From ISIS to the Abortion Wars: America We Need to Talk
By Dr. Amanda E. Rogers, National Endowment for the Humanities Visiting Assistant Professor of Middle Eastern & Islamic Studies at Colgate University. Read full bio below.
NOTE: This article was as uncomfortable to write as it is to read. It is long and disturbing, but it is also—now more than ever—necessary. Although the story you are about to read is grounded in intensely personal experience, as well as my professional terrorism expertise, this is not about me.
I am an expert in ISIS propaganda, but my Ph.D. is in Art History. Political violence is the last imaginable specialization I ever wanted to pursue—so allow me to divulge a bit of personal history. Surreally, the unhappy accident of my professional biography makes sense. I was born into terrorism.
But my parents aren’t Iraqi. We’re not from Mosul. My hometown isn’t Raqqa. I was born in Wichita, Kansas, USA. I came of age at the height and heart of the “Abortion Wars”—an all-American terrorism campaign waged in the name Christianity. My childhood saw family friends in Kansas shot by the Army of God in the name of Jesus. Decades later and oceans away from the Great Plains, I would see friends in Syria beheaded by ISIS in the name of God. So from the beginning, remember this: the stories, lessons, and warnings I recount here—I understand them in all their painful complexities: personally, physically, morally, intimately. Viscerally.
Terrorism in the name of religion is as American as apple-pie. Allow me to follow one cliché with another. “One man’s terrorist is another freedom fighter.”
Have you heard the name John Brown? Born in 1800, the devoutly religious Brown worshipped alongside Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth. Far more radical, John Brown was a militant Christian abolitionist in every sense of the term, committed to the overthrow of slavery as an institution, by any means necessary—in his view, armed insurrection. During a period of confrontations known as Bleeding Kansas, which precipitated the American Civil War, John Brown came to Lawrence, Kansas, close to the Missouri border—dividing line between the “free states” and “slave states.” Representations of him are ubiquitous in the college town (my own, in fact) where to this day, several businesses proudly carry the name “Free State.”
John Brown has also been referred to as “the Father of American terrorism.” So, which one was he: freedom fighter, or terrorist? To me, the answer is clear—and literal. John Brown was a freedom fighter. And yet…that’s one of the things about “terrorism” as a label, much less an analytic category. The term is inherently relative, flexible. Ultimately, “terrorism” reveals more about the person who applies the label than the labeled. Maybe you’ve heard of another warrior of faith who followed Christ’s call to Kansas: Carrie A. Nation, a crusader hell-bent (or heaven-sent) on eradicating alcohol consumption through hatchet attacks at local bars. More recently, anti-abortion terrorism in Jesus’ name made heartland headlines with 2015’s mass shooting at Planned Parenthood in Colorado.
Anti-abortion terrorism is an international phenomenon, but the statistics provide clear testimony that, as they say—the USA truly is “Number 1.” Christian terrorism: a thoroughly American phenomenon.
But again, it’s all relative, right? Even familial.
America, we need to talk.
All-American Terrorism, All-American Childhood: Abortion Wars’ Frontline
Let me start at the beginning: my beginning. I was born in 1981; one year later, the religious terrorist network called Jaysh Allah was founded. I’m not talking about Al-Qaeda. They didn’t arrive on the global stage until 1988, in Afghanistan. Oh, I’m sorry—did the Arabic confuse you? I can see why. Allow me to translate.
In plain, all-American English, Jaysh Allah means “Army of God.” They’re not from Afghanistan. They aren’t from the Middle East. Army of God (AoG) are proudly all-American, self-declared Christian terrorists, or as New Jersey’s Office of Homeland Security prefers to call them, “a decentralized Christian extremist movement.” Before I passed a single year on earth, AoG launched hostage-takings in Illinois. By the time I was four years old, AoG expanded to Maryland, Washington D.C., and Virginia, where the tactical arsenal widened to include bombing women’s clinics. Meanwhile, support for the organization steadily increased among active devotees and tacit sympathizers.
When I was five, Army of God found its most successful base for operations—the good ole heartland of “real America:” my hometown. Terrorism came home. I mean “home” not simply in the geographical sense, but in the immediate, literal sense of family, because the ideological, political, and religious fault lines of this wider story, well…they cut across both sides of my family. Those fault lines shaped the woman I became in ways I could never have foreseen, ways in which I am only just now beginning to comprehend.
Do you remember the name Dr. George Tiller? The one Bill O’Reilly liked to call “Tiller, Tiller, Baby Killer” night after night, on his national television show—one of Fox News’ most successful and highly rated programs? Yes, that’s the one. Dr. George Tiller was an abortion provider and key target in the Abortion Wars’ central battleground of Wichita, Kansas. Tiller was also a proud Navy veteran, a dedicated Republican—and devout Lutheran Christian. I use “was” because—now, he’s dead. Decades elapsed between the first attempt on his life, and his eventual assassination. Success would take years.
