On May 31, 2009, George Tiller was shot through the eye and killed by an anti-abortion activist, Scott Roeder, as Tiller served as an usher during the Sunday morning service at his church in Wichita. Roeder was convicted of murder on January 29, 2010, and sentenced to life in prison with no parole possible for at least fifty years. The legal system obviously saw him as a bit more than an activist, which he readily admitted. His defense was that he had shot Tiller because “preborn children’s lives were in imminent danger” – he was saving lives, and a hero.
That’s how he saw things. Tiller was one of the few doctors in the United States performing late-term abortions, which was no more than killing preborn children – someone had to stop that. But “preborn children” is an odd formulation. Were they children? That can be argued one way or the other endlessly, but that hardly matters. Late term abortions were and are legal, to save the life of the mother. Scott Roeder didn’t have a leg to stand on, legally, and he didn’t even become a folk hero on the pro-life right. He was an embarrassment. Very few on the pro-life right advocate taking the law into your own hands and shooting these guys dead. Change the law, through political action. Don’t let all doctors know that if they perform abortions they’ll die, no matter what the law says, because a few righteous people, with guns, are out there to do what the law won’t yet do. The pro-life folks aren’t terrorists.
The only problem was that Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly mentioned Tiller by name on The O’Reilly Factor forty-two separate times prior to Tiller’s murder, referring to him specifically as a “baby killer” in twenty-four instances, so some argued that O’Reilly was directly responsible for Tiller’s death. O’Reilly denied responsibility and defended himself:
When I heard about Tiller’s murder, I knew pro-abortion zealots and Fox News haters would attempt to blame us for the crime, and that’s exactly what has happened. … Every single thing we said about Tiller was true, and my analysis was based on those facts. … Now, it’s clear that the far left is exploiting – exploiting – the death of the doctor. Those vicious individuals want to stifle any criticism of people like Tiller. That – and hating Fox News – is the real agenda here.
In short, he was the victim here, not the dead doctor. That’s not much of a defense, but O’Reilly was not responsible for Scott Roeder’s decision. He didn’t tell Scott Roeder to shoot the guy. O’Reilly simply stokes thoroughly appropriate outrage. He’s obviously proud of that, but that doesn’t make him responsible for what unhinged individuals do with that outrage. There are lots of strange people out there. That’s not his problem. And why is everyone always picking on him? They must be jealous of his righteousness or something.
And then everyone forgot all about it. One news story drives out another and Bill O’Reilly is who he is. He screams about outrages. No one else has taken him seriously since then, or at least seriously enough to go shoot someone, but there’s always that possibility, and he is a role model for Republican politicians. Outrage wins elections. Yeah, yeah, Obama ran on hope and all that, but he’s an outlier. Outrage works better. That’s why Republicans control the House and Senate and more than half the state governments. Outrage has been good to them.
There is, however, its dark side, when someone takes them too seriously, and the New York Times’ Jackie Calmes explains how that just happened again:
Even as the authorities say they remain uncertain what precisely led a gunman to attack a Planned Parenthood facility in Colorado Springs on Friday, a comment attributed to the suspect by a senior law enforcement official – “no more baby parts” – fed directly into an already high-pitched controversy over Planned Parenthood and its practices.
The phrase was an eerie echo of language used by politicians here and in many state capitals since an anti-abortion group began releasing its undercover videos of Planned Parenthood officials discussing possible donations of fetal tissue for medical research.
That presents a problem:
Congressional supporters and opponents of Planned Parenthood were uncharacteristically subdued over the weekend as they awaited more information about the shooting, which killed three people and wounded nine, so it was unclear how the episode might affect Congress’s year-end agenda after lawmakers return on Monday from their holiday recess. But considering the extent to which Planned Parenthood has fomented political passions on both the left and the right in Washington, that restraint seems unlikely to hold.
Long before Friday, Planned Parenthood was expected to be prominent in the debate over legislation to finance federal operations, which the Republican-controlled Congress must pass before Dec. 11 to keep the government open. Anti-abortion conservatives want Republican leaders to let the government shut down unless President Obama agrees to end reimbursements to Planned Parenthood for health services to low-income patients. (These services do not include abortions, because federal law bans payment for most abortions.)
Add dead people and this could get hot, as if it weren’t hot enough:
Five congressional committees have been investigating Planned Parenthood since a California-based anti-abortion group called the Center for Medical Progress in July started posting 11 videos online, one at a time over several months, purporting to show that Planned Parenthood was trafficking in “baby parts” for profit. Planned Parenthood has denied that.
