John Brockhoeft is a saint. Sitting under the klieg lights of the TV cameras, he looks a little embarrassed, patiently explaining his dedication for the thousandth time. He knows that not everyone understands him, not yet. By repeatedly sending himself to the front lines, Brockhoeft has willfully invited the scorn of government and society, risking his own life in the process. Along the way, he has abandoned every comfort, sacrificing freedom and family to fight against what may be the great unrecognized evil of our time. He fits neatly into a long tradition of zealots (Joan of Arc and John Brown come to mind): misunderstood, hated, and, occasionally, hunted. He couldn’t care less. Brockhoeft routinely tosses aside threats and insults that would fell less devoted men.
Today, when men like Brockhoeft compare themselves to abolitionists and religious warriors, it taxes the imagination. But 50 years from now, Brockhoeft may get his own national holiday. Just last week, Pope John Paul II compared the struggle that gets Brockhoeft out of bed every morning to America’s battles over racism and slavery. Alluding to the Supreme Court’s 1857 Dred Scott decision, which affirmed slaves’ status as property, the pope said there is today “a culture that seeks to declare entire groups of human beings…considered ‘unuseful’ to be outside the boundaries of legal protection.”
Brockhoeft spends every waking hour obsessing over the biggest moral question of our age. He seems willing to do anythinganythingto halt the elimination of human fetuses. One day, the damage Brockhoeft has inflicted may all but vanish in the collective memory of future generations, when weighed against the carnage he opposes. History has forgiven much worse in the name of the greater good.
The 47-year-old truck driver is willing to wait for the recognition he is due. For now, Brockhoeft is grateful just to be free. A decade ago, he went to jail for seven years in a federal prison in Ashland, Ky., enduring his imprisonment with Mandela-esque acceptance that it was his contribution to the war at home. He was released three years ago, but had to wear an electronic surveillance bracelet and could rarely leave his home. For the next two years, severe probation restrictions prohibited him from talking to anyone affiliated with the anti-abortion movement, which meant everyone he knew. This year, he is finally free to walk among fellow believers as a hero.
Tonight, 70-plus attendees have come to the fourth annual White Rose Banquet at the College Park Holiday Inn to honor Brockhoeft, a man considered to be near the top of the list of the most committed anti-abortion activists in the nation. Many of the other people on that list are here, too, to support men and women who have devoted their lives to the cause.
Here, among people who wish they had his courage, Brockhoeft is known as “the Colonel.” Fittingly, he is dressed in black military fatigues and a black beret. Costume notwithstanding, Brockhoeft is a surprisingly gentle-looking man. His blond eyebrows are upturned slightly over his clear blue eyes. He says the outpouring of warmth and gratitude from his fellow activists makes him feel humble. He has a new wife at his side and two round-faced babies clamoring at his feet. Before the night is over, the crowd gathered to recognize him will auction off his prison-issue sweatshirt and hand him a framed certificate in honor of his sacrifice. It’s a low-budget form of canonization, but charming in its own way.
John Brockhoeft is also a terrorist. When he was arrested in Florida in 1988 while visiting a fellow anti-abortionist, police found chemical explosives, blasting caps, a pipe, and drilling tools inside his car. He was pulled over near the Ladies Center clinic, a frequent target of protesters. Then police searched his home in Kentucky and found a home-grown arsenal: two pipe bombs, percussion caps, black rifle powder, a 40 mm shell, sulfuric acid, and manuals on mixing explosives and on techniques of harassment.
Before his arrest, Brockhoeft had earned a reputation at clinics near his home for being the most frightening of regular protesters. He wore a ski mask. He led a following of men dressed in military fatigues who patrolled outside of clinics and taunted the women going into them, sometimes screaming in their faces, according to Al Gerhardstein, an attorney for Planned Parenthood of Cincinnati. Gerhardstein sued Brockhoeft multiple times for trespassing and blocking access to clinics. “The bombings were quite consistent with his talk and his intimidating behavior,” says Gerhardstein, who keeps a photo of Brockhoeft in his law office so that his staff will recognize him if he resurfaces.
It was Brockhoeft’s then-wife who finally turned him in, alarmed by his fondness for explosives. Brockhoeft was eventually convicted of firebombing a Cincinnati clinic and attempting to blow up the Florida clinic.
