Is the Colorado Springs shooting at a Planned Parenthood Clinic an ‘act of terrorism?’

The World
A member of the New York Police Department stands outside a Planned Parenthood clinic in New York, a day after the shootings in Colorado Springs.

A member of the New York Police Department stands outside a Planned Parenthood clinic in New York, a day after the shootings in Colorado Springs.

Andrew Kelly/Reuters

The shootings at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs on Friday left three people dead and nine wounded. In the days since, local police have refused to suggest any motive for the shootings.

But law enforcement sources have told various news outlets that the suspect — 57-year old Robert Dear — made remarks about "baby parts" to investigators after his surrender.

US Attorney General Loretta Lynch called the attack a "crime against women receiving health care services." Republican presidential candidate, Mike Huckabee, called it "domestic terrorism."

But is it?

Juliette Kayyem knows a thing or two about terrorism. She's a former assistant secretary with the Department of Homeland Security; she teaches counter-terrorism at Harvard and is an analyst with our partners at WGBH, and a columnist for the Boston Globe.

“From my perspective, the term domestic terrorism is a legal term," says Kayyem. "And it seems to me that what Robert Dear did satisfied every aspect of that definition.”

From the FBI’s website:

"Domestic terrorism" means activities with the following three characteristics:

§  Involve acts dangerous to human life that violate federal or state law;

§  Appear intended (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination. or kidnapping; and

§  Occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the U.S.

“To me,” says Kayyem, “this is clearly an act of domestic terrorism, meant to influence and intimidate the lawful actions of a population, in particular women seeking health and reproductive rights. So I feel very comfortable calling this domestic terrorism, both as a moral necessity, and descriptive. But also to remind people in the United States that if we align terrorism too closely with a certain kind of radical Islam, we actually may miss a lot of threats to our safety and security.”

“Essentially, at least by news reports, Dear was a man who harbored political motivations for numerous weird behaviors in his life. He is alleged to have said to the police officers when he was finally captured something about President Obama, but more significantly something about now baby body parts will no longer be harvested.”

That’s a reference to a controversial video produced by David Daleiden and his Center for Medical Progress, which featured undercover recordings of Planned Parenthood employees allegedly talking about harvesting tissue from aborted fetuses. Several subsequent investigations have found no evidence to the claims, and critics say the film was produced by highly selective editing. However, the video has circulated widely in anti-abortion circles and even been cited by some Republican presidential candidates. All those candidates have gone on record since the shooting saying they oppose violence.

“While I believe this is domestic terrorism," adds Kayyem, "I also have no problem if he is put before a court for mere murder.”

A terrorism charge would require prosecutors to prove motivation, "and showing motivation is difficult in court.” Proving murder on the other hand would likely be “easy,” says Kayyem. “Sometimes, not calling him a domestic terrorist is actually the most justice for the victims.”

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