In that not-so-long ago Year of Our Lord 1986, Tiller’s clinic was firebombed for the first time. As he rebuilt Women’s Health Care Services, a sign erected amidst the rubble made clear his determination: “Hell no, we won’t go.” AoG continued to grow in tandem with the American “Culture Wars,” the late 80s characterized by a steady development, and eventual coalescence, of varied “anti-choice” / “pro-life” (pick your partisan terminological poison) organizations. A vocal, public, active anti-abortion movement sprang fully to life—and violently kicking—by the turn of the decade.
Seasons change and the earth keeps on turning, as I do from nine to ten years of age. A month after my tenth birthday, the so-called “Summer of Mercy” begins. It is 1991 now. Keith Tucci, leader of Operation Rescue (slogan: “if you believe abortion is murder, act like it’s murder”), draws tens of thousands to Wichita for a campaign aimed at the forcible closure of women’s clinics through such methods as sit-ins, demonstrations, and blockading of clinic entrances. Of course, Operation Rescue is not the only actor. There are others—local religious schools send students on mandatory field trips to picket outside clinics. And there are others still—Army of God among them—all parties emboldened by the force multipliers of national media, religious leaders, and government officials eager to capitalize on moral fervor and politically expedient rhetoric. Does any of this sound familiar? It should. The Department of Justice under H.W. Bush sided with the protestors, as did Kansas’ governor. Even the Christian Coalition and Pat Robertson made an appearance, dropping in to hold a rally at Cessna Stadium, packed to capacity with 25,000 supporters determined to make Wichita, Kansas “America’s first abortion-free city.”
Autumn falls, the leaves change, but the national movement continues—and Wichita remains the beating heart of all heartland battlegrounds. Bleeding Kansas, indeed. The campaign (or Crusade, depending on your position) expands. Attacks continue, which target doctors, volunteer escorts, security guards, police officers, patients, clinic landlords…with threats, harassments, pickets, bombings, guns, arson, acid. The list goes on. And on.
Flash forward. It is now August 19, 1993. I have just turned twelve. Shelley Shannon, one activist among many on the extremist end of the anti-abortion movement’s spectrum—long involved in firebombing and acid attacks at women’s clinics across the country—arrives in Wichita. Taking advantage of the perpetual fracas provided by the constant clinic protests, Shelley Shannon fires five shots at Dr. George Tiller as he enters his truck, its windows encased in double-sided, bulletproof class. “Did I get him?” she asks. Not entirely, Shelley. Not the way you wanted.
Wounded in both arms, the Republican, Christian, military veteran fights on, going back to work the very next day. The only response he will ever publicly utter: “I’m a healthcare provider. I had patients to take care of.” That same year, the state of Kansas convicts Shannon of attempted murder, a sentence of eleven years. And in her own way, Shelley Shannon also returns to work, maintaining close contact with the anti-abortion activist network through “inspirational” letters, phone calls, and visits from jail.
I am fourteen years old when Shelley Shannon is convicted in federal court: September 9, 1995. U.S. Federal District Court Judge James A. Redden calls her a terrorist, deeming her dangerous even while incarcerated. But she receives no terrorism charges. Instead, racketeering, bombings, arson, vandalism, and acid attacks earn Shelley Shannon an additional twenty years’ incarceration. In an Army of God statement issued from her federal prison cell, Shannon refers to herself as a “prisoner of Christ.” Over the last half of the decade, from behind prison bars to inside clinic walls, the war continues.
My own family was then—and remains now—on both sides of the frontlines. In 1996, the year after Shannon’s federal sentencing, I drove past one of the routine protests outside Tiller’s clinic sometime in high school. Inside the car with me were an older female relative, and her best friend—who honked the horn, cheered at the sight of the demonstrators, and echoed: “Praise Jesus! Baby killers will burn in hell.” The woman in my family said nothing. Yet her silence—it said everything.
You see, that older woman in my family is devoutly religious, raised among similarly devout Christians. She was deeply, and morally committed, to the “pro-life” position. But years before Roe vs. Wade? She had her own abortion. The backroom kind. The illegal kind. The dangerous kind.
So dangerous she damn near died.
Here’s the thing about life: it’s fraught with complexity and contradictions. When she found herself pregnant, she wanted to have the child. Those closest to her, however…well, irony of most unholy ironies—they denied her the “choice” (some might even say the “right”) to “embrace life.”
The botched procedure almost killed her. Instead, she will take this, her darkest of secrets, to her eventual grave—decades of unresolved suffering along the way. Later, when I asked about her silence on that car ride, like Jesus: “she wept.” Of her best friend, she told me: “if she knew, she would think I’m not a Christian. She wouldn’t love me anymore.” The guilt, despair, and internal fallout continue to plague her life. But it’s the abortion in which she locates her shame—not the communal hypocrisy, or the darkest consequences that arise when the right to choose isn’t an option.