John A. Boehner resigned as House speaker days after creating a special committee to investigate Planned Parenthood, other abortion providers and tissue procurement businesses. His decision to quit was forced by hardline conservatives’ credible threat to unseat him for refusing to lead a government shutdown over Planned Parenthood funding. His successor, Representative Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, did not address the shootings over the weekend. But a spokesman, Brendan Buck, said on Sunday that the tragedy would not change the investigating committee’s plans.
On Saturday, Senator Barbara Boxer, Democrat of California, called on Mr. Ryan to disband the special House committee investigating Planned Parenthood. “It is time to stop the demonizing and witch hunts against Planned Parenthood, its staff and patients, and the lifesaving health care it provides to millions every day,” she said. Representative Marsha Blackburn, Republican of Tennessee, the chairwoman of what is called the Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives, said in a statement that Mrs. Boxer should stop “playing politics with this tragedy.”
At Mother Jones, Kevin Drum is tired of such talk:
There’s nothing wrong with politicizing tragedies. The Triangle Shirtwaist fire prompted a sea change in views of workplace safety, and I think that was just fine. The 9/11 attacks increased public support for the invasion of Iraq, and I assume conservatives think that was just fine. More generally, what’s wrong with politicizing tragedies? That’s when people are paying attention, which means it’s often the best time to mobilize public support to address the issues underlying the tragedy. That’s what politics is for, isn’t it? If liberals want to use the Planned Parenthood attack to raise public awareness of gun violence and access to abortion, they should go right ahead. If conservatives want to use it to raise public awareness of the number of abortions performed every year, they should feel free to try.
Obvious caveats: Don’t be an asshole. Wait until we actually know what happened. Show some respect for the victims and their families. Don’t lie. Never even hint that the tragedy was in some way deserved.
And there’s a corollary:
Talk is not responsible for extreme acts, especially by the mentally ill. Political speech is often fiery. It’s often supposed to be fiery, and there’s always a risk that a few unhinged listeners will react in extreme ways. That’s a chance we have to take. If we rein in political speech to a level where there’s literally no risk of anyone reacting badly, we’ll have nothing but pabulum. Robert L. Deer might very well have been motivated to attack Planned Parenthood because he heard about them selling fetal tissue, but that doesn’t mean it was wrong for activists to bring this to the public’s attention.
Obvious caveats: Don’t be an asshole. If you’re doing the verbal equivalent of hoisting a pitchfork and telling people to storm the Bastille, don’t pretend to be surprised when they storm the Bastille. Directly inciting violence is both legally and morally wrong.
That seems sensible, and the New York Times item explains how that’s going:
Investigators are interviewing friends, associates and family members of the suspected gunman, Robert L. Dear Jr., to determine whether he had ties to any extremist groups or if anyone helped him plot the attack, according to senior law enforcement officials. The authorities also want to know whether Mr. Dear told anyone about the plot in recent weeks, the officials said. So far, the authorities have found no evidence that he had help from anyone, the officials said. They also said they did not know if the suspect had any political motivations.
Be careful, as some, but only some, have been:
Prominent Democrats, including Mr. Obama and the House Democratic leader, Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, initially reacted to the shootings by reiterating their frequent calls for gun safety legislation, not by suggesting that abortion opponents’ attacks on Planned Parenthood might have been incendiary. They were awaiting more information about the shooter and his motivations, Democratic aides said. Others, however, sought to draw a connection between the fiery language used against Planned Parenthood and the potential for violence.
On the ABC News program “This Week” on Sunday, the head of Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains, Vicki Cowart, lamented the “hateful speech” of recent months among legislators and Republican presidential candidates. “I can’t believe that this isn’t contributing to some folks, mentally unwell or not, thinking that it’s okay to target Planned Parenthood or to target abortion providers,” she said.
As with Bill O’Reilly’s outrage a few years back, she has a point:
For months, House Republican leaders have sought to project toughness against Planned Parenthood – through words and the investigations – to appease conservative hard-liners and, it was hoped, to blunt their fervor for shutting down the government. After the first video came out in July, Mr. Boehner said, “I think I’d vomit trying to talk about” it.
From the start, the language used by Planned Parenthood opponents was provocative, though none of it advocated violence. Mr. Boehner, as he announced the creation of the special House committee to investigate abortion providers and fetal tissue businesses, said, “Recent videos exposing the abortion-for-baby-parts business have shocked the nation, and demanded action.”
On the presidential campaign trail, where Planned Parenthood has played a prominent role, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, a Republican who is relying on support from Christian conservatives, was among the first last summer to demand an investigation into Planned Parenthood’s “sale and transfer of aborted body parts.” Of his rivals, Carly Fiorina has assailed the “harvesting of baby parts,” including – falsely – a live fetus’s brain, while Mike Huckabee has said Planned Parenthood is “selling babies’ body parts like the parts of a Buick.”
