On George Tiller And The Profound Power of Language

Although Edward Bulwer-Lytton coined "The pen is mightier than the sword" in 1839, the idea that language has more power to compel human action has been around at least as early as the Bible was written: the book Scott Roeder probably believes gave him the right to murder George Tiller.

It's a lesson we, as a species, learn and unlearn seemingly daily. We eschew traditional interrogation techniques in lieu of physical torture, believing the latter more effective, even as we run PR campaigns and write ad copy to convince our own people of the justification for war and of their supposed desire to enlist in the military to fight it. We mock and condemn the notion that Islamic jihadists believe there is a special reward awaiting them in the afterlife (how many virgins can a man really need?) for their supposed martyrdom as we eulogize our own service members and victims of terrorist attacks with talk of their special places in heaven. We learn about propaganda and yellow journalism and bitch about media bias as we increasingly consume media that agrees with and reinforces opinions we think we had before we began gorging ourselves. Entire professions and industries spring up dedicated to the cause of using language to convince millions (if not billions) of people to do things they wouldn't already do — but this product! vote for this candidate! believe in this cause! — and yet we all continue to believe our thoughts and actions are unique, unpolluted snowflakes.

Language is powerful because it is how we order our thoughts. Who among us really thinks in abstract concepts? But it is also a complex game of Telephone, in which messages are relayed, misinterpreted, misapplied, misrepresented and misunderstood. The use of language is fundamentally imperfect because one's listeners are always hearing it through individual filters.

Scott Roeder, who is being charged in the brutal murder of Dr. George Tiller, is obviously a deeply flawed person, but he is not alone in either his apparent beliefs or his willingness to break one of the most fundamental taboos of human society — killing other humans — in service to a political cause. For instance:

As news of Roeder's arrest traveled, Kansas City activist Regina Dinwiddie remembered the day a dozen years ago when Roeder hugged her in glee after trying to frighten an abortion provider by staring him down inside a Planned Parenthood clinic.

"He grabbed me and said, 'I've read the Defensive Action Statement and I love what you're doing,' " Dinwiddie said in a telephone interview. She was a signer of the 1990s statement, which declares that the use of force is justified.

"I said, 'You need to get out of here. You can get in a lot of trouble,' " Dinwiddie recalled.

Dinwiddie said she does not consider death of Tiller, the nation's most prominent provider of controversial late-term abortions, to be a homicide.

"I don't think he was murdered. I believe he was absolutely stopped in his tracks and it was long overdue," Dinwiddie said. She declined to say when she last spoke with Roeder.

But Dinwiddie isn't the only associate of Roeder's who reinforced his apparent position on violence against abortion providers.

Roeder also was a subscriber to Prayer and Action News, a magazine that advocated the justifiable homicide position, said publisher Dave Leach, an anti-abortion activist from Des Moines, Iowa.

"I met him once, and he wrote to me a few times," Leach said. "I remember that he was sympathetic to our cause, but I don't remember any details."

Leach said he met Roeder in Topeka when he went there to visit Shelley Shannon, who was in prison for the 1993 shooting of Tiller.

Or there's this quote, from Operation Rescue Founder Randall Terry:

George Tiller was a mass-murderer. We grieve for him that he did not have time to properly prepare his soul to face God. I am more concerned that the Obama Administration will use Tiller's killing to intimidate pro-lifers into surrendering our most effective rhetoric and actions. Abortion is still murder. And we still must call abortion by its proper name; murder. Those men and women who slaughter the unborn are murderers according to the Law of God.

Even in rhetorically condemning Tiller's murder, some supposedly mainstream anti-abortion groups can't stop themselves when it comes to their own rhetoric (or self-interest).

The Kansas Coalition for Life Unequivocally Condemns the Shooting of Abortionist George Tiller.

Although at the time of this writing, it is not known who killed Abortionist Tiller, we do know for certain that this crime was NOT the work of any true proLife person. A true proLife person respects human life as a gift from God, and leaves all life and death decisions to God Himself.

This killing — if it is in any way connected to a genuine proLife group, has the potential to set back the proLife movement by 20 years or more.

One can even look to Fox News' Bill O'Reilly for examples of rhetoric calling Tiller a murderer himself, which are too numerous to list.

Calling abortion the murder of unborn children or referring to people who perform abortions or who are politically pro-choice as infanticide-perpetrators is a time-worn tactic of the movement to make abortion illegal in this country. It was a deliberate choice on the part of the anti-abortion movement, stemming from a growing public relations problem with referring to women that way.

These illegal tactics — denounced by many peaceful antiabortion activists — multiplied in the 1980s, as the broader movement shifted away from pressuring the women who were having abortions to the medical personnel providing them, according to Carole Joffe, a sociology professor at UC Davis.

The shift in emphasis was a smart public relations move for those who oppose abortion, casting women as victims while exploiting public uneasiness over doctors who performed the procedure. Those public sentiments stemmed, in part, from the existence of ethically sketchy, "back-alley" abortion providers in the era before the Supreme Court's 1973 ruling that legalized abortion, Roe vs. Wade.

It's a deliberate use of language to demonize a group of people that, for some, will inevitably translate to the demonization and dehumanization of individuals like George Tiller.