I’d like to remind you that this is all relative. This is all a family affair. So now, let me introduce my cousin, Jennifer Jacobs. Jenny still doesn’t know the story of the relative described above. Obviously, that’s still a secret. A deep, dark, shameful secret—and one shared, ironically, by so many of the anti-abortion protestors.
But Jenny’s account adds another layer to the depth of familial entanglements, and hidden hypocrisies, at the rotten heart of the Abortion Wars. Jenny worked for Dr. Tiller. She recalls: “we had daughters of some of them [the protestors] as patients. Of course, ‘it was just a terrible mistake, you see…’ The other women we treated? Well…they were just sluts.” When I called to interview her for this story, she asked that I use her name: “George would be furious if I hid. It would be a betrayal.”
Yes, of course there’s more. Of course this goes deeper—because Jenny didn’t just work for Tiller. George Tiller was family to Jenny. “He was my dad’s best friend. In 1986, when his clinic was firebombed, I was in a KU dorm room with his daughter [who is now] my daughter’s godmother. I worked for him while I was pregnant with her. George did my sonograms, gave us free formula he wheedled from pharmaceutical reps, and paid me handsomely during my maternity leave. He was an amazing, wonderful man who TRUSTED WOMEN to make their own decisions regarding their health care. He is missed every single day. My father, even with his Alzheimer’s, still says ‘I miss George.’”
Jenny and her husband even appeared on some of the clinic’s brochures—a model family for informational pamphlets on family planning.
Rumors about this article reached many members of my extended family. Another older relative reached out to confide in me that visits to Wichita for family get-togethers (unbeknownst to any of us at the time) inevitably concluded by sneaking away to conduct drive-by attacks on demonstrations, lobbing water balloons at protestors clustered on the sidewalks. Now I hope this isn’t the case, but perhaps one of those balloons was filled with urine instead of water—the same kind of balloon that (I learned yesterday) exploded in the face of a childhood friend—then seven years old—dragged to the clinic protest by her family’s Army of God-affiliated church. If the past few weeks’ of unsolicited disclosure after unsolicited disclosure has taught me nothing else…well, anything is possible.
Flash forward, flash back.
In the mid-1990s, to volunteer as clinic escorts served as a coming-of-age ritual, a feminist rite-of-passage for my friends—teenage girls, shepherding already-traumatized women past crowds of God-fearing Christians loudly passing judgment: “baby killers burn in hell!” Trying to offer comfort, some sense of safety. But that empathy came with consequences.
1997: I receive my first driver’s license. The same year, extremists take the war online. And once again, American terrorists prove years ahead of Al-Qaeda in the Internet game. The Nuremberg Files appears, a site dedicated to publishing the names, photos, addresses, phone numbers, license plates, and more, of clinic workers, doctors, and volunteer escorts. High-school classmates appeared among them, some of them my closest friends—juveniles, at the time: marked for death. Threats keep coming, and the world keeps turning.
I graduate from high school in 1999, and Dr. Tiller is still alive. It will take another ten years—a full decade—for terrorists to finally succeed in his assassination. I will be thousands of miles away, studying for doctoral examinations. And when that day finally arrives, it’s a Sunday. The Day of the Lord. Can you guess where it finally happens?
The killing occurs on sacred ground: at church. Reformation Lutheran Church, to be exact—where George Tiller served his congregation as an usher every Sunday…in a flak jacket. While his wife sang in the church choir. A Christian gunman enters a church and shoots a Christian doctor in the head, at his place of worship, the holiest of spaces.
In the name of Jesus Christ.
In the heartland of “real America.”
In Wichita, Kansas.
In my hometown.
Shelley Shannon tried, and failed, to kill Dr. Tiller in 1993. Shelley Shannon is now a free woman. Dr. George Tiller—may he Rest in Peace and Power—is still dead. Shannon’s release, in turn, released a flood of memories, anxieties, and consequences for so many of us on both sides of this battlefield, family and life-long friends alike. Authorities did not notify Tiller’s family (hence, my own). That revelation sparked an indescribably intense self-reflection, an ethical watershed, and spawned this article—catalyzed by that moment, many others, and oh-so-many stories that I do not want to retell, relive, let alone remember.
Some in my very own family will accuse me of that cardinal sin: “airing dirty laundry in public,” or forgetting that Tolstoyan axiom known all too intimately by dysfunctional families the world over: “what goes on in this house stays in this house.” Except it doesn’t. That’s the impact of the ethical imperative. Parts of me desperately (selfishly) want to say, “This is none of your business.” But in the end, I can’t. Because this—all of this—it is everyone’s business. In societies and families alike: we are only as sick as the secrets we keep.