After Brockhoeft’s release, his former wife went into the witness protection program with their children. Brockhoeft, meanwhile, married one of his prison pen pals and settled down just 8 miles from the Cincinnati clinic he had bombed.
At first, Brockhoeft tries to hide out in the corner, away from the cameras and admirers crowding the Holiday Inn’s Ballroom B on the evening of Jan. 21the eve of the 26th anniversary of Roe vs.Wade. It was a grueling 12-hour drive here, with kids in tow. And it’s an endless parade of well-wishers that files through the hotel lobby, past the pool, past the American Cancer Society fundraiser, and into the banquet. But hours later, when he stands up to speak, Brockhoeft comes into his own. After asking the folks from 60 Minutes to please shut off their cameras, he opens his leather-bound Bible.
“I’m mad,” Brockhoeft says, his brow immediately furrowing in anger. “I’m furious at the mutilation and slaughter and torture of American babies.” Gone is the gentle giant. Suddenly, as he starts reading from the Bible, he is screaming: “I am full of the wrath of the Lord; I am weary of holding it in.”
Brockhoeft describes a vision he had when he was on work detail in prison. It is a vision of himself as a soldier, finally working for the winning side. The White House, Congress, and the Supreme Court are all occupied by people who protect unborn children, first and foremost. God will, Brockhoeft promises, overthrow “the wicked and disgusting people that run this country”including the “abortionists,” and, of course, “the faggots.” The victory, he predicts, will come not in a time of crisis, but rather in an era of “lukewarmness, compromise, moderation, and cowardliness.” It will come, in other words, at a time like thiswhen most people support restrictions on abortion, but still believe it’s a legitimate right. As to how the revolution will be achieved, Brockhoeft is silent. Those are decisions best left in God’s hands.
As Brockhoeft walks away from the podium to a chorus of “amen”s, a man in a minister’s collar gives him a hardy slap on the back. That would be the Rev. Michael Bray, the 46-year-old spiritual godfather of anti-abortion violence, congratulating his disciple. Braya man who once spent four years in jail for conspiring to bomb 10 clinics in the D.C. areacontinues to work quietly away just a stone’s throw from the District in Bowie, Md., organizing and supporting anti-abortionists like himself.
Bray’s core tenet is that homicide is a justifiable strategy in the war against abortion. As he has written in the White Rose Banquet program: “We declare that the just sanction for the capital crime of abortion, as with any other murder, is death. And the response of a just government to those who defend the innocent, even with lethal force, ought to be praise and reward, not prosecution and punishment.”
Since the Operation Rescue heyday of the late 1980s, the nonviolent wing of the anti-abortion movement has splintered and scattered, succumbing to fatigue and the steadfast will of a majority of Americans, who insist that abortion should be safe and legal. But defeats in and out of the political process have only strengthened the resolve of people who occupy the fringe of the issuepeople like Bray and Brockhoeft. In the 1990s, the violent tactics of a small minority have become the hallmark of the anti-abortion movement.
In the last six years, seven people have been killed by anti-abortion extremists. The latest murder occurred less than four months ago, when Barnett A. Slepian became the first doctor to be fatally gunned down in his home. On the evening of Oct. 23, just after he and his wife and four sons returned from synagogue, a sniper shot Slepian as he stood in his kitchen. Also last year, a bomb at a Birmingham, Ala., clinic killed security guard Robert Sanderson, who opposed abortion, and severely injured nurse Emily Lyons. Thirteen operations and hundreds of sutures later, Lyons remains nearly blind. Her body is permanently riddled with shards of nails.
Last week, Lyons recognized the one-year anniversary of the bombing by going out to dinner with her team of doctors”the people who put me back together,” as she calls them. She has heard about the White Rose Banquet and is predictably disgusted by it, although not surprised. “You know that rhetoric can turn into action and most likely will,” Lyons says. “They say, ‘I’m only doing what God tells me to do.’ Well, if that were the case, next time God calls up, I’d like to talk to him.”
Lyons is also familiar with Bray, who appeared on Nightline shortly after the bombing to defend the action. While Lyons says she recognizes that Bray and his cohorts are not representative of the mainstream anti-abortion movement, she says it’s important to realize their significance. “They are a true threat to everybody that works in a clinic,” Lyons says.
