Favorite Targets? Anti-Abortion Arson
As part of its coverage of the recent widespread fires in southern California, Newsweek explored the larger problem of arson (“The Scorched-Earth Obsession”, November 5, 2007). The article notes that some arsonists are politically motivated, reporting that “abortion clinics are favorite targets.”
My quarrel is not with the accuracy of this statement but with the impression it gives. Newsweek lists political motivation first among the reasons arsonists set fires, and it offers only one initial example: violence against abortion clinics. Thus the reader is left with the idea that political motivation is a large factor and that anti-abortion arson is a huge part of it. It takes a careful reading of the evidence to show the contrary to be true.
Data and Meaning
According to the article’s own figures, in 2006 alone there were 30,000 building fires attributed to arson in the United States. Moreover, there have been 174 cases of arson at abortion clinics over the past thirty years for the United States and Canada combined. The figures show what’s wrong with the linguistic impression. For this is an average of only 5.8 anti-abortion arsons per year in both countries. So even if we suppose that five of these took place in the United States, we see that the anti-abortion category of arson accounts for a mere .017 percent of the total. In other words, just one in every 6,000 cases of arson is directed against the “favorite” political target.
One may quibble with the figure of 174 over thirty years, since the data is provided by the National Abortion Federation, which has a vested interest in linking fires at abortion clinics to arson. But it is hardly necessary to quibble if one goes online to see more recent discussions of NAF’s own figures. In the U.S. and Canada from 2000 through 2005, the average number of arsons at clinics was two per year. In fact, in 2005 there was one instance, and in 2006 none. There is one open case pending for 2007.
When we further stop to consider that in past clinic-related arson cases, the arsonist has generally worked alone and been responsible (like most arsonists) for multiple fires (as many as ten in one case), our impression of the “favorite target” alters still more. As the same Newsweek story notes further down, kids start about half of all fires, or about 15,000 in 2006, the same year in which there were no hits at all against the “favorite target”, political or otherwise. Another huge cause of arson is the desire of financially-strapped building owners to collect fire insurance.
Compounding the Error
Much further on in the article, we learn that “aside from the abortion-clinic bombers and arsonists, the most active political firebugs are environmental terrorists.” Again, if we do a little extra research, we find that from 1979 through 2007, a period similar to that covered for anti-abortion violence, eco-terrorism has been responsible for a vastly larger and steadily growing number of incendiary attacks, along with other destructive techniques, many involving various kinds of acid. The problem had become so severe by 2002 that the FBI named the Earth Liberation Front its number one domestic terrorist threat.
The Earth Liberation Front (ELF) and the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) were responsible for 137 illegal incidents involving destruction of property in 2001 alone, many of which involved arson (I counted seven arsons in a sample list of just six percent of the incidents). According to NAF, there were only three incendiary incidents at abortion clinics in that year. I don’t have complete data, but eco-terrorist property damage, which was estimated at about $50 million when the FBI ranked ELF number one, is now apparently well over $100 million. A single instance of eco-terrorist arson in 2003 resulted in $50 million in damage. A reasonable estimate of the total property damage caused by all anti-abortion violence would be an order of magnitude smaller.
Nor is eco-terrorism perpetrated primarily by isolated, troubled individuals. Groups such as ELF and ALF are well-organized. They take public (and deliberately political) credit for their actions. Granted that it is difficult to locate precise comparative data in a nice clean tabular format, even a cursory examination of the actual facts makes it difficult to sustain the impression that environmental terrorists are merely the most active political firebugs “aside from the abortion-clinic bombers and arsonists.” In fact, eco-terrorism causes anti-abortion violence to pale in comparison.
Open Page, Engage Brain
So why am I reading Newsweek? Well, I subscribed to it recently for the purpose of providing myself with a weekly wrap-up of whatever is on the mainstream national mind. I was afraid, in essence, that if I spent all my time reading only completely reliable and particularly edifying material, my columns and blog entries might not be as useful as they could be if I were more broadly informed. I hoped to become a more effective commentator, on the principle that “into every life a little rain must fall.”
Newsweek, of course, is generally interesting, and “The Scorched-Earth Obsession” was especially so. In a publication that tries, often very successfully, to resist the most egregious temptations to bias, the danger lies not so much in an overt agenda as in unidentified attitudes and assumptions. When these find their way into print, often unnoticed even by their authors, they color our own perceptions much more than we would care to acknowledge. One can imagine the authorial thought process: Ah, here are some statistics on anti-abortion arson that I can use, and everybody knows that’s a serious problem, so probably I should list them first.
The result, again, is that people will put down their copies of Newsweek thinking political arson is a big issue and anti-abortion arson is at the heart of it. But, as is so often the case, what “everybody knows” isn’t true. The guiding assumptions and attitudes in the mainstream media are very often wrong, yet they color our impressions of almost everything. Unfortunately for the news business, impressions are not only important, they are very nearly the whole story—at least the way most of us read most of the time.
All of us must beware of the same problem when writing, of course, but it is particularly acute for those in the mainstream, because they are so seldom challenged to examine their assumptions. This puts a tremendous burden of critical reading on the rest of us. Reading isn’t just a matter of processing the lines. Often it is what goes on between the lines that matters most. Yes, there have been cases of anti-abortion arson, and yes, these cases are very significant to those affected by them. But contrary to the impression given by Newsweek, they are exceedingly insignificant to the larger story of arson as a whole.
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