Shortly after Tiller’s murder, his clinic finally closes. The terrorists won, and we live in the aftermath. The war rages on, with different tactics. Dr. George Tiller never stopped fighting, amidst all the bombs, the arson, the acid attacks, the shootings. He defied terrorism to fight for women—women like me. I didn’t fully understand it at the time. I thought that I did. But would only learn that profound lesson years later—and thousands of miles away.
When the Terrorists Win: Living Through the Aftermath
Are you ready for the second part of this story? I’m not so sure I am either. But it needs to be told, of that I am certain. So brace yourself—because this one is going to hurt.
Those religious and political frontlines I mentioned before, those fault lines at the heart of the Abortion Wars, at the heart of my own family…eventually they coalesce on—and rip apart—my own body. Years after Tiller is gunned down at his house of worship, far away from my hometown, raped and pregnant—I need my own abortion. Some in the anti-abortion movement will exempt me from the worst of their (public) moral judgments because of the circumstance. Others will not. Many will cast doubt on the experience. Many will not. Anti-abortion supporters are not monolithic. But let the record also show—none of your opinions matter to me. Your judgments are not divine—because you, dear reader, are not God. And admittedly, neither am I.
I am staunchly pro-choice (and I mean choice, in every variety of its most personal and intimate incarnation). If an unplanned pregnancy happened to me tomorrow, I cannot say what decision I would make. At the immediate moment, it would be impossible. Aside from that, I have no idea what form my choice might take. But the circumstance of this particular anecdote, intensely and viscerally personal—unwanted pregnancy, bodily intrusion, the relived terror of assault—is central to our story.
Context matters. Context proves especially key here, because only through the lens of my uterus did I begin to grasp what George Tiller’s life, and death, truly meant. It took an embodied object lesson to really understand what happens when terrorism succeeds, and what living through the aftermath entails. The terrorists won. However, a caveat is in order. Here’s the thing.
Abortion is still legal—technically.
But it’s much, much harder to obtain, and that restricted access is deliberate. By (intelligent) design. Political violence—undertaken with explicit invocations of Jesus’ name—laid the foundations for an ongoing war on women’s bodies. That war continues, but the battlefield has shifted, from clinic bombings to legislative loopholes.
Successful terrorism means that where I lived at the time, only 4% of the state’s counties had clinics with abortion services; of those, termination procedures were available on a very limited basis—in my clinic’s case, two days per month. Why? Nation-wide, state after state, “targeted regulations” translate to fewer and fewer clinics with abortion services, and a demand for nomadic doctors willing to engage in the near-constant travel that proved vital to cover several states in regional rotation.
And the process of successfully receiving an abortion remains, perhaps even more than before, its own particular experience of terrorism. Let me give you a detailed account of what that process is like. The very second I recognize two lines appear on a pregnancy test, I locate and contact my closest clinic. Immediately. They cannot see me for another three weeks—roving doctors, you see. State regulations, you know. Every agonizing second that passes I remain acutely aware of my body’s forcible, physical colonization. I wait—desperately. Finally, my appointment date arrives. Finally.
I arrive at the clinic doors, passing the usual sidewalk demonstrators with “baby killers go to hell” posters—but thanks to U.S. Code, Title 18—Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances—they’re just far enough away for me to see and hear them. At least they are no longer legally entitled to physically block the doors. Getting assaulted on my way to reverse the consequences of an assault isn’t exactly in my plans for the day, so at least…there’s that.
I fill out the required paperwork and take a seat in a waiting room, filled with crying women, some accompanied by men, some by other women, and some heartbreakingly alone. Tick-tock, tick-tock. The seconds pass slowly, oh so slowly, until my name is finally called, and I am escorted to the clinician’s room for the fun-filled, state-mandated counseling session termed “Informed Consent.” Informed Consent legally requires my physician orally describe the “age of the unborn child,” as well as “the probable anatomical and physical characteristics of the unborn child.” The healthcare provider must also provide me with a written version—conveniently illustrated, with clear, consistent captions that reinforce the ideological messaging campaign over, and over, again: “your unborn child.”
I am next escorted into yet another room. I am required to remove my clothing, lay down on a table, and spread my legs wide open to a stranger for the mandatory ultrasound (the transvaginal, internal kind, not the external, abdominal type—because, while we’re at it, let’s add one more invasive layer to the reversal of traumatic invasion). Luckily, my clinician is an empathetic woman. She recognizes the familiarity of my body’s uncontrollable response at the sight of the ultrasound transducer—a phallic-shaped wand. She knows how—and why—I got here.
She takes a deep breath, closes her eyes, and recites her script: “according to legislation mandated by the state, I am required to point the ultrasound display towards you, in your line of sight, while I describe aloud for you the exact dimensions of the unborn child and a description of any external features and internal organs that are present and viewable on the image.”