Republicans’ statements – on air, in committee hearings, in news releases and on a House website devoted to information on the committees’ investigations – suggested that Republicans had made up their minds against the group. The House Judiciary Committee, for example, entitled its September hearing “Examining the Horrific Abortion Practices at the Nation’s Largest Abortion Provider.”
That may backfire on them:
The undercover videos include scenes from a Colorado facility, but in Denver rather than the Colorado Springs site. David Daleiden, the 26-year-old abortion opponent who created the Center for Medical Progress and who posed as a biotechnology representative to infiltrate Planned Parenthood affiliates and surreptitiously record his attempts to procure tissue for research, posted a statement on the center’s website condemning the “barbaric killing spree in Colorado Springs by a violent madman.”
Mr. Daleiden, who had shared his video results with a few Republican state legislators and members of Congress before their public release, did not address early criticisms that his work might have helped incite extremists or the mentally ill.
Perhaps he should keep quiet. Bill O’Reilly would probably tell him to keep quiet, but in the Guardian, Lucia Graves has another take on this:
There has been plenty of political demagoguery about the perceived threat of accepting Syrian refugees (the vast majority of whom are women and children) but America’s real enemies wield guns, not visas. We have so much more reason to distrust and fear the American-bred shooters with seemingly unlimited access to weapons one Walmart away than someone fleeing a war.
That became even more apparent on Friday when two civilians and a police officer were shot and killed at a Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs, Colorado – one of the central hubs of the evangelical movement – and nine more were injured. It’s the second time this month that innocents have been killed by a man walking around Colorado Springs with a collection of armaments that many people feel he should never have had.
That is a problem:
The notion you might get shot by a motivated-but-irrational person with a gun isn’t considered terrorism in America: it’s a fact of life. Obama in a statement early on Saturday morning condemned the violence and seemed exasperated with the seeming status quo:
“We can’t let it become normal. If we truly care about this – if we’re going to offer up our thoughts and prayers again, for God knows how many times, with a truly clean conscience – then we have to do something about the easy accessibility of weapons of war on our streets to people who have no business wielding them.”
But it’s more than that:
Terrorism is violence committed for political ends. We still don’t know whether Friday’s shooting was politically motivated or what the gunman was thinking when he walked into a clinic and decided he should take the lives of the employees, patients and the cops trying to protect them.
We don’t know whether the gunman was an anti-abortion activist, or whether he had seen the undercover videos released this summer that purported to show Planned Parenthood employees selling off fetal tissue for profit (videos that have since been found to be, to put it charitably, misleadingly edited). We don’t know whether he’d heard Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina claim at a September debate that she’d seen video abortion providers talk about collecting the brains of a delivered fetus – though the footage wasn’t real.
What we do know is that Friday’s shooting was the latest in a long string of violent attacks at facilities where women can access abortion and other reproductive health services, and that there’s been a recent spike in violence at such facilities since the release of the misleadingly edited undercover videos.
There’s a pattern here:
We do know that 1985 was dubbed the “Year of Pain and Fear” after anti-abortion extremists firebombed and vandalized a series of family planning clinics. We know that anti-abortion fanatics targeted Planned Parenthood facilities in New York, Michigan and Missouri with violence in 1986. We do know that an anti-abortion activist killed two people and injured five in two clinic attacks in one day in 1996. We do know that in 1998 abortion clinics in Alabama and Atlanta were bombed. We do know that George Tiller, a Kansas provider of late-term abortions was shot and killed in his own church in 2009 by a longtime anti-abortion activist, 16 years after being shot twice by a different activist.
We do know that the worst terrorist attack on American soil before 9/11 was committed by a rightwing extremist: Timothy McVeigh. And we do know that in 2009 the Department of Homeland Security tried to warn about the rise of “right-wing extremism”, but that the team responsible for the report was dissolved the following year under intense pressure from Republicans in Congress and conservative activists.
That makes domestic terrorism the issue:
We do know that homegrown terrorists are a much bigger threat than refugees and that there have been 26 deadly terrorism strikes on American soil by domestic perpetrators since 9/11, but no successful attacks by international terror groups. We know that, of the 784,000 refugees taken into the US since 9/11, only three have been arrested on terrorism-related charges and none of them were close to executing an attack on American soil, according to the Migration Policy Institute.
We know that it takes up to two years and an intense vetting process to get refugee status, including penetrating background checks, interviews, and legal hoop-jumping.
We also know that it takes five minutes, and sometimes zero background checks, to buy the kinds of weapons apparently used in Colorado Springs (and those used in Aurora, and Newtown, and Columbine). And we know that, even when there are checks in place that should prevent certain people from getting guns, they sometimes fail with deadly consequences, as was the case with this year’s Charleston church shooting.
