Orcinus, May 31, 2009
I arrived in DC for the America’s Future Now! conference, kicked back in my hotel room, and was greeted with the news that Dr. George Tiller — the Kansas gynecologist who has endured shootings, state investigations, public harassment, and more death threats than any thousand of us together can imagine in 20 years of standing up to that state’s anti-abortion thugs — was shot to death in his own Lutheran church this morning.
I don’t have a lot of time to think through an elaborate post on this (I’m leading a panel with Tom Frank, Rick Perlstein, and James Rucker that will be televised in full on C-SPAN tomorrow), but there are several quick things that spring to mind.
1. Tiller was one of the great heroes in the fight for a woman’s right to choose safe, legal abortion. Late-term abortions are a terrible business for everyone concerned. Despite anti-abortion distortions to the contrary, they are very rare — and almost never chosen for anything but the most heartbreaking of reasons, usually having to do with the life of the mother or the viability of the fetus. It’s a life-changing choice for everyone concerned, and not one anybody takes lightly.
By all accounts, Tiller dealt with these horrific situations with dignity, compassion, and grace, helping women and their families deal with the loss and grief that always come with being faced with such a traumatic decision. He didn’t just tend to their physical condition; he tended to their psychological and spiritual well-being, too. Most of us will be backed into life-or-death corners regarding serious medical conditions (a family member’s, or our own) at some point in our lives. In those times, we are fortunate when we can find doctors with that kind of ability to understand the nuances, and help us deal with the ambiguities, and come to terms with the hard decisions we must make. Tiller was, according to his patients, one of those doctors.
2. The Terrorists Win. Tiller was one of just three doctors in the entire US who performed late-term abortions. Now, there are just two. Which means that 36 years of anti-choice terrorism is now just two assassinations away from completely ending late-term abortion in America. Violence has won out — over the will of the people, over the courts, over the horrific logic of medical necessity. And whenever terrorists win, democracy has lost — and is lost.
3. Churches. First Knoxville, then this. Sherilyn Ifill once made the point that lynchings typically occurred on courthouse lawns as a symbol that the mob had overridden the authority of the state and taken justice into its own hands. So what does it mean when right-wing terrorists start gunning down progressives in the pews of their own churches? Two events do not a pattern make — but if this keeps happening, it’ll be clear that there’s a message being sent.
As I write this, police have a suspect in custody for Dr. Tiller’s murder. There’s no word yet on who the perpetrator is, or what motivated him; but it’s a pretty sure bet that as the story comes out, he’ll be found to be an anti-abortion True Believer. The fact that this killing happened on the sixth anniversary of Eric Rudolph’s capture bears this out. The date was chosen with a message in mind. It seems very likely that the venue was, too.
I’ve often said that fundamentalism begins the minute you decide you have the One True Right and Only Way — and that you have a God-given duty to impose that way on the rest of the world. Because of this, fundamentalists have never been willing to recognize the legitimacy of other faiths. And certain factions on the far right have never had qualms about vandalizing mosques or synagogues in order to harass Muslims and Jews into political and social silence.
But they used to leave Christian churches pretty much alone. The fact that this shooting occurred in a church (again) suggests that this tactic is now being tried out on more closely related faith groups whose views don’t comport with the fundamentalist party line. As Dave has often pointed out, bringing violence to houses of worship is usually an overtly eliminationist act. They are trying to terrify liberals by making us feel at risk and unsafe inside our own spiritual sanctuaries — the very places we go to feel the most security and peace. This is terrorism, plain and simple — Christian fundamentalist terrorism, committed by people Sam Smith has started referring to as “Jesus’s Jihadis.”
4. I told you so? My mailbox is full of notes from friends pointing out the irony of this happening just days after Andrew Sullivan accused me of being over-the-top and shrill for suggesting that the right wing was moving into a more violent gear — and that in the worst case, this is the kind of thing that brings on civil wars. I’m not entirely sure that’s warranted. I was specifically worried about anti-gay violence in the wake of Prop 8 being overturned in the California Supreme Court, which didn’t happen. But the larger point I’ve been writing about for the past few weeks now — about the increased agitation we’re seeing on the right, and the likelihood that we’re in for a long, hot summer of this kind of acting-out — is definitely borne out here.
I don’t like being right about this kind of thing, but yeah, I did tell you so — though not so much here as here.
5. Then, they fight you. Gandhi famously said: First, they ignore you. Then, they ridicule you. Then, they fight you. Then, you win.
I think the ridicule part is over, and the fighting part has started in earnest. And this is not (as many of us seemed to hope) going to be a metaphorical fight, but a real one — with guns and bombs and death involved. The fact is: In America, whatever liberties we win and keep have all been bought in blood, and that’s a historical truth that we are not going to get past any time soon.
In the meantime, our deepest condolences to Dr. Tiller’s family and employees. If you want to put your money where your heart is, find your local Planned Parenthood clinic’s website, and drop them a few bucks. Without George Tiller around, we’re down one hero on our side — and are going to need to give that much more support to everybody who’s still around carrying on the work.