Last year, doctors reported slightly more death threats and stalking incidents than they did the previous year, according to the Feminist Majority Foundation’s 1998 clinic violence survey. The percentage of clinics bombed or set on fire remained the same as the year before. In April, a California Planned Parenthood clinic was firebombed, and in September, clinics in Fayetteville, N.C., were firebombed.
Bray’s White Rose Banquet fetes ex-cons in the belief that their actions may be saving more babies than mass protest ever could. And he may have a point. Clinics have become full-fledged militarized zones, doctors trade tips about the best brands of bulletproof vests, and more and more spooked med students are opting to complete OB/GYN training without ever learning how to perform abortions. The number of doctors providing abortions decreased almost 15 percent between 1980 and 1992, leaving rural areas particularly underserved. But it’s hard to tell how many doctors are leaving out of fear and how many because of a decreased demand for abortions.
Ron Fitzsimmons, executive director of the National Coalition of Abortion Providers, insists that scare tactics are not driving droves of doctors out of abortion practices. In fact, he says, in the D.C. areaas in other metropolitan regionshe gets more calls from physicians looking for work than clinics needing physicians. “They think that if you kill a doctor, you’re gonna stop abortion. You don’t. What they don’t understand is that this is patient-driven. The day after Dr. [David] Gunn was killed [in Florida], patients were driving to Mobile, Ala., to get an abortion,” says Fitzsimmons. “It’s a waste of a life, and it accomplishes absolutely nothing.”
On the other hand, there’s no doubt that some doctors are giving up abortion services out of pure terror. Dr. David Powers, a gynecologist at a Foggy Bottom practice, is one of about 80 D.C.-area doctors listed on the notorious Nuremberg Files Web site, which maintains lists of alleged abortion doctors, along with detailed information about some doctors’ families and home addresses. The names of doctors who have been murdered are crossed out on the site; the wounded are grayed out. The list includes mistakesdoctors who do not perform abortionsbut Powers is not one of them. He says he has done abortions since he started practicing in 1981, but he is quick to add that he provides abortions only for established patients, and never after the first trimester. Powers, who has also had anti-abortionists leaflet his Virginia neighborhood with “Unwanted” posters, says the thought occasionally crosses his mind to give up abortions. But then he comes to his senses: “I feel that the patient’s decision is hers, and no one elses,” he says. Powers cannot, however, say the same for all of his peers. He estimates that 15 to 20 of his fellow doctors have stopped performing abortions in recent years. “More and more of my colleagues have stopped doing these procedures for all sorts of reasons, not the least of which is the antagonism of the extreme right.”
On Tuesday, a federal jury in Portland, Ore., determined that the Nuremberg Files Web site and the “Unwanted” posters translate into threats of violenceeven though the material does not explicitly threaten doctors’ safety. Concluding that the language is not protected under the First Amendment, the jury ordered the defendants in the case (a list that includes Bray, because of his publications defending violence) to pay a total of $107 million in damages. Although the verdict appears to be a huge victory for abortion-rights proponents because it takes the unusual step of defining speech as an actual threat, legal experts say the decision probably will not hold up under appeal.
Appeals aside, the doctors do not expect to see much money from the defendants, who have been transferring their assets to make themselves “judgment-proof.” Bray, who is by now accustomed to playing the role of defendant and claims to have no assets at all, is not deterred by the decision. “It’s a free-speech thing,” he says. “The intent of this [case] is to smother speech, and that’s what they’re really about.”
In their 1998 book Wrath of Angels: The American Abortion War, James Risen and Judy L. Thomas wrote that the anti-abortion movement’s descent into uncompromising fanaticism began with Bray and his platform: divisiveto someand inspiringto others. “Michael Bray provided the theological justification for clinic violence,” they concluded.
External forces also discouraged mainstream protesters. “Over the years, as more and more avenues have been closed to those that are against a woman’s access to abortionwhether it be the courts, the state legislature, Congress, or the overwhelming support for abortion rights among the publicall of these combined have further frustrated those people,” says Alice Cohan, who monitors clinic safety for the Feminist Majority Foundation. At the same time, clinics appear to be facing fewer problems with protesters blocking access to their doors through old-school, nonviolent sit-ins. So when the middle drops out, what you have left are the people who are not easily distracted. “A certain fringe,” says Cohan, “has moved toward breaking the law with violence and with what is in fact domestic terrorism.”