We know that there is one party dedicated to defunding Planned Parenthood, that there is one party that lists the elimination of the right to an abortion in its platform every four years, and that one party supported employers’ rights to limit their employees’ access to birth control.
There’s only one place this leads:
That same party is unfailingly committed to keeping guns easy to purchase, even as the tragedies pile up. That same party views refugees as the sole pressing domestic terror threat – that believes those refugees are to be feared and ostracized and barred entry.
Maybe if that party worried a bit more about guns and a bit less about visas and women’s healthcare, we’d see that the enemy is ourselves.
There’s something to that, given the context in this case:
Colorado’s second largest city, with a population of 445,800, has built itself a reputation as a playground for white, pro-gun, pro-life Evangelical Christians. It is also home to one army base, two air force bases, and an air force. [The Air Force Academy is there.]
Colorado Springs featured in the documentary film Jesus Camp, where evangelical Christian children were taught to engage in anti-abortion protests. Two of the film’s lead characters travelled to the New Life Church in Colorado Springs, where they met church pastor Ted Haggard, a one-time leader of the National Association of Evangelicals who had weekly communications with President George W Bush. Haggard resigned from his position later that same year following revelations that he purchased methamphetamine and the services of a male prostitute.
The city’s pro-gun contingent flexed its muscles in 2014 with an unprecedented recall election, ousting state senator John Morse. The recall was primarily motivated by new gun control laws in Colorado – following the Aurora cinema shootings in Denver – which banned magazines holding more than 15 rounds, and demanded a universal background check for all gun purchases.
Colorado Springs would have none of that, but there have been problems:
Three weeks before Friday’s Planned Parenthood shooting, a man was seen brandishing a rifle while walking down the streets of Colorado Springs on Halloween morning. A concerned citizen called the 911 Emergency Line to notify the police, but was told by the operator: “Well, it is an open carry state, so he can have a weapon with him or walking around with it,” referencing state laws that allow the brandishing of a firearm in public.
Shortly after the call the man shot and killed three people before being shot dead by police.
That has caused some second thoughts:
Following the Halloween shooting, Colorado Springs resident Jessie Pocock organized a vigil with her fellow citizens, who expressed a mix of grief and outrage at the deaths. She feels that there is a “wild west mentality” when it comes to guns in Colorado Springs.
“It’s important that we can go to the grocery store and not be worried about someone randomly shooting us down on the streets, and right now that is not the case in Colorado Springs,” said Pocock, who lives close to the abortion clinic. “You’re not safe on the streets here, and that is a problem.”
Colorado Springs’ year of violence began last January when a bomb detonated outside the local chapter of the NAACP. No one was harmed in the attack, but the incident put many in Colorado Springs on edge.
This kind of thing had to happen in Colorado Springs, but in August, Megan Carpentier suggested it could happen anywhere:
We are as desensitized now as we were in 1993, when Colin Ferguson shot up a Long Island Railroad train car of commuters and in 1984, when James Huberty shot up a McDonalds in San Ysidro, California. The shooting at the University of Albany, in upstate New York (1994) didn’t change anything. Columbine (1999) didn’t change anything. The Lancaster, Pennsylvania Amish schoolhouse shooting (2006) didn’t change anything.
Nothing changed for Americans because our political leaders didn’t change anything. Instead, a nation ducked.
The big names – Aurora, Sandy Hook, Fort Hood, Tucson, Virginia Tech, Lafayette, Isla Vista, the Navy Yard, Charleston – you remember.
The lesser-known ones (Jonesboro, say, or Carson City, or the courthouse shooting in Reno, or the other shooting on Fort Hood, or Northern Illinois University): those we only dimly recollect… because we could hardly even remember all of details of all of the mass shootings in our lifetime.
Bill O’Reilly is off the hook and the Republicans, now screaming about those doctored videotapes as if they are real, are off the hook too:
The threat is everywhere, and it’s nowhere. The threat of American gun violence is the guy who walks into the movie theatre after the lights go down. The truth of America’s firearm obsession is the kid who walks into the school long after the bell’s rung for class. … Is it still shocking that there are legally-armed Americans killing innocent strangers?
The Washington Post points out that there’s been more than one mass shooting per day in 2015 (that is, shooting incidents in which more than four people were injured). The Centers for Disease Control statistics show that more than 33,000 people will have fatal encounters with guns in a given year.
When gun violence happens every day, it’s hard to be shocked; fatal shootings are, at this point, a given of American life, whether we like to admit it or not.
Let’s admit it.
These things happen. Americans shoot and kill innocent strangers all the time, after they’ve been outraged by this and that, after they’ve been told to be outraged by this and that. And we’re outraged for a day or two, and then we shrug. We’ve all been told to be outraged. We know what comes next. We live here.