Should Tiller’s Assassin Be Charged As A Domestic Terrorist?

Readers may find a wide range of stories on Dr. Tiller’s assassination, the reasons Dr. Tiller was highly regarded by both  the patients (women and men) he served as well as by health providers throughout the country; the lives of women he saved; and analyses of the  facts, politics and issues raised by late abortions.  These links provide only a sampling of the many related articles that can be found on our site through use of the search function.

The assassination of abortion provider George
Tiller appears to meet the legal definition of domestic terrorism under
the U.S. Criminal Code, yet the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has given no indication that it is considering charging his alleged assassin, Scott Roeder, with terrorism. Many
in the pro-choice community wonder if the Justice Department would be
so tentative if Roeder and his allies professed to be Muslims instead
of Christians, yet many also are reluctant to see him labeled a domestic terrorist.

The Justice
Department announced on June 5 that it was investigating whether
Tiller’s shooting violated any federal laws, including the Free Access
to Clinic Entrances Act (FACE)
, a bill signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1994 that makes it a federal crime to harm or threaten an abortion provider, vandalize a facility that provides abortions, or obstruct access to a reproductive health clinic. 

Asked if the Justice Department had ruled out terrorism charges, DOJ spokesman Alejandro Miyar replied, "No, I wouldn’t say that we’re ruling out any federal charges." However, DOJ’s public pronouncements to date suggest that potential violations of FACE are the agency’s primary focus. In response to further queries from RH Reality Check, Miyar passed on a summary of the FACE Act and declined further comment.

white supremacist James Von Brunn allegedly shot and killed a security
guard at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum just days after Tiller’s
slaying, Joseph Persichini, assistant director of the Washington field office of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), told the media that the guard’s murder was an act of domestic terrorism. Yet when RH Reality Check
asked the FBI whether the Tiller shooting was domestic terrorism, FBI
spokesperson Susan McKee replied, "The FBI is not in a position to
comment on the status of this investigation."

A month after Tiller was murdered, on July 1st, self-styled radical Islamist Corey Bledsoe shot two soldiers at a recruiting station in Little Rock, Arkansas. He said he did it in the name of Allah. He was promptly charged under Arkansas law with murder and with engaging in a terrorist act. Yet, like Bledsoe, Roeder and the Army of God believe that their Christian god compels them to "defend the unborn" with violence.

Prosecuting Roeder for domestic terrorism would signal that the government is "connecting the dots" on anti-choice extremism, terror and intimidation of legal medical services provided to women.

However, many civil libertarians and reproductive rights activists worry that charging Roeder as a domestic terrorist would legitimize a trend towards criminalizing entire groups based on ideology or affiliation, as opposed to zeroing in on those who actually commit crimes. They argue that the criminal justice system is already well equipped to deal with those who cross the line from inflammatory but constitutionally protected rhetoric to violent or disruptive behavior.

No one is more aware of threat of violent anti-choicers than Pam Chamberlain, a senior research analyst at Public Eye, a Massachusetts think tank that monitors the far right. Chamberlain specializes in keeping tabs on anti-abortion extremists. She has no doubt that doctor shooters and clinic bombers are domestic terrorists in the layman’s sense of the word. Yet she is also concerned that labeling anti-choice extremists as terrorists might open the door to infringements upon civil liberties.

Since 9/11, much of the legal thinking on terrorism has been predicated on the assumption that terrorist groups like Al Qaeda are effectively foreign freelance armies at war with the United States.
Bush administration officials used the war model to argue that alleged
terrorists were more like soldiers in a war than suspects accused of
crimes. The war model led some people to think that spying on alleged terrorists and their associates
was equivalent to spying on enemy soldiers on the battlefield, as
opposed to investigating allegations against citizens who are innocent
until proven guilty. Even if you think the war model should apply to
foreign terrorist groups at war with the United States, it’s hard to see how it can be applied within the United States without putting everyone’s civil liberties at risk.

you start applying those kinds of tactics to law enforcement to
investigate what we consider a domestic terrorist from the point
of view of reproductive justice, the government may apply the tactics
to other people they may not agree with. It’s a dangerous prospect," Chamberlain says.

