Last week, Orlando was treated to a visit from the Missionaries to the Preborn, a Milwaukee-based group of anti-abortion activists whose claim to fame is displaying bloody photos of aborted fetuses on street corners. On March 5, the group set up shop at Colonial Drive and Maguire Boulevard, and for an hour and a half tried to get a rise out of rush-hour commuters.
Some passersby honked in support of the group, others flipped them off. One woman parked her car, got out and yelled at them. But by and large, most people simply ignored the gore; just another crappy commute on Colonial.
The Missionaries themselves seemed bored, frankly. This was the tail end of their annual tour. After Orlando, they were headed to Jacksonville, then back to Wis-consin. The road show was almost over, and none too soon by the looks of the 40 or so members who had spent two weeks sleeping on church floors and picketing in three cities a day throughout the South.
Road-weariness aside, these are pivotal times in the fight to keep abortion legal. President Bush is openly hostile to Roe v. Wade, and he has stacked the deck with people like Attorney General John Ashcroft who have made it a priority to restrict access, if not ban it outright.
Then there's the trial of James Kopp, the anti-abortion activist who admitted to the sniper-style assassination of Buffalo gynecologist Dr. Barnett Slepian in 1998 and is suspected in three other shootings. Kopp hid in the shadows, did his dirty work, then fled to France. His trial is just getting under way in New York. Many, including members of the Missionaries, consider him a hero.
Officially, the group takes no position on Kopp, or anyone else who bombs, burns or shoots for the cause. "We don't condemn those who use force ... and we don't advocate the use of force," says Matt Trewhella, the founder and leader of the group.
Unofficially, it's not hard to find someone who thinks Kopp was doing the Lord's bidding. It's eerie to be among people immune to the irony of advocating killing to stop a practice they consider killing.
Don Holman, a Missionary who spent the afternoon last week denouncing murder through a bullhorn on the east side of the intersection, twisted himself in logical knots to defend Kopp. "I don't think you can murder an abortionist," he told me. "By God's law, it's execution. The government should have executed [Slepian]."
"The government's duty is to enforce God's law?" I asked. (It's always fun to bait extremists.) "The purpose of government is to execute justice," he answered.
In other words, explained Holman, Kopp was acting as a government official and is therefore beyond prosecution. "He was executing the office of a civil magistrate. He was bringing justice to the land." Even Kopp's defense attorney would probably consider that a stretch.
And the part of the Bible that commands Christians to judge not, lest they be judged? Doesn't apply, Holman told me. "Saints, which we are, are allowed to judge. It's a no-brainer."
Nancy Major, a Missionary from Pennsylvania, said Kopp is like a hero who stops a maniac from killing a school full of kids. "If you or I were standing on the edge of a playground and saw someone with a machete, if we had a gun in our hand we would be irresponsible not to take them out of commission."
That, of course, is just talk. And it's a big step from cheering vigilantes to hiding in the bushes and pulling the trigger.
But the Missionaries, and people like them, are about more than talking. Con-sider this 1994 quote from a Newsweek article about an FBI investigation of Trewhella: "This Christmas, I want you to do the most loving thing," he told a crowd of ultraconservatives in his home state. "I want you to buy each of your children an SKS rifle and 500 rounds of ammunition."
Or consider this report from the Independent Weekly newspaper, in North Carolina. Trewhella, the featured speaker at the White Rose Banquet in 2001, told the crowd that, "Hate is good." Then he related an anecdote about how one of his sons (he has nine children) reacted to a group of people swearing at a McDonald's: "[The boy] replied, 'We're from Mercy Seat Christian Church, and if you [continue swearing] we'll hunt you down and shoot you.' He then went out to the family car and returned with an armful of toy guns."
The White Rose Banquet is a celebration of fanatics who've committed violent acts against abortion clinics. In 2001, the organizers lauded convicted arsonist Rev. Michael Bray, giving him a recognition plaque and a gasoline can.
Trewhella's group looks docile. But their public face hides rage and righteous indignation, which, when combined with a sense of persecution, lends them an astonishing ability to justify their means, no matter how reprehensible. "My heart leaps for joy every time I see an abortionist popped," Holman told me.
The local chapter of the National Organization for Women was concerned enough to send three observers to the protest. When two of the three followed the group to a church afterward, Holman flew into a rage and pinned them behind the door of their van as they were trying to get out. Other Missionaries surrounded the van, and the NOW reps called the cops. Just another day on the front line.