Americans United’s field director, Beth Corbin, called me on my cell phone minutes after the news was reported that Dr. George Tiller had been assassinated while serving as an usher at Reformation Lutheran Church, the church in Wichita that he attended most Sundays.
I pulled the car over, and we talked about the terrible tragedy this represented for his family, his friends and his patients. I had met Dr. Tiller just once, but he seemed to be unstintingly dedicated to both his patients’ choices and the preservation of the constitutional basis for guaranteeing that those intimate moral choices could be made by individuals, not by legislatures and sectarian lobbying groups.
I returned home and scoured the internet for information. I was struck by how many accounts referred to the murder of an “abortion doctor.” It would have been more accurate to call Tiller a “doctor who performs abortions,” a nod to the idea that he was a physician who met specific needs that his patients had.
Within hours, Scott Roeder was arrested for the crime. Although some at the church had seen him around the area previously, Roeder was not a “leader” of any “right-to-life” group locally or nationally. He did only occasional postings on right-wing Web sites.
I was curious about the response of the anti-choice movement. Most groups issued denials of any connection to Roeder and wailed about how a “pro-life” movement could never take a life, even the life of the provider of abortions. Frankly, I thought those denials and denunciations rang a little hollow because the rhetoric used by most of those groups is so demonizing to “pro-choice” advocates and is filled with statements that refer to abortion as morally indistinguishable from murder.
Over the next few days, some of the most visible anti-choice activists stopped even the semblance of distancing themselves from the crime. Randall Terry, the founder of Operation Rescue, held a press event in Washington within 24 hours of the killing during which he insisted that he would never stop using language that he felt was accurate.
“George Tiller was a mass murderer,” Terry said. “We grieve for him that he did not have time to properly prepare his soul to face God.” That was clearly the only reason for his “grief.” Not to be outdone, Pastor Wiley Drake (the same clergyman who has been praying “imprecatory prayers” for my demise for over a decade) asserted directly on his daily radio show: “I am glad George Tiller is dead,” referring to Tiller as a “brutal, murdering monster” who was “far greater in his atrocities than Adolf Hitler.”
When talk show host Alan Colmes asked Drake a few days later whether he prayed for Tiller’s murder, Drake “clarified” that he prayed that God get rid of him in some way. (Incredibly, Drake then announced that he was also praying daily for the death of President Barack Obama.)
Those of us who support the First Amendment vigorously, including the provision of freedom of speech, do so because we understand that words do matter, do have meaning and power and influence. This is all the more reason to choose our words carefully.
I made this point to the annual convention of the American Humanist Association in June when I was honored to receive its Religious Liberty Award. I noted Drake’s claim that prayer had done in Dr. Tiller, remarking, “No, Pastor Drake, it was not prayers that killed him; it was a man who listened to the rantings of people like you who provided him with the amoral framework to justify his actions.”
Many Religious Right groups had been highly offended several months back when the Department of Homeland Security issued a memo suggesting that law enforcement agencies needed to be concerned about domestic, as well as foreign, “terrorism” and specifically noted that persons allied with the anti-choice and anti-immigrant movements could be in that category.
About a week after Tiller’s shooting, Roeder called the Associated Press from his jail cell and told them there was a “plan” to have other people do what he did. If there is a plan or –; given the possible lack of veracity with which Roeder speaks –; even might be a plan, this seems like a pretty concrete thing to investigate in the “anti-choice” world.
This doesn’t mean that every leader of an anti-abortion group should be hauled into the nearest FBI office for interrogation. It doesn’t mean that government infiltrators have to head to every rally against reproductive freedom. It just means that prudent investigative steps need to be taken.
Just one day after I expressed sentiments like these on my Beliefnet.com blog, an 88-year-old man long associated with anti-Semitic hate groups walked into the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington firing a weapon, killing a security guard before being shot himself by other security personnel. He had told people that he blamed the Jews for electing Obama, also claiming that Jews were not “God’s Chosen.” Presumably, he thought he was a person in that elite category.
Those of us who support church-state separation, diversity and reproductive freedom have many opponents. I support their right to speak out against our views. But violence is never acceptable. Anyone who engages in it must expect to face the full force of the law.
Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.