Will Scott Roeder's Conviction Make Him A Martyr?

Scott Roeder has been convicted of killing George Tiller — but will his trial and sentencing deter or inspire would-be antiabortion terrorists? If you listen to Randall Terry, it may be the latter.

Roxana Hegeman and David Crary of the AP quote one Roeder supporter who says those who believe Tiller's murder was justified "are getting tired of being treated as a 'piece of dirt' unable to express the reasons for such acts in court." And Katherine Spillar of the Feminist Majority Foundation says, "Many of those who came here in his support will be key to making (Roeder) a martyr for their cause - all in furtherance of advocating deadly violence." Rev. Donald Spitz, manager of the extremist anti-abortion Army of God website, concurs, arguing that downturn in violence after the execution of anti-abortion murderer Paul Hill won't happen this time. "Times change," he told the AP. "People are not as passive as they have been. They are more assertive."

Slate's Emily Bazelon argues that the problem with his murder trial was not giving Roeder's views too little respect, but too much. She suggests that Judge Warren Wilbert's decision to allow Roeder to present a voluntary manslaughter defense may have been colored by his own anti-abortion views — he once paid to have his name appear in an ad for Kansans for Life. Bazelon writes,

[E]ven if Roeder is sentenced to life, as other murderers of abortion doctors have been, this time the defendant got to calmly put abortion on the stand, and with the imprimatur of the court argue that he acted in the honest belief that he had no choice. Abortion providers already have plenty of reason to worry about their safety, as sociologist Carole Joffe details in her instructive and memorable new book, Dispatches from the Abortion Wars. They didn't need this boost for the vigilantes.

To see how Roeder's trial has already boosted antiabortion groups, at least rhetorically, we need look no further than Randall Terry, he of the Nancy Pelosi effigies and death panel "reenactments." In a message to followers sent during the trial, he wrote,

The vast majority of the pro-life movement is committed to the rule of law, with a firm commitment to end child-killing by peaceful, legal means. 37 years of tireless political efforts to defend unborn babies proves this. In this trial, that commitment remains.

But there is another law – the Law of Blood – written by our Maker. It is etched in the heart of man and the laws of nature, and we cannot escape its reality or consequences.

When the rule of law and the Law of Blood clash, such as in George Tiller's death, we must not pretend that there is no connection between Mr. Tiller's shedding of innocent blood and Scott Roeder's act of violence against him. There is sowing; there is reaping.

The language of reaping has become a common theme in defenses of Roeder, and the fact that a certain subset of anti-abortion zealots have rallied around him throughout the trial is terrifying. But obviously no one would suggest letting Roeder go free just so as not to make him a martyr, and it's not entirely clear how pro-choice groups should respond, if at all, to statements like Terry's. Pandagon's Amanda Marcotte takes two tacks, one more effective than the other. Of Terry's letter, she writes, "These kinds of appeals are perfectly pitched to attract hostile losers who crave some sort of escape from themselves. Their life is boring, they are mediocre, and they will never be anyone of note." This sounds much like the language Gavin de Becker recommends in The Gift of Fear for describing stalkers and assassins. To deter copycats, de Becker argues, we should talk about such criminals not as glamorous, exciting maniacs, but as losers, people no one would want to emulate. But of anti-abortion extremists, Marcotte also says,

[M]ost of them are cowards. Even as they wink-wink encourage each other to commit violence, most of them are pretty unwilling to risk their own freedom to do so.

It's almost certainly true that most who have spoken in support of Roeder's crime wouldn't commit murder themselves. But Marcotte's allegation that anti-choice zealots are "cowards" seems all too easy to interpret as a challenge. And while the pro-choice movement should never allow terrorists to muzzle it, we also need to be aware that we are speaking not only to our allies, but to our opponents. If we craft our message wisely, we may be able to discourage at least some vigilantes, and help protect the men and women who safeguard our reproductive rights despite great obstacles.

Conviction Angers Anti-Abortion Militants [AP, via Brattleboro Reformer]
Roeder Found Guilty; Now What? [Pandagon]
Murder He Wrote [Slate]