That’s not just a theoretical possibility. Animal rights activists convicted of non-violent offenses under the controversial Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act have been detained alongside alleged Islamic terrorists in closely guarded domestic prison facilities known as Communication Management Units in an attempt to limit their contact with media and their families. The ACLU warns that the AETA criminalizes not only violence in the name of animal rights but also non-violent, constitutionally protected activities like boycotts and leafleting intended merely to hurt the bottom line of an animal-related business. 

Civil libertarians stress that there are already powerful laws on the books that could be used to crack down on anti-choice violence if the government were willing to allocate the resources. In
fact, there is reason to believe that Tiller’s assassination could have
been prevented if the FBI had vigorously enforced the FACE Act.

According to an attorney who worked in the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division under Clinton, the immediate impetus for FACE was a series of massive blockades in the early nineties. Hundreds of protesters would converge on clinics–including Tiller’s–and block the doors with their bodies.

"Normal operations ground to a halt," the official recalled. "We were opening up separate police areas just to process these people. There were arsons and bombings. Murders. Butyric acid attacks."

Before FACE, blockading a clinic was a minor offense under local laws, but FACE made interference with clinics or providers punishable by up to a year in jail for a first offense.

In the week before the shooting of Dr. Tiller, Roeder attempted to obstruct access to a clinic by gluing its locks. Clinic vandalism is also illegal and considered a federal crime under FACE. The manager of a Kansas City abortion clinic told Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! that he called the FBI a week before the shooting to report that Roeder had been caught on tape vandalizing the clinic. According to the manager, an FBI agent didn’t act, saying that the video was probably too blurry to get a conviction and that the manger had contaminated the DNA evidence by touching the lock. The manager said he went out and bought a brand new color video camera. The day before the shooting he called the FBI again to say that a nurse had caught Roeder in the act, even copying down his license plate number: 225 BAB. The FBI still didn’t act. The next day, Roeder drove to the Reformation Lutheran Church and shot George Tiller in the face.

Even if FACE were applicable, it wouldn’t necessarily preclude domestic terrorism charges. So, the question remains why DOJ and FBI are so reluctant even to discuss
the possibility. No doubt the decision would be extremely
controversial. Given what we know so far, it seems as if DOJ would have
a good case if it chose to pursue domestic terrorism charges, but it’s
not clear that this strategy would make it any easier to punish Roeder or trace his links to other anti-choice extremists.

Under federal law, an offense must meet three criteria in order to count as an act of domestic terrorism:

  • It must be a lethal or potentially lethal violent crime;
  • The violence must appear to be intended to coerce a civilian population or influence the government; and
  • The crime must take place in the United States.

By those standards, a terrorism charge would appear to be an option for Roeder. After all, Tiller was a nationally prominent abortion provider and longtime bête noire of the anti-abortion movement. Roeder has a 20-year history of anti-choice and anti-government activism.

Roeder has a number of troubling associations with other radical anti-choicers. He is even corresponding from prison with Rev. Donald Spitz, a leader of the Army of God (AOG), a shadowy network of anti-choicers that explicitly endorses the killing and maiming of abortion providers. The AOG published an encyclopedic how-to guide for terror tactics that included instructions for bombing, arson, staging car accidents and even destroying buildings with chemical demolition agents. AOG members have been convicted of crimes ranging from arson to murder. Another AOG member, Shelley Shannon, is still in jail for shooting Tiller in 1993. Shannon got her start blockading Tiller’s clinic with Operation Rescue.

At the time of his arrest, Roeder had in his car the phone number of the senior policy advisor for Operation Rescue Wichita (ORW), Cheryl Sullenger who
admits that she gave Roeder the dates and times of Dr. Tiller’s court
appearances.  Sullenger herself was convicted of conspiracy to bomb a
California abortion clinic in 1988, though she claims to have since renounced violence.

ORW has taken pains to distance itself from Roeder. But that didn’t stop the group’s  president Troy Newman from floating the idea of buying Tiller’s shuttered clinic.

Operation Rescue’s founder, Randall Terry, is just one of many anti-choice leaders who "denounced" the killing out of one side of their mouths while underscoring he "reaped what he sowed" out of the other, giving what could only be considered a coded message to their supporters.

