This column was originally published on June 9, 2009:
A few months back, libertarians, militia supporters and other vilifiers of government got all heated up about a report that some minor functionary in the Missouri Highway Patrol compiled as a primer on militias and the mayhem their followers might cause.
People went batty. They made it sound as if anyone who found the tax code a bit unfair or who had voted for Ron Paul could be taken into custody at any moment.
Last week in Kansas, Scott Roeder was charged with first-degree murder in the shooting death of Wichita abortion doctor George Tiller. Roeder once belonged to the militia group the Freemen. He had declared himself a “sovereign citizen” and therefore didn’t believe he had to pay taxes.
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He’d been arrested in the 1990s with explosive devices in his car, and he was rabidly focused on abortion. In other words, Roeder ticks all the boxes mentioned in the Missouri report. Apologies anyone? After all, heads rolled in the backlash against the report. In truth, it never said that anyone who had these associations, including third-party political candidates, was a certain threat. It simply made the accurate point that militia members who held such beliefs had indeed caused violence.
What is unknown now is whether Roeder is simply a mentally ill man who could have turned violent on behalf of any number of causes. Family members have said Roeder was diagnosed with schizophrenia but refused treatment.
Just as we know little about Roeder’s true motivations, so too with George Tiller. A fiercely private man, Tiller is largely a blank screen upon which pundits and commentators on both the left and right have projected their views of the abortion issue. Not long after news of the murder hit the Internet, liberal bloggers had assembled a video montage of Bill O’Reilly repeating “Tiller the Killer” on various broadcasts, along with other choice bits of blood-curdling vituperation. The point was to demonstrate that O’Reilly, by endlessly calling Tiller a killer, was culpable for inspiring Roeder’s act of murder. I hate to be in the position of defending O’Reilly, but what he is guilty of is the lesser charge of propagating ignorance on an important issue.
On the other end are those who lionize Tiller as a defender of the rights and health of women, a great humanitarian. They offered heart-rending stories of women carrying abnormally formed babies expected to die at birth. Tiller’s clinic, one of three in the country willing to perform late-term abortions, offered a resolution.
Lesser-known anecdotes reveal a less saintly character. Tiller was known to scream, “Too bad your mother’s abortion failed, “ to the founder of Operation Rescue, the group that hounded him through the years. In 1993, Tiller was flipping off a demonstrator, believing she was about to hand him anti-abortion literature, when she was seconds from shooting him in both arms. He was a recovering drug and alcohol abuser.
More importantly, what do we know about his practice? Did he specialize in late-term abortions out of heroic concern to save the lives of mothers and dispatch hopeless cases? Or did he only wish to defiantly build his reputation? As Roeder’s case is tried, we have an opportunity to learn more about -- and reflect upon -- both his life and his victim’s, and that may help us all reach new insights into abortion and reproductive policy. I am opposed to abortion. I believe it is the taking of a human life, unjustifiable under any circumstances except for saving the life of the mother. But to call it murder is an oversimplification. The abortion issue is far more complicated than the shrieking tones of cable television or demonstrator and counterdemonstrator. We’ve lost our ability to talk about it in ways that are intelligible to both sides. And without dialogue, a vacuum exists that just might lure those prone to more violence.
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