|John Salvi and Conspiracy Thought|
All of Salvi's actions and statements can be traced to specific arguments promoted by organizations nationwide
anti-abortion activist John C. Salvi III, accused in the Brookline, Massachusetts clinic shootings that left two women dead and several persons injured, contain references to obscure but surprisingly widespread conspiracy theories long circulated by a specific sector of right-wing groups in the U.S. A jury will decide if Salvi is mentally competent, but his allegations of conspiracies should have no serious weight in those deliberations since many of Salvi's statements and actions echo well-defined right-wing theories that scapegoat secret elites.
Salvi has alleged a conspiracy of Freemasons. Reuters and CBS News have reported that while in Florida, Salvi discussed his interest in the armed militia movement. He is also reported to have quoted the Biblical book of Revelations. He met with a Catholic priest and demanded to distribute lurid photographs of aborted fetuses, charging that the Catholic Church is not doing enough to stop abortions.
Each and every one of his actions and statements can be traced to specific theological and political arguments promoted by organizations in the Boston area and nationwide.
Conspiracy theories have a greater audience than many believe
that a conspiracy of Freemasons controls the economy through the manipulation of paper money is based on conspiracy theories that originated in the late 1700's and flourished over the next century. Salvi's Freemason theory is one current variation of these earlier theories. Persons who embrace this theory often point to Masonic-looking symbols on the dollar bill as evidence of the conspiracy. The roots of the Freemason conspiracy theory are discussed by Richard Hofstadter in his book, The Paranoid Style in American Politics.
The basic premise of this worldview is that a secret conspiracy of wealthy elites controls the U.S. Variations on these themes include overtly bigoted theories concerning Jews, theories of a secular humanist conspiracy of liberals to take God out of society, One World Global Government theories, and many others. Symptoms of the corrosive nature of this alleged conspiracy are seen variously as abortion, homosexuality, the feminist movement, sex education, Outcomes Based Education, and the environmental movement, among others.
The photographs of fetuses distributed by Salvi come from Human Life International (HLI), a right-wing Catholic anti-abortion group with a chapter in Massachusetts. HLI promotes a highly orthodox vision of Catholicism that is critical of liberal Catholics' stand on abortion, sex education, homosexuality, and feminism. HLI publishes and distributes books with titles such as Sex Education: The Final Plague, The Feminist Takeover, Ungodly Rage: The Hidden Face of Catholic Feminism, and New World Order: The Ancient Plan of Secret Societies. The latter book attacks the Freemasons as part of conspiracy to control the country through the manipulation of the economy and paper money. The book is also sold by other right-wing groups that circulate conspiracy theories, including some that promote the armed militia movement. Other conspiratorial literature found among Salvi's possessions include The Fatima Crusader, an apocalyptic right-wing Catholic magazine that sees abortion as evil; and The New American, a magazine published by the John Birch Society, which also actively opposes abortion.
Conspiracy theories have a greater audience than many believe. They are spread, for instance, by right-wing Christian evangelical leader Pat Robertson in his books and on his TV program, "The 700 Club."
Freemasons and Illuminati and Bolsheviks and Satanists and...
book The New World Order was published in 1992 and is filled with right-wing conspiracist lore, much of it laced with references to Jewish bankers that contain, at the least, echoes of antisemitism. Some of the cites in Robertson's book trace back to notoriously antisemitic sources. Discussion of Freemason and other scapegoating conspiracies appears throughout Robertson's book:
"Is it possible that a select few had a plan, revealed in the great seal adopted at the founding of the United States, to bring forth, not the nation that our founders and champions of liberty desired, but a totally different world order under a mystery religion designed to replace the old Christian world order of Europe and America?
Antisemitic conspiracy theories linking Freemasons, the KKK, and the mob to Jews and Jewish institutions
theories are also spread in a mild form by the John Birch Society, and a more virulent racist and antisemitic form by the Liberty Lobby. The whole spectrum of conspiracist allegations can be found on computer networks including the Internet, on radio and TV talk shows, on short-wave radio, through fax networks, and in hundreds of small books, pamphlets, and flyers available through the mail.
