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Unleashing the unhinged

Though we do not know everything about Robert Lewis Dear, the alleged killer in the Colorado Planned Parenthood shooting, it's probably safe to say he's not a transgender liberal.

Though we do not know everything about Robert Lewis Dear, the alleged killer in the Colorado Planned Parenthood shooting, it's probably safe to say he's not a transgender liberal.

Ted Cruz, however, isn't so sure. "The media promptly wants to blame him on the pro-life movement when at this point there's very little evidence to indicate that," the Republican presidential candidate said in Iowa on Sunday afternoon.

Um, but what about the law enforcement official telling the Washington Post and others that Dear (who distributed anti-Obama pamphlets, according to a neighbor) explained the shooting by saying "no more baby parts"?

"It's also reported that he was registered as an independent and as a woman and a transgendered leftist activist," Cruz countered, apparently referring to a voter list identifying him as female. "If that's what he is, I don't think it's fair to blame on the rhetoric on the left. This is a murderer."

In one sense, I agree with Cruz. The antiabortion movement did not kill those three people in Colorado Springs. But it's a different matter to ask whether the often-violent imagery used by conservative leaders on abortion is unwittingly giving the unhinged some perverse sense of justification to contemplate the unspeakable.

Just days before the shooting, Cruz trumpeted an endorsement from an antiabortion activist who once called killing an abortion doctor a "justifiable defensive action" and who leads a group, Operation Rescue, where a colleague did prison time for a conspiracy to bomb an abortion clinic.

The activist whose endorsement Cruz celebrated, Troy Newman, is also on the board of the Center for Medical Progress, which made the surreptitious Planned Parenthood videos that prompted Cruz and many other conservatives to accuse the organization of selling "baby parts" - the phrase Dear allegedly used. The videos, including footage from a Planned Parenthood in Denver, not far from Colorado Springs, were followed by a wave of threats and smaller attacks on the organization's facilities.

There will always be the irrational and the unstable. But when political leaders turn disagreements into all-out war, demonize opponents as enemies, and accuse those on the other side of being subhuman killers, the unbalanced can hear messages that were never intended.

Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, who has flirted with the idea of using federal troops to block access to abortion, dismissed the Supreme Court's authority and said that we should "protect children instead of rip up their body parts and sell them like they're parts to a Buick."

Rival Carly Fiorina said, incorrectly, that the Planned Parenthood videos showed "a fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking, while someone says, 'We have to keep it alive to harvest its brain.' "

Gov. Christie talked of "the systematic murder of children in the womb to preserve their body parts," while Marco Rubio asked on Twitter: "Where is all the outrage over the Planned Parenthood dead babies?"

Leading conservative commentators Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity, and Rush Limbaugh have likened Planned Parenthood practices to those of the Nazis, and Emily's List, an abortion-rights political group, has tracked violent or apocalyptic images served up by presidential candidates: Rand Paul said he doesn't think "civilization can long endure" with abortion rights; Ben Carson likened those who have abortions to slave owners; Huckabee talked about the "holocaust" of abortion and compared the morality of Planned Parenthood to that of the Islamic State; and Rubio spoke of people being "pushed into abortions so that those tissues can be harvested and sold for a profit."

After the Colorado shooting, Donald Trump condemned the killing but, asked by NBC's Chuck Todd if he could "understand why people might react this way" to the Planned Parenthood videos, replied: "Well, there's tremendous - there's tremendous dislike, I can say that."

And of course there's Cruz, who said Planned Parenthood committed "multiple felonies" and who recently signed a letter with other GOP lawmakers saying (falsely) that Margaret Sanger, a founder of the group that became Planned Parenthood, sought the "extermination" of black people.

Newman, the Operation Rescue official whose endorsement Cruz touted, has called women who have abortions "murderesses." He said societal responsibility "rightly involves executing convicted murderers, including abortionists, for their crimes in order to expunge bloodguilt from the land."

Newman and his organization say they are peaceful and law-abiding. That may be so. But in an environment where such a man and message are embraced by a top-tier presidential candidate, we shouldn't be surprised if people with a few screws loose get other ideas.

Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist.@Milbank