According to Bray, reporting from the belly of the beast, the thinking of the contemporary violent anti-abortionist goes something like this: “‘If I go down there, I might get harassed, I might get hurt, I might get charged by the police; I might as well burn it down.’”
If you didn’t know who Michael Bray’s friends were, you might find yourself wanting to be one of them. Unlike Brockhoeft, Bray does not often play the part of enraged vigilante. He’s good-looking, mild-mannered, and far too smart to suggest that he himself may commit a crime any time soon. Splitting hairs, he maintains that he does not advocate violence. He just defends itmost notably in his 1994 book, A Time to Kill.
But Bray wasn’t always so discreet. In the 1980s, he teamed up with fellow activist Thomas Spinks and started setting things on fire. Their first target was a clinic in Dover, Del., destroyed by a fusillade of Molotov cocktails. A month later, they planted pipe bombs that damaged the Hillcrest Clinic in Norfolk, Va. From then on, Bray worked behind the scenes while Spinks executed his plans, according to newspaper accounts of the trial. And the attacks continued, targeting a string of buildings, including College Park, Wheaton, and Rockville clinics, and, on July 4, 1984, the National Abortion Federation’s office in downtown D.C. Bray was convicted in 1985 of two counts of conspiracy and one count of possessing unregistered explosive devices.
After he emerged from his upstate New York prison cell four years later, Bray’s romance with extremism continued, most often in the form of cheerleader and adviser. He was in regular contact with Shelley Shannon, who was later convicted of attempted first-degree murder for shooting abortion doctor George Tiller in Wichita, Kan. Bray also helped Paul Hill write his infamous “Defensive Action” petition endorsing violencebefore Hill landed on death row for shooting and killing a doctor and his escort outside a Florida clinic.
At one time or another, most major players in anti-abortion violence have stopped over at Bray’s home in Bowie. And from the outside, anyway, Bray’s headquarters looks just as you’d imagine. It’s a modest home identical to the thousands surrounding it; neighboring streets have names like Faith Lane and Tulip Grove Drive. In front of Bray’s house, the redundancy is interrupted by two massive vans with bumper stickers like: “I Believe Paula Jones,” “Annoy the Liberals. Give Birth,” and “Free Paul Hill.”
I am a little early for our interview, so Bray runs upstairs to change into his ecclesiastical collar (which he only wears at photo ops like this, and not, for example, at the services he leads at his Lutheran Reformation Church). He reappears, ready for yet another media encounter, wearing his Lutheran coat-of-arms pin and an accommodating smile. For the next hour, as we chat about justifiable homicide, a different child’s face appears in the background every few minutes. Bray has 10 children, evidence that he values children as much as he claims in his political rhetoric. His 9-year-old daughter is named Beseda, after Curt Beseda, who set fire to abortion clinics four times in the 1980s.
Lamenting what he sees as “an eroded human-life ethic,” Bray says he’s appalled at the way our culture condones abortion and fixates on a woman’s “right to dispose of this developing child.” At the same time, he is confident that his own human-life ethic is intact. The murder of doctors and their assistants is not true murder, Bray says, but rather “defensive action” merited by their own wrongs. And he is not slowed by the possibility that anti-abortion violence could misfire, piling up casualties who have nothing whatsoever to do with aborting pregnancies. “It’s one of the uncomfortable collateral parts of any pursuit of justice,” Bray says stoically. “The military calls it collateral damage. One would hope that damage would be minimal.”
When Bray’s 17-year-old daughter breezes in the door from school, I watch her for telltale signs of maladjustment. After all, what can become of a girl raised by a man who is famous for praising murderers? I expect an awkward adolescent, slinking around the house in an ill-fitting school uniform and smarting from classmates’ insults about her dad the maniac. But instead she’s wearing jeans and platform shoes; she has long blond hair and carries herself with an impenetrable air of confidence. All through the house, there are the smell of baking brownies and the noisy banter of rival siblings. After the interview, as Bray shows me out the door, a little girl shouts a command from above: “Daddy, upstairs!”