The central division among those who believe in these theories is whether or not Jewish bankers are behind the conspiracy. Frank P. Mintz, in his book The Liberty Lobby and the American Right: Race Conspiracy, and Culture, argues that there is now a clear division -- with the ultra-conservative John Birch Society believing that do not center on Jews, and the Liberty Lobby, with its newspaper the Spotlight, circulating theories that do center on Jews and Jewish institutions. The theories of Lyndon LaRouche are an example of antisemitic conspiracy theories linking Freemasons, the KKK, and the mob to Jews and Jewish institutions.
Author Sara Diamond in her book Spiritual Warfare: The Politics of the Christian Right discusses the role of the secular humanist conspiracy theory within the theocratic right. It is the secular humanist conspiracy theory that is central to many of the groups involved in theocratic right organizing in Massachusetts, such as the Christian Coalition, Focus on the Family, Eagle Forum, and Concerned Women for America.
The secular humanist conspiracy theory is a variation of the Freemason conspiracy theory, and is spread by elements in the Protestant Christian Reconstructionist and dominion theology branches of the Christian Right. Christian Reconstructionism has influenced the militant wing of the anti-abortion movement, a development discussed by researcher Fred Clarkson in a two-part article in The Public Eye newsletter, published by Political Research Associates.
In some cases these conspiracy theories are adopted by persons who believe we are in the Biblical "End Times" described in prophesies in the book of Revelations as a time when there will be literal confrontations pitting true Christians against Satan and the AntiChrist.
The search for scapegoats
element of conspiracy theories is that the country is composed of two types of persons: parasites and producers. The parasites are at the top and the bottom, with the producers being the hard-working average citizen in the middle. This is the theory of right-wing populism. The parasites at the top are seen as lazy and corrupt government officials in league with wealthy elites who control banking and manipulate paper currency. The parasites at the bottom are the lazy and shiftless who do not deserve the assistance they receive from society. Salvi echoes this scapegoating refrain when he complains about persons on welfare. In the current political scene this dichotomy between parasites and producers takes on elements of racism because the people at the bottom who are seen as parasites are usually viewed as people of color, primarily Black and Hispanic, even though most persons who receive government assistance are White.
Paranoid conspiracy theories have emerged in times of economic and social crisis throughout U.S. history, often accompanying the rise of right-wing populist movements. Some analysts dismiss these movements as "paranoid," "extremist," or "radical," but a more current social science view is that these right-wing populist movements, even when accompanied with bizarre conspiracy theories, reflect real deep divisions and grievances in the society that remain unresolved. This unresolved anger and anxiety leads some persons to begin scapegoating the problems of the society on named groups or sectors in the society.
Most people who join these right-wing scapegoating movements are acting not out of some personal pathology, but as an act of desperation; grasping at straws to defend their economic and social status -- in essence protecting hearth and home and their way of life against the furious winds of economic and social change. They feel that no one is listening. While their anger and fear is frequently based on objective conditions (such as the falling buying power of the average wage earner, or dislocation caused by global corporate restructuring), the solutions offered by rightist demagogues point to targets that scapegoated groups of individuals as the cause of the problems. Ultimately, some people persuaded by these scapegoating arguments conclude that the swiftest solution is to eliminate the scapegoat.
That some who act violently against the named scapegoats are also suffering from some form of emotional distress or mental illness does not negate the fact that they were groomed by a social movement. Clinic violence is not the only result. In recent years there has been a disturbing number of threats and attacks against not only abortion providers, but also environmental activists, gays and lesbians, Jews, and feminists. The scapegoating of welfare mothers and immigrants of color could also lead to similar acts of intimidation and injury.
A growing problem posed by right-wing populist movements that embrace scapegoating is that they make serious dialog within the democratic process difficult or impossible. Instead of engaging in a political struggle based on debate and compromise, persons who believe in evil conspiracies want to expose and neutralize the bad actors, not sit at the same table and negotiate.
Also very problematic is the attempt by government officials to use the incident of terrorism in Oklahoma City to justify a range of repressive legislative initiatives, allowing greater law enforcement powers to use surveillance and infiltration of non-criminal dissent in an effort to stop terrorism. A series of Congressional hearings, lawsuits, and media reports in the 1970's demonstrated there was no evidence that widespread infiltration and surveillance of dissident groups had a significant effect on stopping criminal activity or terrorism, but did have a significant effect in abridging civil liberties and chilling free speech. In this volatile political moment, we must cautiously guard against the dangers of right-wing bigotry and violence, and government over-reaction in response to these very real divisive and dangerous problems.
