortion but was not obsessive about it.

Of course, that may have changed, because Dear evidently struggled with mental illness. Yet even if religion was part of what drove him to deadly violence, the parallel to jihadism fails in some important ways. Terrorism rooted in a radical version of political Islam is a worldwide network that includes multiple organizations, including the Islamic State, which seeks to build its theocratic utopia on Earth. Various forms of violent jihad are espoused by a depressingly large number of Muslim clerics and scholars, including many who denounce some Islamist terror groups. (A few years ago in Pakistan, some religious figures cheered the assassination of a governor who was against capital punishment for blasphemy.)

By contrast, churches and groups that oppose abortion in the United States have unequivocally condemned violence against abortion clinics. The reaction to the Colorado Springs shooting has been no exception. Indeed, the head of the Center for Medical Progress, which released the anti-Planned Parenthood videos, has referred to Dear as "a violent madman."

Some point out that anti-abortion rhetoric, which often equates abortion with the Holocaust and denounces clinic staffers as baby killers, has an inherent potential to incite violence. One could argue that anyone who genuinely believes that abortion clinics are baby murder factories -- and is serious about those beliefs -- should have no problem with violent action to stop such atrocities.

But plenty of other beliefs can justify violent extremism if taken far enough. There are, for instance, many on the left who believe the American state is engaged in systematic murderous brutality toward black people and other minorities -- which, if true, can certainly be seen as justifying violent revolution. Indeed, conservatives have often accused the Black Lives Matter movement of inciting anti-police violence by portraying cops as killers of innocent African Americans. One could also imagine unstable people being driven to violence by environmentalist rhetoric about human greed destroying the planet. (Remember the Unabomber?)

While killings by anti-abortion extremists are a rare occurrence, violence against abortion facilities is a serious problem. But it is not the product of an organized network and is not condoned by any mainstream church, no matter how conservative. Condemning organizations for how unbalanced loners may interpret the groups' views is the definition of intolerance.

Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and Real Clear Politics.

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