For many years, George Tiller was made the face of the small population of abortion-providers by the anti-abortion movement in part because he was openly willing to provide second- and third-trimester abortions to women who needed them, and because he wasn't willing to back down (or leave Kansas, where he was born and raised). His clinic was bombed in 1986; blockaded for a month in 1991; and he was shot twice by another anti-abortion (but not "pro-life") zealot in 1993. More recently, he was subject to judicial harassment by the state of Kansas, being hauled before 2 citizen-convened grad juries, charged with misdemeanors and finally acquitted. But not six weeks after his acquittal, his clinic was vandalized yet again, as if the anti-abortion movement was saying, "If we can't win in court, we intend to win regardless." Few, if any, of the right-wing groups now rightfully decrying his murder spoke out against the vandalism, and the clinic asked the FBI to take a more active role in the investigation, rightly fearing more violence to come.

And now it's come, from a fellow Kansan named Scott Roeder, whose ex-wife says he sought martyrdom. A former colleague in the anti-government militia movement says — who was arrested with and convicted of having bomb-making materials but whose conviction was overturned on appeal — Roeder was more obsessed with abortion than anything else. He reportedly posted on Operation Rescue's site about tracking down Tiller at his church two years ago — a kind of (legal, First Amendment-protected) harassment Operation Rescue and other anti-abortion groups regularly condoned as part of their campaigns to intimidate medical providers out of the mission of providing reproductive health services.

Dr. Warren Hern, who is one of an even smaller group of doctors providing second- and third-trimester abortions to women that need them, says that the harassment is deliberate and pervasive — and that physical violence is the obvious end result of all the violent rhetoric aimed at providers.

"Every doctor that does abortions has been under an assassination threat for decades," Hern said. "The anti-abortion movement message is, ‘Do what we tell you to do or we will kill you,' and they do. This is a fascist movement."

Hern laid blame for Tiller's death at the feet of the anti-abortion movement's encouragement of violence against abortion providers and the Republican Party's "exploitation" of the extremist rhetoric.

"Dr. Tiller is dead by an anti-abortion assassin, and this is the absolutely inevitable consequence of 35 years of anti-abortion fanatic rhetoric and intimidation and assassination violence and exploitation by the Republican Party of this movement," Hern told the Independent.

Hern isn't one to mince words any more than the people who — on a daily basis — threaten him with assassination.

Words matter, and actions matter. Scott Roeder was reportedly inspired by people who think homicide in the pursuit of political goals is justified. In this, they feel backed up not just by Biblical writings, or Hammurabi's Code but by the actions of our government. Our government regularly executes people who it deems have committed crimes too heinous for society to endure — which is the rhetoric anti-abortion groups regularly use to oppose abortion. Our government executes wars with countries to unseat dictators for the supposed greater good and at no small cost to individuals' lives.
Every day, we're bombarded not by "Thou shalt not kill," but by the message, "Thou shalt not kill unless" — and there's no firm consensus on what "unless" entails. In the absence of that consensus, in the midst of that grey area in which societal justification meets individual circumstance meets human frailty and the easily-led, what we too easily find is the darkness of the human mind and what inhumanity humans are capable of when exhorted not by the barrel of a gun but by the power of words.

To hearken back to the Bible, it was words that led Abraham to the point of killing Isaac; that ordered the slaughter of Jewish boys in Moses' Egypt and then again in Herod's Israel; that exhorted the crowd against Jesus (and in favor of Barabbas) in Pilate's Jerusalem. Words have ever exhorted people to war — some considered more justified than others — and rarely stopped anyone from starting one. The Rwandan genocide was touched off by a radio broadcast; the rise of Nazism in Germany began like any other political campaign — with speeches and soaring rhetoric — and ended in the Holocaust euphemistically entitled "The Final Solution," to make its evil more palatable. The same hysterical, overwrought, violence-filled and justification-laden rhetoric that fires up a crowd outside a clinic to pray and scream and harass in order to supposedly effect judicial and legislative changes will cause - and has caused - some individuals to think that their violence is justified in achieving the ends (no more abortion) promised by a political movement that has, to them, frustratingly failed to deliver.

Suspect Held in Kansas Abortion Doctor's Slaying [Washington Post]
Far-Right Subtly Celebrates Tiller Murder [Talking Points Memo]
Suspect in Tiller's Death Supported Killing Abortion Providers, Friends Say [McClatchy]
Statements on George Tiller's Death [Witchita Eagle]
O'Reilly's Campaign Against Murdered Doctor [Salon]
A History of Violence on the Antiabortion Fringe [LA Times]
Slain Abortion Doctor George Tiller's Work Made Him a Target for Years [NY Daily News]
Ex-Wife: Murder Suspect An Aspiring Martyr [CBS News]
Suspect Jailed in Kansas Abortion Doctor's Killing [Associated Press]
The Anti-Abortion Campaign Against Dr. George Tiller [Rolling Stone]
Late-Term Abortion Doctor Decries Tiller Killing: ‘This Is a Fascist Movement' [Colorado Independent]

Related: The Pen Is Mightier Than The Sword [Wikipedia]
Abortion Provider Must Turn Over Files [LA Times]
George Tiller, Kansas Doctor, Acquitted In Late-Term Abortion Case [Huffington Post]
Tiller's Wichita Clinic Vandalized [Feminist Majority Foundation]
Wichita Clinic Vandalized [Feminist Majority Foundation]
Right-Wing Reactions to Tiller Murder [Time]
Scott Roeder on Operation Rescue's Site [Democratic Underground]
Pray in May to Stop Abortion, Wichita, KS, May 17-20, 2007 [Operation Rescue (cached)]

Earlier: Obama The Baby Killer?