Evidence of a growing alliance between the armed militia movement and certain militant members of the anti-abortion movement
of historic right-wing conspiracy theories are common in the emerging patriot movement -- of which the armed militias movement is a zealous offshoot. The patriot movement's core principles of unity are right-wing or libertarian anti-government themes: anti-tax, anti-regulation, and against gun control.
The patriot movement is bracketed on the moderate side by the John Birch Society and the conspiratorial segment of Pat Robertson's audience, and on the more militant side by the Liberty Lobby and groups promoting themes historically associated with white supremacy and anti-Jewish bigotry. There are perhaps five million persons who consider themselves part of the Patriot movement, and between ten and twenty thousand persons in over forty states who are involved in the armed militia movement. The armed militia movement has been growing rapidly, relying on a network of fast electronic media such as computer networks, fax networks, and radio broadcasting; it is arguably the first U.S. social movement to be organized primarily through non-traditional electronic media such as the Internet.
There is an undercurrent of resentment across the patriot movement against what are seen as the unfair advantages the government gives to people of color and women through programs such as affirmative action. While much of the patriot movement represents a different sector than the traditional far-right white supremacist movement, this underlying prejudice is significant. In many ways the Patriot movement is a temper tantrum by a subculture within U.S. society that is part of a backlash against the social liberation movements of the 1960's.
It is also true that persons affiliated with far-right groups such as the Christian Patriots movement and the Posse Comitatus are attempting to steer the broader patriot movement toward bigotry; and that many of the conspiracy theories rampant within the patriots movement have been kept alive for the most part in far-right and frequently bigoted circles. The Posse Comitatus is a right-wing militia movement that spread throughout the farm belt during the rural economic crisis in the late 1970's
People regularly exposed to variations on the Freemason conspiracy theory (such as the secular humanist conspiracy theory) number in the tens of millions, primarily through right-wing religious broadcasting. In the past few years there has been evidence of a growing alliance, at least ideologically, between certain anti-abortion elements within the armed militia movement and certain militant members of the anti-abortion movement. A report on this topic is available from Frontlines Research at the Planned Parenthood Federation of America national office in New York City.
Four distinct but overlapping social movements with militant factions appear to be coalescing to create a potential for violent confrontation against targeted scapegoats:
Salvi's statements and alleged actions pick up themes from each of these movements, and reflect sentiments that appear in some, though not all, armed militia units.
One speaker passed out brochures offering "Firearms Training, Combat Leadership, Close Combat, and Intelligence Measures"
umbrella of the "patriots" movement, groups who oppose the New World Order conspiracy held a meeting in November, 1994 at a Burlington, Massachusetts High School a few miles away from Boston and Brookline. Speakers included stalwarts from the John Birch Society, Concerned Women for America, and leading anti-abortion organizer Dr. Mildred Jefferson, who tied groups such as NOW and Planned Parenthood to a conspiracy of secular humanists tracing back to the 1800's. Both the Birch Society and CWA are active in the anti-abortion movement. Jefferson describes herself as a founder and former officer of the National Right to Life Committee and a Board member of Massachusetts Citizens for Life. Salvi attended at least one meeting of the Patriot-linked Massachusetts Citizens for Life and met with several of its leaders.
Attendees browsed three tables of literature brought by Den's Gun Shop in Lakeville Massachusetts. One book offered instruction in the use of the Ruger .22 rifle, the weapon used by Salvi. Other books contain diagrams on how to build bombs and incendiary devices. One title was Improvised Weapons of the American Underground. You could even purchase the book Hunter by neo-Nazi William Pierce of the National Alliance. (The book is about parasitic Jews destroying America and the need for armed civilians to carry out political assassinations to preserve the white race.) Pierce's previous book, The Turner Diaries, was the primary sourcebook of racist terror underground organizations, and was reportedly a favorite of alleged Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.
One speaker, Ed Brown, who runs the Constitutional Defense Milita of New Hampshire, passed out brochures offering "Firearms Training, Combat Leadership, Close Combat, and Intelligence Measures." This was not unprecedented; in 1994, Planned Parenthood released information on a Wisconsin Patriots meeting where anti-abortion activists and armed militia proponents shared the podium.