Bray’s biggest critics would be disappointed. His image as a golem of evilwhich captivates the oppositionfalls flat in the context of his real life, littered with Big Wheels and baby diapers. When I tell one man at a pro-abortion-rights organization that I am working on a story about Bray, he advises me to change my phone number. Another warns me not to eat the food at Bray’s White Rose Banquet. One woman, when she hears I went to his home, is aghast: “He let you come to his house?” It’s hard for them to imagine that he could be anything other than a caricature of himself.
A week before the White Rose Banquet, Bray’s Sunday service at his church in Davidsonville, Md., is small, but equally communal. Granted, it’s held in his mother’s wood-paneled basement, and the congregation constitutes less than 40 people (about half of whom aren’t old enough to vote), but there are guitar playing and coffee drinking and well wishing for the high school wrestling career of Bray’s son. Everybody prays that the banquet will go well, and then Bray asks for a volunteer to pick up one of the guests at the airport. And that’s it: no hoods, no cross burnings, not even a single picture of an aborted fetus.
“Michael Bray, if he did not have such extreme radical and violent views, would make a great politician,” says Adam Guasch-Melendez, an abortion rights activist who has met Bray several times and maintains a Web site tracking the activities of anti-abortion extremists. “He’s very personable, charismatic, polished, slicksomeone who could persuade people very easily.”
When Bray explains his position against abortion, he outlines a series of logical conclusions, replete with biblical justifications. One leads effortlessly to the other, as in a geometric proof: First, abortion is horribly wrong. Show him a victim more innocent, more worthy than a defenseless child. Consequently, the rampant, government-condoned massacre must stop. And, finally, since the government no longer allows protesters to block access to clinics, since the Supreme Court refuses to overturn Roe vs. Wade, since passive resistance does not seem to change women’s minds, then the best waythe fastest, simplest wayto end abortion is to end it by force. After all, as the Bible says, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.” There is something beautiful, Bray knows, in the symmetry of an eye for an eye. Lawlessness is beside the point in Bray’s paradigm, where God’s laws trump man’s every time.
In spite of his notoriety among his opponents, Bray is no braggart. He is adept at mocking conspiracy theorists who claim that he is part of a highly organized national movement. He points out that the FBI has failed to find a criminal conspiracy uniting anti-abortion criminals, despite a lengthy grand jury investigation in Virginia. “There is no national apparatus in charge of any act that takes placeat least there’s been none discovered by the powers that be,” Bray says. As for his own opinion of the so-called Army of Goda mysterious name linked with more than a dozen acts of violence, including one of Bray’s own bombingshe refuses comment. “If I were involved, I wouldn’t tell you,” he says with a smile. Besides, he’s essentially retired, Bray would have you believe. “I’m not really active,” he says. “I’m just writing, pastoring a church, corresponding with prisoners, and trying to get my kid into college.”
Except for lately, that is, when he’s been overwhelmed with planning the White Rose Banquet. He worries that he has not advertised the dinner as much as he would have liked to. But it’s hard enough just to get his Capitol Area Christian News quarterly out on time and find a hotel to book the event. (The Hampton Inn in Landover, site of the ’96 banquet, refused to repeat the favor, Bray says, after FBI agents came looking for information. The Holiday Inn, though, welcomed Bray’s business for the second year in a row.) Still, dozens of regular attendees have already sent in their $35 checks, ensuring that the dinner will once again raise a handy sum for the families of prisoners.
The sign-in sheet at the White Rose Banquet reads like a who’s who of anti-abortion legends. Many people here have been in prison at some point or another, some for simple trespassing, others for lighting fires. Seventy-seven-year-old John Arena is looking for attention as usual, sporting a baby-blue suit and yellow ribbed turtleneck. “I’ve been involved in 50 rescues. I’ve been in jail in 13 different states,” he says, comparing himself to Martin Luther King Jr. In addition to Brockhoeft, he will be honored tonight in recognition of the nearly four years he recently served in federal prison following two acid attacks on upstate New York clinics. Elegantly labeled “liquid rescues” by anti-abortionists, the attacks attempt to shut clinics down by dumping butyric acid on the premises. Butyric acida legal substance used in disinfectantssmells like “the worst kind of vomit,” as one woman puts it, remembering the way it lingered in a Florida clinic for months. “It smells awful; it is really the most horrendous smell in the world,” Arena agrees.
