I have followed news coverage with personal and professional interest. Days before the firebombing, Governor JB Pritzker had signed a law protecting Illinois abortion care providers. The National Abortion Federation reported that invasions and assaults on abortion clinics increased by approximately 130% in 2021, and the reversal of Roe vs. Wade last summer forced many clinics to close and cast negative attention on those that remained open.
In short, I was pretty sure I could guess what kind of suspect we were looking for, and I expected to see the Peoria firebombing case culminate with the the arrest of a person wearing an “Abortion is the American Holocaust” crew neck and candidly explaining how they did it to save the babies.
But also, I am from the. Peoria is 40 minutes from my hometown, a straight shot west on Interstate 74. This particular Planned Parenthood is where high school girls in my town would go if they needed birth control and didn’t want only people in a hurry to report them if they were spotted at the local clinic. The area is a mix of insurance enthusiasts (State Farm), academics (Rivian), academics (go Redbirds!) and farmers (go corn!), which is to say that we we’re about as likely as anywhere else to produce a crusader who believes he’s saving lives by throwing molotov cocktails.
On Wednesday, the Justice Department announced that an arrest had been made. Tyler W. Massengill, 32, was charged with “maliciously damaging and destroying, and attempting to damage and destroy, by means of fire and explosive, a building used in interstate commerce” , according to a DOJ criminal complaint. The accompanying press release emphasized that criminal complaints are charges, not convictions – we’re still in “alleged” territory here – but it also said the alleged perpetrator confessed to the crime.
According to the DOJ, Massengill told investigators that three years ago his Peoria-based girlfriend became pregnant – and informed him that she intended to terminate the pregnancy, which upset. On or about January 15, the day of the fire, Massengill heard something that “reminded him of abortion, upsetting him again,” the complaint reads. Then: the laundry detergent, the complete ignorance that a place like Planned Parenthood might have security cameras (the culprit has been documented from multiple angles), the hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage. According to the complaint, he told investigators that if his actions had caused even “a little delay” in patients receiving services at that clinic, then his actions might have been “worth it.”
Listen, there may be a lot more to this story, which may or may not come to light in a possible trial. But what I couldn’t help but notice was this: the alleged arsonist didn’t seem to be engaging in any baby-saving rhetoric, Isaiah 44:2. There is nothing so far about Governor Pritzker, or state-level abortion legislation, or any personal commitment to anti-abortion activism, or a guiding moral theory on when life begins.
On the contrary, the story told in the complaint goes something like this: a guy once had a girlfriend who didn’t want to have her baby, and it bothered him so much three years later that he reportedly set out, in a comically distinctive Dodge Hooptie with a white body and bright red doors, to make sure that other women could not make the same decision as her. Or if they did, they might at least run into “a bit of a delay.”
For one thing, he’s not the kind of guy I expected to be arrested for this particular crime. On the other hand, this would-be vandal seems to have said the quiet part loud and clear, right?
Some anti-abortion activists may operate from deeply held beliefs about right and wrong, guided by their faith or forged by wrestling with their own philosophical codes. And some of them… may really not like it when it’s women who decide to carry a pregnancy to term. When a woman makes a decision with her body that is different from the decision he would have made for her. When a woman has a choice.
I will be thinking of Peoria the next time a state legislator tries to introduce legislation preventing women from crossing state lines to access an abortion. So much for “It should be a matter of state” – this legislator just doesn’t like women to choose.
I’m going to think of Peoria every time an expert does mental backflips of why fertilized eggs are just eggs when they’re in an IVF petri dish, but babies when they’re in the womb. a woman. (So much for “life begins when sperm meets egg” – this specialist just doesn’t like women choosing.)
I will think of Peoria the next time I recall an assembly I once attended at my beautiful Midwestern high school not far away where the speaker encouraged girls to take pledges of chastity, lest they look like chew-and-spit gum.
It’s about choosing the women. It’s always about that. At the root of so much of this discussion is the discomfort with women’s choice and the efforts of some people to claim that choice.