A key figure in training armed civilian militias was the featured afternoon speaker at the Burlington meeting. Robert K. Spear is the author of Living Under the New World Order and Surviving Global Slavery. According to Spear, we are living in the "End Times" predicted in the book of Revelations. True Christians will be asked to make sacrifices to defend their faith and prepare the way for the return of Christ. Spear's plan is the formation of armed Christian communities.
Signs of the (End) Times
that we are in the End Times is growing in right-wing Christian evengelical circles. While predominantly a Protestant phenomenon, there are small groups of orthodox and charismatic Catholics that also are embracing End Times theology. Like Salvi, they point to the book of Revelations. Spear cited Revelations 13, the prophesy that in the End Times, Christians will be asked to accept the Satanic "Mark of the Beast" and reject Christ.
These views are hardly marginal on the Christian Right. Pat Robertson, a leading figure in the Religious Right and whose Christian Coalition is credited in helping elect many new Republican Senators and Representatives, has been emphasizing End Times themes on the "700 Club." Just after Christmas 1994, the program carried a feature on new dollar bill designs being discussed to combat counterfeiting. The newscaster then cited Revelations 13 and suggested that if the Treasury Department put new codes on paper money it might be the Mark of the Beast.
In recent years, the most militant anti-abortion groups such as Operation Rescue have been influenced by the theology of Christian Reconstructionism, or dominion theology, which argues that true Christians must physically confront secular and sinful society and return it to God.
Though predominantly composed of right-wing Protestants, a similar movement among doctrinaire Catholics has emerged. The trajectory of Philip Lawler from the editorship of the Boston Archdiocesian publication The Pilot, to the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights to Operation Rescue is one example of this drift toward militancy. In the spring of 1994, Salvi joined with 300 anti-abortion demonstrators outside the Planned Parenthood clinic in Brookline, Massachusetts where pamphlets were circulated that cited Operation Rescue as claiming that 18,000 abortions were performed annually at the facility.
The Bay Area-based Coalition on Revival has helped bring Protestant dominionism into the theocratic right political movement. Militant antiabortion activist and Operation Rescue leader Randall Terry writes for their magazine, Crosswinds, and has signed their Manifesto for the Christian Church, which proclaims that America should "function as a Christian nation" and that the "world will not know how to live or which direction to go without the Church's Biblical influence on its theories, laws, actions, and institutions," including opposition to such "social moral evils" as "abortion on demand, fornication, homosexuality, sexual entertainment, state usurpation of parental rights and God-given liberties, statist-collectivist theft from citizens through devaluation of their money and redistribution of their wealth, and evolutionism taught as a monopoly viewpoint in the public schools."
Francis Schaeffer is the dissident Presbyterian philiosopher whose ideas about a militant brand of orthodox Protestant faith gave rise to dominionism. Schaeffer placed a central emphasis on stopping abortion as a litmus test for a godly society. Dominion theology plays the same role in urging miltancy within rightwing Protestant circles as do the "Fatima prophesies" in right-wing Catholic circles. The central theme of stopping abortion in Protestant dominionism provides a common point of intersection with militant Catholic anti-abortion activists, so it is little surprise to find right-wing dominionist anti-abortion activist Randall Terry working closely with right-wing Catholic anti-abortion activist Joseph Scheidler. Scheidler in turn is on the U.S. board of advisors to Human Life International (HLI), as is Father Charles E. Rice, who authored an article discussing abortion in an issue of the John Birch Society's magazine The New American.
There is no evidence that Salvi attended the patriot movement meeting in Burlington, or that the rhetoric or ideas of any of the groups or individuals mentioned directly influenced his actions. The fact remains, however, that there is a growing right-wing social movement that uses theological arguments to encourage direct confrontation of its targets, and tolerates discussions of armed resistance. Its adherents scapegoat abortion providers, gays and lesbians, feminists, even environmental activists. Some have called feminists who support abortion rights "femiNazis" and argued that abortion is a genocide worse than that of Hitler. On the fringes of the anti-abortion movement are groups that argue that it is morally justifiable to kill abortion providers. One slogan is:
"If you really think abortion is murder, then act like it."
For some who hear this message, all that remains is to pull the trigger.
Chip Berlet is an analyst at Political Research Associates. He is co-author, with Matthew N. Lyons, of the forthcoming book "Too Close For Comfort: Right-wing Populism, Scapegoating, and the Fascist Potential in US Political Traditions" to be published in the fall of 1996 by South End Press.
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