Although Arena is proud that he has never physically hurt anyone in his 26 years of activism, he has nothing but praise for Bray’s banquet and his defense of violence. “I admire him for what he’s done. I’m grateful that he’s invited me, and I’m grateful that my probation officer allowed me to go,” Arena says.
Handing out name tags at a table by the door, Cheryl Richardson looks like a soccer mom decked out in sequins for a charity ball. Richardson couldn’t come to the first banquet three years ago, busy as she was in an Alexandria jail cell after refusing to testify in the Virginia grand jury investigation of the anti-abortion movement. (Instead, the banquet came to her: Late on that snowy night, about 50 people went directly from the dinner to stand outside the jail and sing hymns in her honor.)
Some of the movement’s biggest superstars are otherwise engaged, but they are hardly forgotten tonight. Convicted murderer Paul Hill, for example, can never hope to make it to the banquet. But the Rev. Donald Spitz, the Pentecostal leader of Pro-Life Virginia, has just returned from visiting Hill in Florida and is here to ensure that Hill is duly honored. Spitz considers Hill a hero and visits him one Sunday a month. In an interview the previous night, Spitz explained why he chooses to embrace Bray instead of more mainstream leaders: “It’s the immediacy of the children being put to death. That’s what distinguishes us from the mainstream. Tomorrow I know 5,000 babies are going to be put to death, and we have a responsibility to save their lives.”
Bill Koehler, a longtime New Jersey anti-abortion activist who has signed a justifiable-homicide petition that is making the anti-abortion circuit rounds, wanders through the room passing out copies of the Army of God’s “Code of Conduct” (“Oaths of secrecy are essential and must be upheld under penalty of death”). Koehler intimates that he has been in contact with James Charles Kopp, who is wanted by the FBI for questioning in connection to the most recent abortion-doctor shooting, of Barnett Slepian outside Buffalo. Kopp’s car was spotted near Slepian’s home on the day of the murder. But Koehler says he does not believe Kopp was the sniper. “Not that he couldn’t have pulled the trigger,” Koehler says. “I just don’t think he did.”
The youngest convict in the room, 24-year-old Joshua Graff, tells his story to a small crowd of admirers by the cash bar. Graff, who has always gotten a lot of attention for looking so much like the opposition, what with his long, subversive, two-tone hair, went to jail in 1993 for bombing a Houston clinic. He will be the third and final guest of honor tonight. (“Is going to prison at 19 worth it? Is losing that time of your life worth it?” he asks rhetorically. “It is.”)
Graff is a role model of sorts for Katherine Horsley, who’s making her banquet debut. Only 17 years old, Katherine has flown up from Georgia to represent her father, Neal Horsley, who cannot attend. He is in Oregon testifying in a Planned Parenthood class-action lawsuit about his infamous Nuremberg Files Web site. Katherine’s cheeks are flushed with excitement. “I’m very interested in what they’re doing here,” she says. “I wanted to meet these people and hear the stories they had to tell.”
Among the last guests to arrive are two P.G. County police officers, here to provide security for the banquet. The police got a call two weeks before, Richardson says, warning that there might be trouble. They keep an eye on the handful of observers standing outside the ballroom, who play coy but are presumed to be abortion-rights activists keeping tabs on their enemies.
Before the dinner begins, people mill about the ballroom sipping cocktails and greeting old friends. The whole affair would be insufferably boring if it weren’t for the occasional snippets of conversation heard in passing: “Bill, how’d you do with the grand jury?”; “Meanwhile, they’re slaughtering babies…”; “This whole argument is really moot and ridiculous until you really understand that it’s an innocent victim.”
Just before we sit down to eat, a woman rushes over to greet Brockhoeft. “John, I’m Nancy, one of your pen pals in jail,” she says, extending her hand. “Oh, of course, Nancy from Pennsylvania,” Brockhoeft returns warmly.
As the guests line up for a buffet of chicken and fish and cheesecake, the talk turns to churches and children. The har-har jokes about Janet Reno and Olympic bombers will come later, during the auction.
