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The Doctor Killers | The Nation

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The Doctor Killers

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The arrest in France of James Kopp, the accused assassin of Buffalo obstetrician Barnett Slepian, could not have come at a more awkward time for the Bush Administration. Bush inaugurates himself by blocking aid to international family planning agencies and by nominating antiabortion fanatics to run the Justice Department. Then fugitive Kopp surfaces to remind the American public of where these bottom-line commitments lead.

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Bruce Shapiro
Bruce Shapiro, a contributing editor to The Nation, is executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma...

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In 1994 Bill Clinton's Justice Department initiated a grand jury inquiry into abortion-clinic violence. But FBI agents grumbled that Justice was wasting their time, and the grand jury folded its tent in January of 1996 after finding no evidence of a national conspiracy. Five years later, it's clear that Kopp--accused in three nonfatal shootings in Canada and the United States in addition to the murder of Dr. Slepian--had a lot of help, the kind of help for which "conspiracy" is the operative legal term.

So far, investigators have arrested two antiabortion felons in Brooklyn--Dennis Malvasi, convicted of a 1987 clinic bombing in Manhattan, and Loretta Marra, who blockaded clinics with Kopp. They sent Kopp money and stayed in touch with him through a Yahoo drop box. The circle is almost certainly wider--and transnational. For the past year Kopp lived in Ireland, bunking in hostels and mingling with the fundamentalist breakaway Catholic sect founded by excommunicated Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. Kopp managed to acquire at least two separate Irish identities and passports for himself and a blank Irish passport and birth certificates for his New York friends, and someone in Ireland vouched for his references for an employment agency--all of which makes it obvious that his was not a solo act. Ireland's right-to-life leaders deny any connection to the assassin, and it's entirely possible that his support network was American. In the last half-decade US antiabortion campaigners have moved on Ireland in a big way, introducing a militancy previously unknown there.

Speculation necessarily swirls around the followers of the Rev. Patrick Mahoney of the Washington-based Christian Defense Coalition. In March 1999 Mahoney led a brigade of forty Americans to Dublin, where they occupied the offices of the Irish Family Planning Association and taught their Irish counterparts all-American blockade-and-intimidation techniques. Indeed, only a day before Kopp's arrest, Mahoney was slapped with an Irish court injunction prohibiting him from further harassing the IFPA. Mahoney had tolerant words in 1997 after Slepian's shooting, and responded to Kopp's arrest by warning the Bush Administration not to "harass and intimidate the pro-life movement."

It can't escape notice that the Kopp conspiracy began to unravel just as the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit overturned a jury verdict and injunction on the Nuremberg Files website, which displays photos of abortion providers and a list with a strike through the names of assassinated physicians. On March 28 the Ninth Circuit unanimously found, in the words of presiding Judge Alex Kozinski, that if the website's rhetoric "merely encouraged unrelated terrorists," it is protected by the First Amendment.

Kate Michelman of NARAL called the ruling "a major setback for a woman's right to choice," and along with Planned Parenthood vowed to pursue the case to the Supreme Court. To me, Kopp's overdue arrest suggests a different conclusion. There can be no doubt that the Nuremberg Files website contributed to a climate of fear--that the website is the theory and James Kopp's rifle is the practice. Yet the emerging facts of Kopp's flight make it clear that keeping The Nuremberg Files off the Internet would not have saved Dr. Slepian or brought the shooter to justice. The important thing is to investigate real antichoice gangsterism, real shootings, real escape routes. The important thing is to insist on the continuity between Kopp and the "respectable" antiabortion agenda of the White House. Bush and Ashcroft have been assiduously working to accomplish by executive order what Kopp attempted with a gun: diminishing the availability of abortion and thus undermining a civil right. This, and the climate of fear generated by clinic violence, must be fought with politics, not censorship. And the recent rise of police surveillance aimed at antiglobalization protesters only makes more clear the danger of prosecuting an inflammatory publication as if it were the hand that smashed the windowpane or pulled the trigger.

Kopp's arrest is full of ironies. The most antichoice Attorney General in US history is now stuck prosecuting an antichoice assassin; an Administration wild about the death penalty must forgo capital punishment to secure Kopp's extradition because France opposes it. It would be a final, and tragic, irony if prochoice advocates permit antiabortion thugs like Mahoney to play the martyr--drawing attention away from the very violence they have nurtured.

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