Terry was back in the headlines this week when he all but threatened violence if Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor is confirmed. "Let all those in government be warned: They cannot order people to pay for the murder of babies, and betray God Himself, without horrific consequences," Terry’s press release said.

Of course, he went on to stress that he personally doesn’t condone apocalyptic violence.

He’s just sayin’.

Maybe Roeder acted alone, but he clearly has many supporters and Kansas’s authorities aren’t taking any chances. Prosecutors in Wichita convinced a judge to raise Roeder’s bond from $5 million to $20 million. A deputy district explained to a Wichita TV reporter that she asked to have the bond increased "based on the very
public nature of this and the activist groups, if you will, that might
be willing to assist in posting the bond and/or assist in helping Mr.
Roeder escape the consequences of moving through a court system."

Charging Roeder with terrorism would pack a powerful rhetorical punch, but practically it’s unlikely to affect his fate much. He is already charged with first-degree murder under Kansas state law. If he is convicted, as he almost certainly will be, he will spend the rest of his life in prison.

It’s all very well to debate these issues at a safe distance. But what do the providers on the front lines have to say about preventing clinic violence? Jen Boulanger is the Executive Director of the Allentown Women’s Center, a Pennsylvania clinic that provides abortions and other reproductive health services. After Tiller’s assassination she published a widely read essay entitled "Come Together to Prevent My Murder" in which she described a rising tide of hostility from the protesters outside her clinic. One protester likes to drop hints about ammonium nitrate, a key ingredient in the bomb Tim McVeigh used to blow up the federal building in Oklahoma City. The Army of God pickets her home on a regular basis. People call her a baby killer and predict that she and her husband are going to hell together.

Re-labeling violent protesters as domestic terrorists wouldn’t do much to stop the day-to-day harassment endured by clinic workers. That Roeder wasn’t stopped after two acts of vandalism shows that what’s lacking is methodical enforcement of existing laws that might thwart disruptive and threatening protesters before they become violent. Boulanger
wants the federal government to work more closely with state and local
authorities to enforce FACE and other laws routinely flouted by violent protesters, including laws against stalking, trespassing, and disorderly conduct. All levels of law enforcement need to establish a clear plan for responding to incidents at clinics, she says.

"Without clear guidelines and strict enforcement, prevention efforts will fail," Boulanger wrote in an email to RH Reality Check, "There need to be more deterrents for aggressive behavior."

Some pro-choice groups are working now toward this end. NARAL is urging President Obama to support DOJ’s National Task Force on Violence Against Health Care Providers in its efforts to work with state and local authorities to enforce FACE.

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  • crowepps

    The lack of enforcement and lack of interest by law enforcement in protecting LEGAL services being provided, legal services which would continue to be necessary even if abortions described as ‘for convenience’ were outlawed but medically necessary abortions continued to be legal, is one of the reasons why I oppose the idea of government getting involved in sorting out legal and illegal abortions.


    Certainly the implication that law enforcement personnel are failing to take action because of a personal opinion that some citizens and businesses don’t ‘deserve’ protection tends toward the conclusion that enforcement of future protective laws would also be skewed by the enforcement agents’ opinion.


    Passing laws when it is known ahead of time that neutral enforcement is unlikely is a really bad idea.

  • invalid-0


    “Should Tiller’s Assassin Be Charged As A Domestic Terrorist?”

    Short answer:

    Yes, if possible, but that isn’t the most important charge.


    Obviously the most important charge is murder. And after a murder charge, which only Scott Roeder is apparently (and until convicted only alleged to be) guilty of, are charges related to being an accessory or otherwise providing some sort of criminal support or encouragement for him to act out violently against abortion providers, facilities, and Dr. Tiller in particular.

    Building a case that others played a role in encouraging Scott Roeder to act out in ways arguably violent and criminal might be a more effective way to lead to charges against others in this case. A murder conviction for Roeder is almost inevitable. Charges, much less convictions for accomplices is another matter.

    We (the authors of this comment) don’t know enough about this case in that detail to even comment if charges for accomplices is possible or likely, but it’s probably more important to be open to pursuing that than charging Roeder as a “Domestic Terrorist”, which is as loaded of a term as “Political Prisoner”, which a very few anti-choice extremists no doubt see him as already. Pursuing extreme and unusual charges like “domestic terrorist” or extreme (and arguably cruel and unusual) punishments like the death penalty (which is thankfully apparently not possible in this case) may more likely lead to extremists seeing Roeder as a political prisoner or martyr for their cause.