After concluding the sermon at his church one recent Sunday, Bray asks his congregation what they have to be thankful for. One woman raises her hand to talk about her ailing mother-in-law, who has managed to muster the strength to visit her newest grandchild. While the woman speaks, Bray wears a broad smile. But his eyes dart around the room. It’s all he can do to wait for her to finish. The pedestrian concerns of his flock apparently don’t tap into the same well of passion that Bray holds for God’s unborn children.
Certainly, when Bray talks, he is as smooth and charming as everyone says. But there is something morea quiet nervousness about him, a restlessness. It’s as if it takes the uber-cause of the abortion war to keep his attention. And it’s hard to imagine him as a spokesperson for another, lower-profile issue. When I ask him what he would do if abortion became illegal tomorrow, he is struck uncharacteristically silent. He mumbles something about Ethiopian refugees and the danger of cults, but finally he gives up. “I don’t know what I’d do,” he says. “That’s a good question.”
Unlike other anti-abortion activists who have turned to euthanasia or the death penalty to complement their abortion agenda, Bray has little interest in either. Neither of those causes packs the same urgency as abortion. They are not, it is clear, issues worth killing for.
That’s not to say that Bray is without other intereststhey just simmer at a much lower temperature. Bray says he is “quite concerned” about the possibilities of a Y2K Armageddon, and mentions that he has built an extra storage space in his house in preparation. His wife, Jayne, has taken care of ordering food and other supplies. His other secondary causes have more in common with militia groups than church groups: He’s pro-death penalty (those guys are guilty, after all, unlike the “innocent unborn”), and rabidly anti-gay. He has a clichéd hatred for “Janet Waco Reno” and other “jackbooted feds.”
But, although Bray is willing to hold a banquet in support of the anti-abortion movement’s most impassioned perpetrators, he will not acknowledge any overt acts of his own on behalf of that cause. He insists that he does not “advocate” violence, and he refuses to answer questions about his past dalliance with arson. He has become the platoon chaplain instead, supporting the soldiers in the trenches, who believe they have no choice but to maim and murder their opponents.
Critics suggest that Bray and his cohorts are in it for the bloody battle, first and foremost. “If he’s against abortion, there are lots of advocacy routes that are available,” says Elliot Mincberg, a lawyer who has spent the last decade tracking right-wing activities for the liberal People for the American Way. “There are many, many other things you can do: You can protest, you can advocate, you can try to get new Supreme Court justices appointed….Choosing to kill someone should be a last resort. But to them it seems to be almost a first resort.”
Most people confronted by the years of legislative and judicial defeats would simply give up. But extremists respond to setbacks by vaulting right over the top. Frustration has always propelled fanatics, left and right. Angry and impatient with the state of the world, they seek out radical movementsthe more absolute the cause, the better. And there is no more elegant choice for people who want to live inside a moral certainty. In some ways, abortion is the quintessence of causes, offering up the most innocent and silent of martyrs. And Bray’s solutionfighting infanticide with homicideoffers a deeply satisfying solution. Mincberg describes the fringe mentality this way: “This is the right cause, period. And once you accept it, everything else fits in around it….The underlying logic isn’t examined anymore.”
As in all radical groups, the opinion of others is held in such low regard that it is frequently not part of the conversation. Validation and support always come from within a group of like-minded travelers. It’s partly why I am able to go to the White Rose Banquetthe participants have no fear of what I might say, because they put no stock in it. If I mention that they seem like a nice group of folks who just happen to have a murderous commitment to their cause, I can be written off as another one of Satan’s abundant army. And for the group itself, there’s nothing more unifying than a common devil.
They are willing to posture, but only to demonstrate that they have no need for shame. It’s a mundane but unsettling sight, like an annual social that just happens to be held by a militia.
“At one level, it reminds you of any dinners Washington folks go to. But on the other hand, it’s very chilling….It almost routinizes the advocacy of violence,” says Mincberg. In his classic book about the nature of mass movements, The True Believer, Eric Hoffer described how extremists throughout history have delighted in brazen ceremony. In the heat of ritualized rebellion, the idea at hand is actually secondary to the visceral turn-on, the giant fuck-you of the event: “What counts is the arrogant gesture, the complete disregard of the opinion of others, the singlehanded defiance of the world,” Hoffer wrote.
The FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms know all about Bray and the banquet. But, exactly as Bray has intended, they can do nothing. “We’re well aware of that gentleman, we’re well aware of his banquet, but as far as the Bureau is concerned, that guy’s got his right to freedom of speech,” says Special Agent Peter Gulotta of the Baltimore FBI office.
But where the FBI sees speech, others see the seeds of perverse criminality.
“He promotes the ideology of violencewhich is frankly a brilliant tactic, because it absolves him of any responsibility,” says Guasch-Melendez. “He puts the idea out there and lets other people act on it. And it’s quite effective.”
If part of the intention of the dinner is to taunt the opposition, Bray has succeeded. “It’s mind games; it’s guerrilla warfare. And [Bray] is sending a signal to some nut case out there, saying, ‘It’s OK. You’ll have our support,’” says Fitzsimmons of the National Coalition of Abortion Providers.
The anti-abortion movement does not have a monopoly on extremism. The corollary fringe on the pro-abortion side may also be getting into the business of arguing through intimidation. In the last few months, the office of the Pro-Life Action League in Chicago and several anti-abortion activistsincluding Donald Spitz and Neal Horsleyhave received anthrax threats in the mail. None of the letters have been found to be dangerous, but Spitz says several people have warned him not to attend this year’s anti-abortion march in D.C. out of concern for his safety. He estimates that he gets one death threat a week over the Internet. “I don’t know why they’re so infuriated and have this rage,” Spitz says, without a wink of irony. “I don’t understand it, because all we are doing is trying to say that the unborn child is worthy of protection in the same way a born child is.” And last month, Bray’s 13-year-old daughter answered a phone call from a man who said, “I hope nothing happens to your dad.”
The centerpiece of Bray’s table at the banquet is a placard inscribed with a proverb: “Evil men do not understand justice, but those who seek the LORD understand it fully.” Next to it is a single white rose. Bray named the banquet after the White Rose resistance movement at the University of Munich during the Holocaust.
Allusions to great historical struggles abound at the dinner. Jayne Bray is enthusiastically expounding on the moral link between slavery and abortion. “I think that changing [abortion laws] will probably mean as much change as changing slavery,” she says. “I think we’ll end up in a civil war.”
She goes on to make the Holocaust comparison, but she is interrupted by a man passing out a letter Paul Hill wrote for the banquet, titled “Why I Shot an Abortionist”: “When I finished shooting, I laid the shotgun at my feet and walked away with my hands held out at my sides, awaiting arrest….When they later led me to the squad car, a small crowd had assembled. I spontaneously raised my voice, ‘One thing’s for sure, no innocent people will be killed in that clinic today.’” Then Michael Bray stands up to acknowledge a list of fellow extremists. Richardson follows him, reading letters from people in prison who offer thanks for the banquet attendees’ emotional and financial support.
The crowd seems reticent during all of this, bashful, perhaps, in the presence of the media. But people loosen up once the auction begins. Spitz carries a box of 12 items up to the podium and starts the bidding. It’s like every other charity auction you may have sat through, with a notable exception: Each donation has come from a current or former “prisoner of conscience.” James Mitchell, convicted of firebombing a Falls Church clinic, has contributed two sketches of Mother Teresa crafted in his jail cell. An anonymously donated and very used “Explosives & Professional Services” sweatshirt creates a stir, going to the highest biddera little old ladyfor $75. Camouflage baby booties knitted in prison by arsonist and attempted murderer Shelley Shannon go for $40. She has also knitted a camouflage hat, adult size, which provokes a string of jokes from Spitz:
“Eric could use one of these things in those woods,” he says, referring to Eric Robert Rudolph, the at-large suspect in a series of bombings at two abortion clinics, a gay nightclub, and the Atlanta Olympics. It’s a visceral thrill just to hear him say such a thingright out in the open, defending a man who may have targeted not just abortion clinics and gays, but the goddamn Olympics. And Rudolph’s ability to stay on the lam, leading an army of feds through the woods of North Carolina, where he is believed to be hiding, is a source of both satisfaction and mirth in the room.
The irreverence is catching. A man in the audience starts singing “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” making the audience roar with laughter. People start calling out amens. And Spitz is on a roll now. “Someday if you’re out in the woods, these may come in handy….Those feds will walk right by you!” The sethat, gloves, and scarfgoes for $55. CP