I Looked a Terrorist in the Eye

Photo by Magnus Manske via Wikimedia Commons

Contemplating the anniversary, today, of the monumental Supreme Court ruling in Jane Roe, et al. v. Henry Wade, I’m reminded of a time in the not so distant past when, on many Saturday mornings, I would encounter terrorists on a sidewalk in Englewood, New Jersey. These domestic terrorists were mostly men who would shout their sacred scriptures with venomous voices and spew hatred in the unassuming faces of young women seeking reproductive health care. Other volunteer clinic escorts and I would try to block the terrorists’ cameras from filming teenage patients and their companions who had not given consent to be filmed. Our efforts weren’t always successful and those teenager’s images were later plastered across the Internet in YouTube videos along with hate-filled religious rhetoric.

The domestic terrorists I saw every Saturday were there with the intent to terrorize anyone coming to the women’s clinic. Intense heat, rainy downpours, even ice and snow didn’t keep these terrorists from their appointed religious task. Scream at an already nervous woman, often a frightened young teen, and make her cry—job well done. Bully the woman’s partner, parent, or even grandparent accompanying her—bonus points. Follow women to their cars, chase them down the street, and make sure no one entering or exiting the clinic feels safe—gain an extra star in your heavenly crown. If there aren’t any patients in sight, start in on the medical professionals as they enter their workplace or, better yet, block their cars from entering the parking lot. And never forget to terrorize the volunteers who are on the sidewalk and at the clinic doors, even if those volunteers are there simply to make sure that patients and employees can enter the clinic safely.

Every Saturday morning that I volunteered outside that women’s clinic, I looked a terrorist in the eye and saw religious extremism.

As a volunteer clinic escort, I was called vile names, threatened with pictures taken of my car and license plate, shoved, damned to hell, and blocked from walking down the sidewalk to the clinic entrance. At first, being treated with such hatred and harassment was shocking and nearly unnerving. After a while, it became so commonplace that I could almost ignore it. Almost. I never feared for my own safety as much as I feared for the safety of the patients, the majority of whom were women from low-income households who came to the clinic for pregnancy tests, follow-up visits, and, yes, legal abortions. I wasn’t there for me or for a political party or religious group. I was there for every woman who came to the clinic for safe and legal reproductive healthcare.

When the news of the shooting at a Planned Parenthood facility in Colorado Springs, Colorado, came to my attention I couldn’t help but think of my experiences in Englewood. The lives of innocent men and women were lost due to the terrorism of the shooter, Robert Lewis Dear. Just as devastating were the heartless comments and abominable affirmations from religious extremists who praised the act of terrorism.

The FBI defines domestic terrorism as activities that “involve acts dangerous to human life that violate federal or state law,” “appear intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population,” and “occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the US.” Any of the terrorists who’d show up on the sidewalk in Englewood could have had a gun or other weapon. None of us volunteering at the clinic would ever have known until the weapon was revealed. The fact that an active shooter could terrorize a women’s clinic in New Jersey or anywhere else in the United States is a fact I can’t ignore.

Between the politicians running for office and the sensationalist media, terrorism looks like a dark-skinned foreigner who speaks Arabic and prays facing Mecca. The truth is that terrorism looks like any one of us who gets so caught up in religious extremism or other fanatical beliefs that we distort the idea of reason and resort to violence in order to nurture our warped view of reality. Psychology of religion Professor Neil J. Kressel has written, “Throughout history, people have perpetrated extreme violent acts in the name of religion—whether it be Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism or another faith.” It continues today with domestic terrorism.

Lately I’ve been engaged in a number of dialogues (perhaps arguments are a more honest way of describing the exchanges) about controlling gun violence. And, yes, of course gun violence needs to be seriously addressed. But when are we going to address the very real threat to women’s reproductive rights? The existence and the threat of terrorism at Planned Parenthood and beyond? Where are the humanist voices, which claim reason as our foundation, to address this very real nightmare?

I ask because I’ve looked a terrorist in the eye and I saw undeniable, dangerous religious extremism. It was ugly and sickening and it felt like regression.