Rolling her chair forward, she reaches out to take my hands, and follows her earlier statement with another: “Nothing in that legally-required script obligates me to make you look. I cannot hold your eyelids open. Nothing says you cannot sing, cry, hum, talk, scream to drown out my voice. Before we do this, I need you know that, within the legal guidelines imposed on both of us by the state, you still have choices.” At the door, she will hug me goodbye. Writing this, it strikes me that I was too shell-shocked to thank her at the time.
And now, I am sent home for the mandatory 24-hour waiting period to (paraphrased, of course, but the subtext is ever-so-clear) “think about what you’ve done.” I assure you, dear reader, for every minute of those entirely sleepless twenty-four hours, I thought long and hard about what I did. I thought about what I didn’t do. And what I intended to do. Finally, I return for the actual procedure. I shed my clothes again. I climb on another table, again. I expose myself to a stranger. Again.
At this point, the floodgates—like my legs—are wide, wide open. I begin to cry. Not out of guilt. Not out of pain. Out of a strange sense of gratitude—for Dr. George Tiller. For every teenage friend who volunteered as a clinic escort, knowing damn well her face would appear on the Nuremberg Files, along with her contact information. For every doctor, nurse, clinician, security guard. For everyone that stares terrorism’s cold, hard consequences in the face, and keeps on living. This is when I finally realize—on an embodied level—what it means in America when the terrorists win. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say: I finally begin to understand.
Yes, abortion is still legal—for the moment. But it’s damn hard (in the broadest possible meaning) to obtain. Do not forget why that is, and how it came to be.
Mike Pence is now the Vice President. Brett Kavanaugh now sits—for life—on the United States Supreme Court. Today, the abortion “debate” is framed as “culture war,” or “religious freedom.” Roe vs. Wade is very much under threat, and with it, what extremely limited (yet still “technically” legal) abortion access remains after a decades-long campaign. Recently, someone challenged me: “you cannot seriously say, with any sincerity, that anti-abortion terrorism has institutional support in the United States today.” I will repeat for you here my rejoinder: no. No, I do not.
Institutional support for political violence is superfluous. That is how campaigns for radical change proceed and progress—terrorism, after all, is merely one tactic in a broad strategic arsenal of varied weaponry. And our story of the Abortion Wars demonstrates—by definition—how terrorism succeeds. Violent action sets the combat theater’s initial stage, certainly, but the battlefield eventually shifts.
Remember this: the successful outcome of a terrorist campaign never depends on violence alone.
Indulge me, patient reader, another flashback—necessary to trace the full trajectory from “then” to “now.” Return with me, briefly, to the 80s and 90s, and the peak of anti-abortion violence, or what one might also call “terrorism in the name of God.” Those decades of my childhood and adolescence in the American heartland unfold against a backdrop of everyday life scarred by arson, firebombing, shootings, anthrax attacks, clinic blockades, hostage takings, death threats issued, some successful, some not. Dr. Tiller fights on, as do his supporters. As do his opponents.
In the background of such violent action, a host of varied anti-abortion activism continues. Christians show up in droves “to support women” outside reproductive healthcare clinics, sometimes calling out “we can help you have that baby!” Others scream, “burn in hell, baby killer!” Churches send students to protest on obligatory field trips. Another thing I learned about my own life this week: in 1991, my childhood best friend refused to participate in one of those protest fieldtrips at Tiller’s clinic. Expelled by her Christian Academy as punishment, she transferred to my middle school. It turns out that’s why we met.
I remind you: “moderate” Christian supporters came out in droves to support Army of God’s ideology, even as “they” were “pro-life.” Oh, Lord, no—they would never support “killing a doctor,” but maybe “just scaring him.” But one must ask…where is that line in this, the age of ISIS, which demarcates what the counterterrorism community calls “material support?”
Maybe material support sounds something like Bill O’Reilly: “And if I could get my hands on Tiller – well, you know. Can’t be vigilantes. Can’t do that. It’s just a figure of speech. But despicable? Oh, my God. Oh, it doesn’t get worse. Does it get worse? No.” Perhaps material support looks like the Congressional Record documentation of California Republican Bob Dornan’s remarks as he echoes O’Reilly’s invocation of “Tiller, the Baby Killer.” Year, after year, night after night, media giant O’Reilly throws gasoline on the fire to keep it all going, chanting “Tiller, Tiller, Baby Killer” on his nationally broadcast hit television show. Much like, you know, a “radical Islamic cleric.” O’Reilly compares Dr. Tiller to Hitler. To Al-Qaeda.
All the while, the good, moderate, pro-life Christians are listening, glued to their television screens, those like the fervent Fox News fans and Christian Coalition devotees in my very own family—yes, those relatives with their secret, back alley abortions, vocal public judgments, and behind-closed-doors utterances that “Tiller got what he deserved. As the Bible says, ‘Whatever a man shall sow, he shall also reap. Galatians 6:7.” Oh, I heard you. Rest assured: I remember. But I think it’s you who may have forgotten—after all, Numbers 32:23: “Be sure your sin will find you.”