    Emphasizing implications of the death penalty isn’t central to our argument as it’s apparently not an issue in this case in Kansas, but remember one murderer of an abortion provider has already been put to death — Paul Hill, who killed Dr. Britton in Florida in 1994. He was executed in 2003 His execution didn’t deter the killers of the Boston clinic workers by John Salvi later in 1994, or Dr. Slepian in 1998, or Dr. Tiller earlier this year. All of the other murders that took place before Dr. Tiller’s murder occurred before Paul Hill’s execution, but it’s arguable if that is really likely to be more of a rational deterrent to someone motivated to killing to “stop abortion” — because killing to make a political point is so obviously irrational. And if the possibility of the death penalty was rationally considered by Roeder, it obviously wouldn’t have been a deterrent, as it’s not even able to be applied in a case like this in Kansas.

    So, “Domestic Terrorist” charges in and of themselves, plus a murder conviction with whatever penalty, will probably not be enough to adequately respond to Dr. Tiller’s killing, but what helps build a case for charges against others besides Roeder will likely help do so.

  • invalid-0

    There are a few errors (stated and implied) in this article concerning Operation Rescue:

    –The current website for Operation Rescue isn’t actually associated with the same Operation Rescue that blocked clinics in Wichita in 91. In fact, Randall Terry has been in court for two years with Troy Newman over the name (Terry’s actually has some useful information on it, though not much)

    –It’s Operation Rescue West, not Wichita (which the OR website has correct)

    –Wikipedia correctly shows that Operation Save America is the decendant of Randall Terry’s Operation Rescue, NOT the current Operation Rescue (

    –The note in Roeder’s car didn’t say ORW; it identified Sullenger with OR.

    It might not seem like that big of a deal, but there are differences. (that and it’s amusing to watch the legal battle between Terry and Newman) Even here in Wichita, we can see the ideological in-fighting (I know off the top of my head three statewide anti-choice orgs, and I know there are others).

    It’s also important because Operation Rescue [National]’s current organization also takes aim at gays and Muslims. Whereas OR sticks just to abortion (talking all up and down about “black genocide”). Giving any credibility to Newman (as an organizer, as is implied by linking current OR to the Summer of Mercy, or as a leader, as our local press especially does) is rather dangerous.

  • crowepps

    Giving any credibility to any of those named is rather dangerous, since each of them is living rich and feeling powerful through promoting fanatism.  The fact that some of them learned the scam from the others doesn’t make any of them more credible than the other.

  • invalid-0

    Also Shelley Shannon is no longer serving time for shooting Dr. Tiller in 1993 and is serving time for other crimes.

  • crowepps

    At her trial in state court, she testified that there was nothing immoral about trying to kill Tiller. The jury deliberated for only an hour before convicting Shannon of attempted murder. She was sentenced to 11 years in prison.

    Shannon signed the Army of God’s statement in support of the actions of Paul Jennings Hill while incarcerated in Lansing, Kansas.

    On June 4, 1995, she pleaded guilty to setting fires at several abortion clinics in Oregon, California, Idaho and Nevada.  She had been indicted by federal grand juries on 30 counts in connection with fires and acid attacks at nine clinics. Charges included arson, interference with commerce by force and interstate travel in aid of racketeering. On September 9, 1995, U.S. Federal District Court Judge James A. Redden pronounced Shannon’s sentence for these crimes. Departing upward from the applicable federal sentencing guidelines, the Court sentenced Shannon to 20 years in prison. The sentence was set to begin only after Shannon’s 10-year incarceration for shooting Tiller is completed.


    I really do think that someone who would walk up to another human being and attempt to kill him by shooting twice should be kept locked away so that the rest of society is safe from them longer than 11 years.  Very pleased to see she got another 20 years for her other criminal acts and won’t be out for a while.

  • invalid-0

    Can you imagine every premeditated murder in the United States being treated as domestic terrorism? Imagine the resources that would be taken away from fighting Al Queda etc to focus on what is handled now by local or state police departments. I’m afraid anyone planning another 9/11 type attack would then find it much easier to operate under the radar.

