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So let's talk about George Tiller.

I've always had a bit of a philosophical problem condemning anti-abortion violence in the kind of terms that most people do. Not that I have the least bit of sympathy with their views; for whatever it's worth as an atheist male with no children -- that is, as a person who could not possibly have less stake in the issues at hand -- I am completely in favor of safe, legal abortions for anyone, anywhere who wants to have them for any reason, and I think the people committing these crimes are repulsive, horrible, and hypocritical religious fanatics who would be beneath my contempt if they weren't so dangerous.


But unlike a lot of people, I don't automatically condemn political violence. I think that, if a cause is just and legal opposition to it is of limited effectiveness, there is nothing wrong with using violence against those who are normal, law-abiding citizens of a country in order to push a political agenda. To cite two obvious examples, American rebels fought a terribly violent war against their legally appointed British rulers, and the French Resistance frequently used terrorist methods to disrupt and murder the legal Nazi and Vichy governments. Few people today outside of pro-Confederacy extremists think that the U.S. government was not justified in using violence to force the South to end the practice of legal slavery. There are more extreme examples, all of which I support to a greater or lesser degree: the anti-slavery violence of John Brown and other abolitionists; the violent anarchist armies of Russia and Spain in the early 20th century; terrorism against Israel by Palestinians and against South Africa by blacks; violence against the police and military in many countries, and revolutionary violence almost everywhere; and the long history of violent attacks against capital by labor in this country and elsewhere.

Some of you probably would condemn my later examples; most of you would probably support my earlier ones. But few of you probably are complete pacifist; few of you would doubt the notion that there is a greater morality than that of the law, and that there are circumstances under which, if your notion of morality or propriety is pushed beyond what can be borne, you would support direct action against those you perceived as committing egregious offense against those notions. So really, the only difference between the French resister who murders a Nazi officer and the pro-life activist who murders an abortion doctor is that you happen to agree that the Nazi officer deserves killing because he is doing such a bad thing, while you don't happen to agree that the abortion doctor deserves killing because he is doing such a bad thing.

And that's fine! I'm a relativist, after all; while I don't believe that any universal authority can be appealed to that will support my belief in the use of violence against an occupying army but not against an abortion provider, I still think that belief is correct. I won't call anyone a hypocrite for thinking the killing of a pro-apartheid judge is justifiable while the killing of a clinic nurse is offensive, because like everyone else, I hold to a set of moral tenets that I think are correct. I just happen to recognize that those people are thinking the same thing I am, and that they're no more or less right than I am. I think our value systems are locked in a serious struggle, and while I hope mine wins, that's just because I'm rooting for a different outcome than they are; if I give them the benefit of the doubt, if I extend them the courtesy of believing they are acting in good faith, I can condemn their actions without necessarily impugning their motivations. (They wouldn't extend me the same courtesy, of course, but there's not much I can do about that.)

So why do I have such a visceral reaction against things like the killing of George Tiller? I suppose it's because they enjoy a sort of double standard that is not granted to other practitioners of political violence. When the government declares al-Q'aeda and other practitioners of anti-American Islamist violence a terrorist group, we seize their assets; we shut down their charities and media outlets; we arrest as many of them as we can and charge them with whatever we think will stick. But when the advocates of anti-abortion violence -- whose actions cannot be regarded as anything but terroristic -- do the same thing, the government treats it like a string of barely-related events, no matter how organized, no matter how connected. Domestic Islamic terrorism barely exists in this country, and yet it is the subject of intense scrutiny, tight monitoring, and severe proactive law enforcement. Anti-abortion violence, on the other hand, which has cost many more lives, is barely even talked about in law enforcement and government policy. Whenever one of these incidents take place, spokesmen from anti-abortion groups are allowed to go on national television and tut-tut that while they don't necessarily condone the killing, they can certainly understand it, what with the victim being a mass murderer and all. Can you imagine, after a suicide bombing in Times Square, a spokesman for an American Islamist group being allowed on prime time to bitch about how America had it coming? Anti-abortionists are allowed to communicate their messages, finance their groups, and praise their killers without any legal ramifications, something that, say, Islamist, eco-terrorist, or radical leftists groups cannot do. Anti-abortion activists count among their number some of the richest and most influential broadcasters in the country; many have TV shows, radio shows, nationally syndicated columns, and audiences with senators and congressmen. Where are the Islamic fundamentalists in America who are thus indulged? There is much talk of this or that political action or inaction "emboldening" the Mahometan terrorist, but I can guarantee you that nothing emboldens the domestic white anti-abortion terrorist like the utter lack of seriousness with which his crimes are treated.