Ironic, isn’t it. All of it.
And the campaign grinds on, in all its sanctified, threatening glory. Dr. Tiller grinds on, as do his supporters. The world keeps turning. Although the worst of the violence peaks in the 90s, as Tiller’s assassination demonstrates more than decade later, the war keeps raging. Slowly, not-so-subtly, the tactics are shifting. The violence becomes unnecessary. Here is how it unfolds. For decades, firebombing, shooting, acid attack terrorism campaign against doctors, clinic workers, volunteers, and patients reaped dividends well before Dr. George Tiller dies from a gunshot wound to the head, wearing a flak jacket, on a Sunday. In his own church. In the name of Jesus Christ.
Doctors get scared. Clinics get scared. Landlords get scared: they raise the rents, or they refuse the applications from women’s reproductive care clinics. The real estate market knows very well how expensive arson campaigns are, and how detrimental ongoing protests are to the financial bottom lines that prove critical for the success of businesses next-door. Warfare segues to lawfare. Politicians shove through legislation aimed at further curtailing the right to abortion protected by the United States Supreme Court. Verbal intimidation. Legal harassment. But the political violence in Jesus’ name set the stage: Christian terrorism.
Doctor after doctor dies, or quits. Clinic after clinic closes. It’s working.
Let’s pause, briefly, to hear about this time period from someone else all too close to home for me, herself on the frontlines of the Abortion Wars—although I had no idea until yesterday morning: my childhood therapist, Dr. Beth Hartman McGilley (I’m sure it won’t shock you to hear I saw her for trauma counseling). We remain close. As an adult, I am privileged to call her a friend. She reached out to me—as did so many others—with her own story to tell.
Years before 1991’s “Summer of Mercy,” Beth told me, she was on the Board of Planned Parenthood. I never knew. In 20015, well after her service as a PP board member ended, “when the Attorney General of Kansas (Phill Kline) attempted to eradicate women’s rights in Kansas under the guise of changing the mandated reporting laws for minors who’ve been abused, I was part of a small group who successfully sued Nola Foulston. We were clearly warned our lives and practices were at risk, but that was a tiny risk compared to the threat of losing the rights of those putting theirs on the line for us. George was a humble, valiant genius who wasn’t afraid to stare into the sun. I was honored to stand with and by him in any way I could.” I always felt I owed Beth my life. But after our phone call yesterday, I suppose I only thought I knew. I am still learning, clearly. We are always learning.
Eventually, Tiller will operate one of the only reproductive health care clinics to provide abortion services in the entire state—but after his death, when his own clinic finally shutters, practically no one in the region is left to help (but of course, the battle will continue—eventually). Sure, after Tiller’s assassination, many religious leaders offer condolences, pouring out statements of condemnation. Many politicians do the same. Other religious leaders, other politicians, other media figures…well, some praise God’s name, and view divine justice in George Tiller’s murder, “the answer to a prayer.”
Here’s the real victory of this all-American, Christian terrorism campaign: this is all recent history—my life, to this point, has not yet been that long. Living through the aftermath of terrorism, then, we proceed to the opiate of societal amnesia. We are in the next phase, the “normalized” procedure of checks and balances, ballots, not bullets, the “exceptionally civilized” process of legislation and public debate. Because you see, we’re not terrorists. No, sir. We’re God-fearing people unlike those subhuman demons who don’t value life — somewhere “over there.”
The Reluctant Terrorism Expert, or: How ISIS Made Sense of My Childhood
Now follow me, dear reader, as I take you on a guided tour—“over there.”
If you thought we’d come full circle, I regret to inform you that there’s one more rotation left to go. I need to tell you how I became an accidental, unwilling expert in ISIS propaganda, and how that process completely changed the way I viewed my entire life—the normalized violence of my heartland childhood.
Breathe through it with me; we are almost at the end.
I left Kansas for good years in advance of George Tiller’s assassination. Before that, however, throughout my adolescence, I found new and unexpected systems of family support—from those who shared none of my DNA. African-American Christians, Brazilian Catholics, and Pakistani Muslims took me in as their own, shaping the person I would eventually become, and sparking my desire to see more of the world. I didn’t just leave Kansas. I left the country, and spent most of my early adulthood bouncing around North Africa and the Muslim world, where I fell in love with all types of new (to me) forms of art and cultural life, and where I found yet more family in the turest sense of the term.
I decided to pursue a Ph.D., and hoped to teach about art and culture in the Middle East. I was committed to helping students decenter the singular lens of “violent terrorism” through which we have been trained to view this vast part of the world. I never wanted expertise in conflict. I’d had enough of that already. And besides, I confess—I always looked at most “Middle East terrorism” experts with thinly-veiled scorn. Most of them had little personal connection to, or experience in, the region, slim to none linguistic proficiency, and practically zero awareness of the counterproductive, stereotyped tropes socialized into them.
