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The noxious climate

Domestic terrorism and the anti-abortion movement

Anti-abortion groups insist they are shocked, shocked about the vigilante murder of Kansas doctor George Tiller. They pluck the chords of remorse and condemn the very idea that such a heinous act could ever happen in America. Religious right leader Tony Perkins, for instance, declares that "we pray and look forward to the end of all violence...we pray for the Tiller family," and even the militant Operation Rescue group denounces what it calls the "vigilantism and cowardly act" that occurred on Sunday morning, when the doctor was slain while serving as an usher in his Wichita church.

Cry me a river. Spare me the phony piety. The hypocrisy of these people is so thick that you need a sledgehammer just to dent it.

For decades, they demonized the now-departed doctor as "George 'The Killer' Tiller"; as "George 'The Baby Killer' Tiller" (a favorite epithet repeatedly employed by Bill O' Reilly on Fox News): as the American heartland version of Mao or Hitler or Stalin; as a common murderer in the eyes of God. They created the noxious climate for domestic terrorism, whereby some loser could take it upon himself to act as jury, judge, and executioner.

And now they've reaped the whirlwind. Sure enough, the captured suspect in the Tiller case turns out to be a right-wing extremist who reportedly believes in the doctrine of justifiable homicide, and who in the past has allied himself with a fringe movement (the "Freemen") that deems itself exempt from American laws, regulations, and taxes.

I'll certainly stipulate that most anti-abortion activists are peaceful; however, they rarely denounced the harsh rhetoric that was routinely directed at the murder victim. Tiller was regularly maligned by mainstream anti-abortion groups as an "executioner," somebody who "routinely killed the babies of women." And the message was dutifully amplified by O'Reilly, who used his Fox megaphone to warn that anybody refusing to "stop" Tiller would have "blood on their hands." (This climate, of course, has been nurtured for years. Tiller is the fourth slain doctor. He was shot in both arms in 1994 by a woman who vocally praised the slaying of a Florida doctor five months earlier. That Florida doctor had been targeted by anti-abortion militants who had put his face and home number on a poster, emblazoned with the word "Wanted.")

Actually, the fatal bullet fired Sunday by suspect Scott Roeder has pierced the heart of the anti-abortion credo. The underlying premise of the movement is that the alleged immorality of abortion is more important than its legality. The movement perceives abortion to be a sin against God (as they interpret sin, as they interpret God), and the rights of those who disagree with them are immaterial. In other words, they didn't care that Tiller was operating within the law, because their concept of the law is more spiritual (as only they define it).

The thing is, we're supposed to be governed by the rule of law. The terrestrial version.

The U.S. Supreme Court decreed 36 years ago that abortion is within the law. Even in Kansas, where first-trimester abortions are within the law, even late-term abortions (when independently OK'd by two consulting doctors) are within the law. After one of Tiller's patients died during an abortion four years ago, a grand jury found that he had acted within the law. After a Kansas attorney general tried to indict him for allegedly illegal late-term abortions, the Kansas Supreme Court found that he had acted within the law. After an anti-abortion group tried to convene a citizen grand jury to target Tiller, a court squashed the effort, finding that Tiller was acting within the law. And this year, after a new state attorney general filed 19 misdemeanor charges against Tiller, a jury acquitted him of all charges, finding that he was acting within the law. The jury's deliberations took all of 45 minutes.

Yet here's what the Family Research Council posted on its website during that misdemeanor trial: "Whatever the outcome of the trial now underway, the fact is that jail is the only appropriate place for 'doctors' who kill children. May George Tiller finally be brought to some semblance of justice!"

Whatever the outcome of the trial...The FRC was not advocating that Tiller be murdered, of course. But it was fueling the extra-legal climate by declaring that its moral judgment on Tiller was more important than whatever a jury of his peers chose to decide.

In the eyes of the law, in case after case, Tiller was no murderer. (Even Bill O'Reilly, during his non-apologia last night, admitted that "what he did was within Kansas law.") But the general climate created by the anti-abortion movement is not about respecting the law and calibrating the rhetoric accordingly. Even now, in the aftermath of Tiller's murder, certain anti-abortion militants prefer to ignore the rule of law and impose their version of the Lord. Hence, we have people like Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry: "Tiller was a mass murderer. We grieve for him that he did not have time to properly prepare his soul to face God."

I doubt that Tiller's widow, four children, and 10 grand-children will appreciate that kind of condolence call.

If the anti-abortion movement's goal is to deter more doctors from performing legal abortions, then Tiller's murder should aid the cause splendidly. But if the movement is motivated primarily by a desire to capture the hearts and minds of swing-voting Americans, this murder may well complicate matters. Killing people in the name of a higher law - indeed, creating the climate to make it more likely - is very bad PR.

A number of anti-abortion groups have already voiced their concerns about the public relations fallout. And we also have this, from an anti-abortion politician: "The tragedy that took place in Kansas clearly violates respect for life. This murder also damages the positive message of life - for the unborn, and for those living. Ask yourself, 'What will those who have not yet decided personally where they stand on this issue take away from (Sunday's) event in Kansas?'"

Finally, some common-sense wisdom from Sarah Palin.