The French Resistance, the Molly Maguires, the men of Hezbollah -- they may be no more heroic, or even substantially less, than these murdering Christian zealots. But they at least had the good taste to act as if they were doing a dangerous, horrible, and distasteful thing that no one else was willing to do. Their leaders did not go before the public the next day, dressed in their finest TV clothes, and demand to be recognized for the moral beauty and ethical perfection of their actions. They did not behave as if laws meant to prevent their activities were an unfair imposition foisted upon them by muddle-headed bureaucrats. They did not stand around waiting for someone to congratulate them, nor did they act shocked when the forces they opposed instead stood as one to condemn them. If the anti-abortionist killers share with my own favored practitioners of the bloody arts a courageous conviction that their foul deeds were justified by the far greater evils committed by their victims, they diverge by daring to take offense at the very idea anyone might deign to object.

Comments

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tx_cronopio
Jun. 4th, 2009 02:11 am (UTC)
Oh, good God, how refreshing. I have no problems with this at all. When I first saw your LJ cut, I thought you were going to be yet another one of the males on my flist who wanted to pontificate about "well, I'm all for women's rights, but this LATE TERM abortion stuff just because you get tired of being pregnant has to go."

Yes, I've been quite stabbity this week.
drownedinink
Jun. 4th, 2009 02:29 am (UTC)
The problem with comparing your examples to the shooting is that almost all of them took place and take place in societies where the means of democratic representation are largely non-existent or have broken down. Palestine, Vichy France, Ireland at pretty much any point in the early modern era, Israel under the Roman occupation...these were all definitely situations where the aggrieved parties effectively had no options other than violent resistance or wait for liberation, which is not the case in the present-day United States, especially when anti-abortion groups have a powerful voice in government and when the future of legalized abortion in the US isn't as certain as it was just ten years ago.

I'm also in full agreement with slacktivist that the pro-life movement is pretty much a political construction that has no historical reality in the context of mainstream Protestantism and owes its existence to cynical politicians willing to use any issue or any intensity of rhetoric to galvanize loyal voters. For me that also keeps me from placing radical pro-lifers in the same tradition as John Brown.
vito_excalibur
Jun. 4th, 2009 02:35 am (UTC)
Thanks, that's what I wanted to say too. French resisters had no option for fighting Nazi officers other than violence. This is still a representative democracy. We are still under the rule of law here.
drownedinink
Jun. 4th, 2009 04:19 am (UTC)
Exactly, and more than that it's hardly as if anti-abortion opinions are in any sense downtrodden.
fiberpunk
Jun. 4th, 2009 04:42 am (UTC)
The French were under the rule of law too. The law was being set and enforced by people they didn't much like.

As it stands, you need a Constitutional amendment in order to ban abortion. Opponents of abortion have worked on that for decades. Some of them certainly believe that the harm being inflicted by abortion outweighs the harm caused by disobeying the law and ignoring the will of the democratic process.

If America passed a Constitutional amendment to allow for the systematic murder of a particular ethnic group, I would cheer on anyone who took a shot at bureaucrats executing the purge. The only difference between me and abortion opponents is that I think that killing babies is permissible.
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archaica
Jun. 4th, 2009 03:11 am (UTC)
Then again, if you're one of these anti-abortion crazies, the law as it currently stands *represents* the breakdown of society.
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fiberpunk
Jun. 4th, 2009 04:32 am (UTC)
I don't understand what the genesis of the movement has to do with the seriousness with which we consider their political acts; if the French resistance had been started by Fernandel as a ploy to build an audience for "Une Vie de Chien," I think most of us would still cheer them on as they knocked Nazi skulls.