But I digress. So, let’s go ahead and skip into the future, over years of my life, almost a decade of research on media, art, representation, and culture related to the Middle East, North Africa, and Islam…Something unpleasant, something viciously unanticipated occurs that will alter the course of my professional work and my personal life. One of those godforsaken watershed moments. Again.
Journalist friends go to Syria to cover the escalation of events, from uprising in 2011 to the slide into civil war by the end of 2012. In the summer of 2013, Steve Sotloff invites me along. He’s a persuasive guy, and a blast of a travel buddy. After all, he reminds me: I have a free summer, post graduation. Don’t I deserve a vacation? I decline. At the time, I’m not interested in studying conflict. I have very little desire to engage in conflict tourism as holiday. Besides, I don’t work on Syria (then). It feels gross, voyeuristic. I cannot shake the sense that my participation would be akin to war porn. And also—I am afraid.
Those friends of mine disappear in Syria. Kidnapped. Eventually, I will get to see them again, but it’s not the kind of face-to-face reunion I would have liked. It’s not at a Cairo café, or at someone’s impromptu Beirut house party. Instead, the reunion is virtual, mediated through the pixelated horror of a digital screen. Their images—before, during, and after beheading—resurface in ISIS videos plastered all over the Internet: explicit propaganda designed to incite a “Christian West” vs. “Muslim World” eternal conflict.
Understand this: I have lost other loved ones all across the globe to the violence of state and non-state actors alike, in conflict zones, terrorist attacks, routine violence. Their deaths didn’t have the power to galvanize an entire country, rallying public opinion behind military action—because, let’s be blunt here: their lives didn’t matter to the United States. But my friends executed by ISIS? They were white. U.S. citizens. Recognizable. My “fellow Americans.” For international media, that radically changes the calculus. Their lives matter much, much more. For domestic media, their lives, deaths, faces—their humanity—brings “the fight against terrorism” home: onto your television screens, into your living rooms. And ISIS, dear reader, banked on that. Evil? Oh, I hear you. But evil and brilliance can, and do, coexist.
Ethically, what in the hell do I do now? I’d dedicated my entire career to decentering the “violence lens” through which Americans view the Muslim world. But ISIS’ videos beheading my friends? Those productions were so brilliantly calculated to bait, provoke: explicitly by playing to “our” stereotypes of “them.” As an activist and academic committed to the ethics of decoding the weaponization of “representation” related to the Muslim world, I understood these videos’ implications—with horrifying depth.
I never wanted to engage in, or contribute to, “the terrorism discourse.” But if I don’t? My work means nothing. Failure to engage would invalidate everything I think I stand for, and all that I think I believe. Because I have something to say, and unfortunately, I am probably one of the only people in the position to deliver that message. So yes, reader. This is yet another ethical watershed moment in a lifetime of unfortunate ethical watershed moments. Irony of ironies, “choice” isn’t really an option on this kind of table. I suck up my reservations. I choke back my discomfort. And I begin to respond to calls from numerous media outlets at home and abroad, from the United Nations, the State Department, and more—asking me to use my regional, religious, and visual studies expertise to help them “make sense” of this so-called “ISIS propaganda” phenomenon.
The very last thing I wanted to do with my life.
In the process of acquiring “ISIS expertise,” I also obtain unwelcome familiarity with the group’s complex and (disturbing, but true) masterfully strategic propaganda methods. I’m sure you’ve heard the trite phrase “slick propaganda,” and know that media proficiency is critical for ISIS, but what (most of) you don’t realize is how you fall for it: hook, line, sinker. Working on ISIS – and their broader strategies for exploiting cultural and political divisions, in the Middle East and abroad – began to reveal deeply disturbing parallels with the rhetoric and strategies of hard-right wing “culture warriors” at home in the USA.
Cloaking violent campaigns (which depend—in turn, on non-violent, equally-critical rhetorical components, passive acquiescence, and tacit support) in the language of religion is a global phenomenon. What’s more, this pattern relies—indeed, necessitates—an opposite “other” as inverted mirror. These supposedly new “global culture terror wars” are, in fact, what I call “symbiotic extremisms,” and manifestations of conflict dynamics that transcend all manner of borders, national, religious, ideological, and beyond.
Manichean narratives of “us vs. them,” “good vs. evil,” “black vs. white” are immensely persuasive in their ability to mobilize, both violent actors and tacit supporters. Why? They’re simple. Easy. Clear. Dualistic (dare I say tribal) narratives of “us vs. them” so often, and so deliberately, weaponize religious rhetoric. They’re also bullshit—because both ends on any ideological conflict spectrum rely on one another to survive. I’ll tell you something else: the discursive veneer of religiosity, sincere or not? It’s very politically expedient. It works.
