Something strange happened on Friday. Two topics that Republican presidential candidates normally can’t talk about enough -- Planned Parenthood and terrorism -- were both a part of the major news story of the day. Yet not one of them thought it was worth commenting on. (Ted Cruz was the first to comment on it the following day in Iowa.) Normally, when a gunman starts randomly shooting up a place somewhere in the United States, politicians are the first to give condolences or prayers or strong words for future terrorists. If this had been a man with darker skin who looked worthy of profiling at the airport, you can be sure that GOP candidates would have quickly taken advantage of it to prove their strength or to do a bit of fear mongering. But in this case, silence.
Of course, this particular gunman decided to attack Planned Parenthood, where, as Planned Parenthood Rocky Mountains CEO Vicki Cowart said to Think Progress, anti-abortion extremists (which most GOP candidates are at this point) have created a “poisonous environment that feeds domestic terrorism in this country.” Right-wing media outlets like Fox News and Breitbart can also be counted among the extremists promoting anti-abortion and anti-Planned Parenthood violence. It is hard to overstate the amount of vitriol that has come from these sources over past few months, since the debunked Planned Parenthood videos, which falsely implied that the women’s health organization was profiting off of fetal tissue and organs for research, were released in the Summer. Indeed, it was a matter of time until a lunatic decided that the best course of action was to go and kill people in order to stop the sale of “baby parts.” (It has been reported that the gunman said “no more baby parts” after his arrest.)
A couple things are clear. It is clear that there has been an uptick in threats and violence against abortion clinics and providers since the videos were released, including multiple arsons at Planned Parenthood locations along with cyber-attacks. It is also clear that Republican candidates like Carly Fiorina and Ted Cruz have been on the frontline of this hate machine. Indeed, Fiorina blatantly lied in front of the over 20 million people who were watching the second Republican debate when she described a video associated with Planned Parenthood of a “fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking while someone says, ‘We have to keep it alive to harvest its brain.’” Of course, this is not a real clip. There is footage that was not associated with Planned Parenthood, which medical experts believe could have just as likely been a miscarriage, and it did not show a fully formed fetus, but a 17-week fetus, too young to be resuscitated. Furthermore, the voiceover was misleadingly edited over the video by an anti-abortion extremist. For his part, Senator Cruz attempted to defund Planned Parenthood in his usual disruptive style, by holding the government hostage, and said absurdities like: “We are now a nation that harvests the body parts of baby boys and girls.” (Did he really think such a comment would not lead to violence?)
There is a very simple concept at work here: Hateful rhetoric has consequences, especially when it is coming from public figures who many people tend to trust. This is hardly a controversial declaration. Abortion is an extremely emotional topic and there is a history of violence from those who oppose it. And politicians know this all too well. As Jessica Valenti writes in The Guardian:
“How we talk about abortion matters. We know it, and anti-choice extremists and politicians know it. Anti-abortion activists are not making WANTED posters or revealing doctor’s addresses for fun. They’re doing it to harass and intimidate, and they’re doing it knowing the long history of violent fanatics using their rhetoric to justify crimes against providers and clinics.”
None of this stopped Cruz and Fiorina and others from making false or inflammatory accusations that were sure to create a dangerous environment for clinic workers and women seeking health services. And all for their own political benefit.
Of course, certain Republicans have already denied that their inflammatory rhetoric had anything to do with this crime. “This is so typical of the left to immediately begin demonizing a messenger because they don’t agree with the message," said Fiorina in response to a statement by Vicki Cowart that “hateful rhetoric...breeds acts of violence.” Of course, if a Muslim leader accused someone of insulting the prophet, and extremists decided to use violence against that person, Fiorina and other Republicans would be the first in line to go after that leader (as they should). Fiorina was not a messenger, but a propagandist who told inflammatory lies to millions of people. When a public figure uses their platform to spread lies that could obviously lead to extremist violence, then they deserve some of the blame.
This attack was a prime example of how false and inflammatory rhetoric can lead to violence. But don’t expect Fiorina or any other GOP candidate to tone it down. In the end, it’s about gaining points in the polls and garnering applause from the crowds. After all, since when has spilt blood ever stopped politicians?