Jaime Oppenheimer/AP
Scott Roeder

In the Wake of Violence, Decoding an Assassin’s Motives

June 07, 2009 08:00 AM
by Shannon Firth
Is mental illness or extreme political beliefs the root of two shootings this week?

Shootings in Kansas, Arkansas Believed to Be Linked to Extremism

On June 2, authorities charged Scott Roeder, 51, with killing Dr. George Tiller, an abortion doctor who was shot on Sunday at a Kansas church he attended.

Roeder is now being held without bail, and if found guilty, could receive a life sentence, The Associated Press reported.

Lindsey Roeder told the AP that in the early 1990s, her ex-husband joined an anti-government group, refused to pay taxes, and became “very religious in an Old Testament, eye-for-an-eye way.” Friends said he had talked about killing clinic workers in the past, the AP reported.

She told NBC of her former husband’s “obsession” with abortion. She also echoed a statement made by her former brother-in-law, David Roeder, that the accused was likely mentally ill.

“He couldn’t cope with day-to-day life. He couldn’t cope with the struggle of paying bills [and] not being able to make ends meet,” she said.

Troy Newman, president of the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue, told AP, “He was some guy on the fringe. Nobody knew him all that well other than his name.”

A day after Tiller’s death, Abdul Hakim Mujahid Muhammad, formerly called Carlos Bledsoe, was arrested for allegedly shooting two army recruiters in Arkansas, reported USA Today. One of the victims, Pvt. William Long, 23, died from his injuries, and the second, Quinton Ezeagwula, 18, was injured.

After officers questioned Muhammad, Little Rock Police Chief Stuart Thomas told USA Today he “probably had political and religious motives for the attack.” Muhammad had recently converted to Islam.

In 1996, a man named Scott Roeder, who according to Time magazine is “thought to be the same man,” was arrested in Kansas and given 2 years probation after police found bomb-making equipment in his car while he was stopped for a license plate violation. Ms. Roeder said she divorced her husband that same year out of concern for her and her son’s safety. An appeals court later revoked the conviction on the grounds that the search was unlawful.

And in March, Dr. Tiller stood trial and was found innocent of 19 counts of late-term abortion without the requisite independent second opinion. Time reported that Roeder attended at least part of the trial.

What motivates assassins?

In “Wolves, Jackals and Foxes: The Assassins Who Changed History,” available on Google Books, Kris Hollington describes three types of assassins: individuals seeking notoriety (wolves), hired professionals (jackals) and novices hoping to make a political statement (foxes).

While he may have also sought recognition, Roeder, if he killed Tiller, might fall into the “foxes” category. Hollington describes them as “hot-blooded individuals driven by passionate belief.” He writes, “[T]hey are ordinary, unremarkable people, often failures: the antithesis of the men and women they try to kill.”

On National Public Radio, Neal Conan summarized Hollington’s thesis, saying, “[M]ost of the time these are psychodramas not political dramas.” Hollington agreed, “It’s all within the troubled mind of the lone individual, it’s just something they’re playing out, almost a movie in their mind.”

In an Open Salon column, Don Rich compared Roeder to John Brown, a radical abolitionist, as well as Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, and John Wilkes Booth, Lincoln’s assassin. Rich, a Pennsylvania community college history instructor, explained how each man used murder to attempt to promote a political cause.

According to Rich, Brown believed he was called by God to start an uprising of slaves. He maimed and murdered five slavery supporters at Harper’s Ferry in 1859 and was later hanged. Frederick Douglass and other anti-slavery leaders thought Brown was “delusional,” according to Rich.

Frederick Clarkson, writing for the blog Women’s E-News, disputes “the lone nut theory” altogether. Clarkson says, “The crimes [of anti-abortionists] are generally well planned and involve a number of people who provide varying degrees of support.”

Clarkson cited Rachelle “Shelley” Shannon, who was convicted for shooting and wounding Tiller in 1993. He noted that a couple, who were never charged as accomplices, provided Shannon with a “safe house” and the gasoline used in other attacks.

On the blog Spiked, Jennie Bristow, editor of Abortion Review, differentiates between those who are passionately pro-life, and extremists, saying, “[I]ndividuals who commit murder always have their own warped reasons for doing so.”

Opinion: A double standard?

Michelle Malkin, irritated with the differential treatment given Roeder and Muhammad, writes, “When a right-wing Christian vigilante kills, millions of fingers pull the trigger. When a left-wing Muslim vigilante kills, he kills alone.”

She criticizes the media for relying on the term “lone gunman” for jihadi assassins; the Justice department and Obama for neglecting the recruiter’s deaths while addressing Tiller’s murder; and the “the legions of finger-pointing [liberal] pundits,” for holding the right-wing media and the entire pro-life movement responsible for Roeder’s actions.

Malkin also notes the lack of media response to the Iranian-American, Mohammed Taheri-azar, who attempted run over students at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill campus. According to The News & Observer, Taheri-azar was sentenced to 26 to 33 years in prison last summer.

She concludes, “Politically and religiously motivated violence, it seems, is only worth lamenting when it demonizes opponents.”

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