The award for that move goes to Jesse Walker at Reason, who draws a false equivalence between Brinsley’s actions and those of rightwing terrorist Scott Roeder, who killed abortion provider George Tiller in 2009. “Responsibility for a crime lies with the criminal,” he says, suggesting that people who point to incendiary rhetoric that precedes a bout of violence will create a situation where “we aren't supposed to criticize anyone at all.”
It’s an understandable urge. After all, many anti-choice people vehemently disagree with Scott Roeder’s choice, both because it was wrong and because terrorism makes them all look bad. It’s easy to see why conservatives would want a complete embargo on blaming larger political movements for seemingly ideological violence, particularly as most domestic political violence, from anti-choice violence to the threats coming from Cliven Bundy’s ad hoc militia, is coming from the right. But the fact remains that sometimes larger political forces do bear responsibility for what individuals choose to do, and that is far more true of Roeder than of Brinsley.
It’s telling that Walker ignores the biggest debate over the relationship between rhetoric and violence, namely whether or not to blame Islam for the actions of Islamic terrorism. Perhaps this is because considering this issue would show that it’s not black-and-white. After all, it’s both true that most Muslims have no interest in terroristic violence, but also that Islam-inflected rhetoric drives some to terrorism. Which, in turn, suggests that there isn’t a simple rule to apply to all situations. Instead, to understand the relationship between rhetoric and violence, we have to look at, ugh, context.
Once you do that, it is clear that Roeder and Brinsley’s situations are very different. Brinsley’s past and his choices during his killing spree—including shooting his ex-girlfriend—suggests less a political terrorist and more a spree killer, which is to say motivated by the desire to go out in a blaze of glory more than a political obsession. Some spree killers, like Anders Behring Breivik, graft some kind of ideology to their justifications and some, such as the Columbine killers, just admit all they want to do is wreak havoc. But they aren’t actually trying to effect political change through violence, which is what terrorism is all about.
By that measure, Roeder was a terrorist. He spent years in the anti-abortion movement, focused on shutting down Dr. Tiller’s clinic, and only chose murder when it became clear that legal harassment wouldn’t work. He continues to justify his decision by saying, correctly I’ll point out, that the fear of violence scares doctors away from abortion. Roeder was also working with a movement that stalks doctors, protests outside their offices and homes, and publishes their addresses, all of which are as close to begging someone to shoot a doctor as you can get while still skirting the laws against death threats. And there is no disputing that Roeder’s actions worked. There is no legal late term abortion provider left in Kansas now.
There’s no evidence that Brinsley had a coherent political goal. His goal appeared to be getting attention—and invoking Eric Garner was a way to do it. Nor is there any indication he was working with anti-police violence protesters. There’s no suggestion that he thought his decision would actually do anything to stop police violence against civilians.
If we step away from the political point-scoring and look at history, we can tell the difference between a political terrorist and a mentally ill person doing a violent thing. The assassination of Abraham Lincoln was an act of political terrorism, performed by a Confederate loyalist. The Confederate hatred of Lincoln was inarguably not just a factor, but the entire reason for that murder. In contrast, the man who shot Ronald Reagan was a mentally ill man trying to get attention, which he admitted openly when caught. The fact that a lot of people hated Reagan wasn’t a factor, something even the biggest Reagan fans have to admit.
We can accept that Brinsley’s actions were not primarily political, despite what he may have said in his final hours, without conceding to the right the desire to write off all rightwing Christian terrorism as little more than the actions of a few bad apples. All it takes is a little context.