The e-mail from an Olathe, Kan., woman was chilling. Received by newspapers the day after Kansas abortion-clinic doctor George Tiller was shot to death at his church, it said: "Cry for this man? Are you kidding? If you believe in evil, this man's middle name was George 'Satan' Tiller. That he was shot and killed in church tells me that God was OK with his demise."
Rhetoric that hot can birth murder. Yet, even statements issued by antiabortion activists to deplore Tiller's death Sunday barely dialed down the heat. "Today a mass murderer was killed by another murderer," said one missive from Columbia Christians for Life. "George Tiller was a bloodthirsty murderer," said another.
Such remarks typify the environment President Obama talked about in his recent commencement address at the University of Notre Dame. He asked both sides in the abortion debate to try harder to find common ground. Tiller's death exactly two weeks later is the worst kind of reminder of just how hard that will be.
It wasn't the first time Tiller was assaulted for his work. His clinic in Wichita, one of only three in the nation where abortions are performed after the 21st week of pregnancy, has long been a lightning rod. There have been 1,846 consecutive days of antiabortion protests outside the clinic. It was bombed in 1986. Tiller was shot in both arms in 1993.
Tiller persisted, he said, because women deserved a choice when technology had revealed severe fetal abnormalities in the womb. Just two months ago, he was acquitted of charges that he broke state law by not getting a second medical opinion before performing late-term abortions.
Tiller's name also figured in the confirmation of new Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. As Kansas governor, she had vetoed bills specifically aimed at shutting down Tiller's clinic by requiring him to disclose more patient information. Antiabortion groups had pointed out donations Tiller made to a Democratic political action committee founded by Sebelius.
Now, one must wonder if Tiller's murder signals a return to the violence that had abated while an antiabortion president, George W. Bush, was in office.
Americans United for Life condemned Tiller's murder. Operation Rescue said, "We denounce vigilantism and the cowardly act that took place." But others are gloating. For them, the struggle over abortion isn't a debate; it's a war. How they can proclaim to be "pro-life" while justifying a murder is unfathomable. Common ground will never be their goal.