I also don't really see how a vague hope for a change in abortion policy in the next few years provides sufficient solace to the abortion opponent who is distressed by the dozens of murders per week being performed in his or her neighborhood.
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ludickid
Jun. 4th, 2009 11:42 am (UTC)
I'll echo a lot of what fiberpunk says below, if only to play devil's advocate:

- While I think there is at least a slight functional (if not theoretical, which is the basis of my post) difference between anti-abortion forces in democratic America and the other groups I cited, it scarcely makes any practical difference to them as long as the practice continues. Blacks and gays and a lot of other minority groups had to suffer a hell of a lot despite living in an established democracy, because they couldn't get the numbers on their side.

- Anti-abortion thought may be a mainstream opinion, but the practice of abortion is still legal, so to them, it's an intolerable marginalization of an obvious truth.

- I'm especially uncomfortable defending people like Palestinian terrorists or John Brown, because while their cause is just, they themselves are often hate-filled bigots (the former), lunatics (the latter), or religious fanatics (both). Again, the only reason I excuse that kind of nonsense is because it's in the service of a goal I find admirable, and I shouldn't fool myself into thinking that it suddenly becomes noble because its endgame is one I find desirable.
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roninspoon
Jun. 4th, 2009 04:51 pm (UTC)
I understand your point of view on the matter, but it seems clear, having read many of your other responses downstream, that your argument hinges on anti-abortionists being part of a representative democracy and being able to take advantage of a political system that doesn't force acts of violence to create change.

The problem I think you'll find here is that many, if not most, of the truly motivated ideological anti-abortionists who believe in their movement, also believe that they are NOT part of a representative democracy. They believe, for a variety of reasons, that our government, specifically the liberal elements of it, are purposefully repressing the rule of law to allow the evil and satanic practice of abortion to continue.

I'm cutting a pretty broad cloth in generalizing them, and that's not entirely fair, but the clear majority of the anti-abortionists moved to violence are radical right wing Christians who believe that we are headed down the path to Armageddon, and that our government is complicit. The reality of their political representation is relatively immaterial in deducing their justification for violence.
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archaica
Jun. 4th, 2009 03:12 am (UTC)
I'm pretty much cool with everything you say here.
roninspoon
Jun. 4th, 2009 04:39 pm (UTC)
I read an interesting perspective on this case the other day. I don't recall where or who wrote it, but the author essentially called anti-abortionists out as hypocrites in mass.

The logic was that; anti-abortionists think abortions are murder, and are convinced that abortion doctors are participating in the whole sale slaughter of perhaps tens of thousands of innocent people every year. Despite believing that many thousands of people are being murdered every year, few if any of the anti-abortionists ever do anything more than stand around and complain about it. This is not exactly the reaction of someone who believes what they are claiming to believe. Therefore they are either pussies of the highest level, or simple blow hard hypocrites using the issue as political bait, and few people involved actually believe the party line.

There's some merit to the argument. I'm relatively sure that if I believed thousands of innocent people were being legally murdered on a whim with little justification and no repercussion, let's say for being brown, that I would be in a clock tower with a rifle and a message.

mckennl
Jun. 4th, 2009 05:04 pm (UTC)
It kind of makes me queasy when people point that out to anti-abortionists, because for all those who say, "Oh NO, I wouldn't take it to that extreme," there must be people in the group who think, "Hmm, I'd never thought of it quite like that, but it is the logical conclusion."

Therefore they are either pussies of the highest level, or simple blow hard hypocrites using the issue as political bait, and few people involved actually believe the party line.

Or they just hadn't put it together like that before and now they do, but they're not going to tell anybody about it. I hope what you say is true, but actual violence against abortionists and the hysteria of the anti-abortionists, and their increasingly violent imagery, are not soothing.
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atlasimpure
Jun. 4th, 2009 05:27 pm (UTC)
Well said.
sabiha_basrai
Jun. 4th, 2009 05:35 pm (UTC)
thank you for writing this.
bassman42
Jun. 5th, 2009 02:28 am (UTC)
I'm perfectly okay with what you've said. There are times and issues which call for the extreme, and political violence is an extreme, reaction. Radical pro-lifers, as many people here have said, are not unrepresented and have many other ways to defend their points. They believe they're executing murderers when killing abortion doctors, but if that's to be done then it's the responsibility of the state, not some yahoo with a gun.
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Leonard Pierce is a freelance writer wandering around Texas with no sleep or sense of direction. If you give him money he will write something for you. If you are nice to him he may come to your house and get drunk.

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