    • emma

      No, cmarie, because that would plainly be ridiculous. ‘Terrorism’ is a loaded term, and I’m not particularly fond of it, but Scott Roeder’s actions do fit the basic definition of it – i.e. acts of violence against civilians to achieve political or religious goals (in this case, discouraging the provision of abortion services). A central element of terrorism is that it seeks to inspire fear in members of a group other than the direct victim/s of the violence – in this case, that being other abortion providers.


      Discussing the merits of charging Roeder with terrorist offenses is reasonable, but erecting strawpersons does nothing to further discussion.

  • invalid-0

    Can you imagine every premeditated murder in the United States being treated as domestic terrorism?

    Are you suggesting that this should be the case, cmarie? Because no one cited in the article is doing so.

  • crowepps

    We no longer have to discuss all domestic policy problems with the outdated meme "it might help the terrorists win".  Active investigation of all threats of murder would be more likely to uncover a terrorist plot than the current attitude that the persons threatened have "asked for it".


    Speaking of outdated mottos, anti-abortion protestors just can’t seem to let go of "you’re either with us or against us".  Anti-abortion protestors in Oregon are displaying the usual disgusting graphic posters near area churches, not because the churches support abortion but because "Display organizer and Salem resident Darius Hardwick said he understands the images are difficult to look at, but…hopes they will inspire Christians to get involved in the anti-abortion cause."


    I guess he plans to hold their children’s mental health hostage until he’s extorted their membership fees, or perhaps the plan is to harden them to constant feelings of revulsion so that they’re willing to tolerate him?

  • lindsay-beyerstein

    Shannon finished her state prison term for shooting Tiller, but she’s still doing federal time in connection with the Tiller shooting and other acts of anti-choice terrorism:

    Shannon finished serving her Kansas prison time for attempted murder and aggravated assault in April 2005. But she’s now serving a federal sentence
    in Dublin, Calif., in connection with the shooting. She also was
    convicted of fire and bombing attacks on other abortion clinics,
    including those in Oregon, California and Nevada, which authorities
    learned about through letters she wrote from jail following Tiller’s

  • invalid-0

    Rev. (sic) Donald Spitz is really over the edge. He uses his website to try to make heroes out of murdering terrorists like Paul Hill, Eric Rudolph, John Salvi, James Kopp, and now Scott Roeder. Therefore, the recent designation by the Virginia State Police of Spitz’s Army of God as a domestic terrorist group is totally appropriate. He is so delusional that he thinks that he was ordained by the International Gospel Crusade, a denomination that only exists in his imagination. This makes Spitz even more of a concern.

  • invalid-0

    …if ‘New’ Operation Rescue didn’t want to be associated with ‘Old’ Operation Rescue, they would have picked a different name. Plain and simple. OF FREAKIN’ COURSE THEY WANT TO BE PERCEIVED AS ‘OLD’ OPERATION RESCUE! – (they just want to be able to say that they’re not like ‘old’ Operation Rescue). Wow.

  • invalid-0

    Yep that’s exactly it I’m suggesting this should be the case I love you Anonymous you make up for missing the latest SNL

  • invalid-0

    A) First of all, the terms “terrorist”, “terror”, and “terrorism” have been thrown around with far too much impunity and far too casually since 9/11/01. There are times when labeling somebody a terrorist or domestic terrorist who has committed a heinous crime is inappropriate, and I think that the anti-abortion/anti-choice people who commit these kinds of crimes must be seen and treated for what they really and truly are: common criminals and murderers who belong in jail!

    B) Secondly, the vast majorities of ordinary homicides are premeditated, and, unlike real acts of terrorism, do not carry the element of surprise that terrorist acts do. Just saying.

  • invalid-0

    I believe that abortion should be prohibited to women’s health. A permit abortion is not a full-fledged women. Control is to be law enforcement. Thank you.

  • invalid-0

    I believe that abortion should be prohibited to women’s health. A permit abortion is not a full-fledged women. Control is to be law enforcement. Thank you.

  • invalid-0

    I don’t think abortion should be prohibited, I think they need to control it yes I think that they should see the reazon why they want to have an abortion I could see when they are raped then I could see…