Don’t ever, ever forget that.
So, after years wanting absolutely nothing to do with “Muslim world terrorism expertise,” it took watching these deaths—and the (understandably) hysterical American audience reactions that unfolded precisely as ISIS planned—before I felt compelled to contribute to “the terrorism discourse.” Similarly, as I watched the growing domestic polarization and apocalyptic portrayals of a (fictional) divide between “Islam” and “the West” embraced by media and politicians alike, I slowly started to view my own history in a different light, to make deeply disturbing connections. You see, why don’t we see things (exactly) like ISIS here in the US from the hard-right “religious,” bombing and acid attacking their way into political change? They no longer need to (already did); that phase passed, and willful amnesia helps us forget. We shouldn’t—ever.
Every day, I am more horrified by parallel global trends that weaponize religious rhetoric for politically expedient campaigns aimed at terrorizing and polarizing the unaware, the naïve, the well-meaning—towards the end of power consolidation. Everywhere. The geopolitical contexts certainly differ. Historical circumstances vary. The phenomenon is the same.
Names differ, but the dynamics are identical.
It took this long, brutal trajectory—full of blood and grief, loss and reflection—to finally arrive at some unsettling realizations concerning my hometown. My family. “My” country. And my own lingering, unconscious biases. I’m a professional. I know better. I constantly think I know better. But every day, I just keep learning that I don’t know better. I keep receiving lessons on what I need to unlearn.
By Way of Conclusion
Terrorism in the name of God has bookended my life thus far. In sum, I’m not the person you want to try and lecture about “the reality of religious terrorism.” I already know. That topic is a subject of professional expertise—and it’s also my autobiography.
I can now conclude this lengthy, confessional article on political/religious violence, worldwide, how I came to forced expertise on the matter in the first place, and how my entire life has been about things of which I am only now starting to make sense, including the context we’re living through today. Even if I “thought” I consciously knew better, it has taken my whole life to truly, viscerally deconstruct the assumptions that were socialized into me: “real terrorism” is “theirs.” Ours is just “culture war,” albeit horrific. Again, I thought I knew better—the whole time. We all think we know better.
I know this article is long, with complex and difficult issues for us all—no matter where we stand ideologically, politically, or religiously. If you think this is about “religion,” or “abortion,” you’ve missed the point. If you think this is about “politics,” or “terrorism,” you’ve lost the plot. This is not “left/right” or “Muslim/Christian” or “religion/atheism.” This article is about how similarly violent personal and public divisions originate, spread, and explode into the most extreme of polarizations. This tale is about how campaigns for social change are so often enacted (partially) through violence and cloaked in God’s name, framed by politically expedient rhetoric, and amplified by media formatted to reflect and confirm our own biases—as well as how, and why, we take the bait. Hook. Line. Sinker. This story is one of life and death. It’s about all of that, much more, and every one of us—wherever (and whoever) may be “home” to you.
To the unnamed family members who recognize themselves in this piece, know this: I wrote not a single word intended to wound. Reflect on all the things I carefully omitted, and recognize all the protective privacy afforded by those absences. Know this as well: I do not apologize. If you don’t like my story, consider this as well—you could have given me a different one to tell. After all, we are only as sick as the secrets we keep.
For everyone else, go ahead and call me angry. You’re not entirely wrong. But I’m deeply hopeful (and before you ask, no, I’m not an atheist), and I remain profoundly optimistic. I have to be, you see—because I am determined to create some positive change, no matter how intangible, out of the hellish but beautiful landscape that has been my life so far.
I will, I promise you that much—or at least, I will die trying.
Dr. Amanda E. Rogers is National Endowment for the Humanities Visiting Assistant Professor of Middle Eastern & Islamic Studies at Colgate University. She serves as a special consultant to the United Nations and designation Subject Matter Expert for the U.S. Department of State on ISIS propaganda and media strategies of Non-State Armed Groups (NSAGs). Her specialties include political aesthetics and visual economies in the broader Muslim world. Rogers’ photography and commentary have been featured in numerous outlets ranging from Al-Jazeera, London’s Frontline Club, CNN, BBC, The New York Times, and Rolling Stone to The Postcolonialist, Aslan Media, and Muftah. Her academic work has been supported by such organizations as Fulbright, Fulbright Hays, the Jacob K. Javitz foundation, Council of American Overseas Research Centers and the American Institute of Maghreb Studies. Rogers is currently completing two books: Semiotics of Rebellion from Morocco to Egypt: Advertising Allegiance and Marketing Revolution Beyond the “Arab Spring,” and Inside the Boardroom-Battleground of Islamic State: Nation Branding, Guerilla Marketing and the Future of Transnational Conflict.