Did Fox News host Bill O'Reilly kill abortion provider Dr. George Tiller? Reading some of today's outraged commentary by pro-choice writers in both America and Britain, you could be forgiven for thinking so. Scott Roeder might be suspected of actually pulling the trigger, but O'Reilly—and other loudmouth, right-wing anti-abortionists—have already been found guilty of egging him on in the kangaroo court of liberal opinion.
Tiller was savagely shot dead while attending a church service with his wife in Kansas on Sunday. His "crime," as his alleged killer undoubtedly sees it, was to run a clinic that provided women with perfectly legal late-term abortions.
Yet rather than seeing this dreadful killing as the action of a probably crazed individual, too many liberal commentators are discussing it as the logical outcome of the "dangerous" words and images propagated by O'Reilly and others. This is the liberals' version of "effects theory," the idea that certain of speech are so irresponsible and inflammatory that they can easily provoke unhinged individuals to take unhinged actions.
Writing in Salon, Gabriel Winant slams O'Reilly's "sensationally irresponsible" and "extremely vivid" denunciations of Tiller's clinic. For example, on O'Reilly's show Tiller has been referred to as "Tiller the Baby Killer." O'Reilly himself once said Tiller "destroys fetuses for just about any reason right up until the birth date for $5,000." For Winant, "there's no other person who bears as much responsibility for the characterization of Tiller as a savage on the loose, killing babies willy-nilly, [as O'Reilly]."
Winant strongly hints that O'Reilly played an unwitting, offstage role in Tiller's death: "O'Reilly didn't tell anyone to do anything violent, but he did put Tiller in the public eye, and help make him the focus of a movement with a history of violence against exactly these kinds of targets."
Like me, you might find O'Reilly's comments about Tiller distasteful. But the deeply censorious implication of Winant's argument is that anyone who uses "extremely vivid" language to condemn someone he doesn't like can—and should—later be held responsible if something bad happens to that individual. Leaving aside the fact that there is as yet no evidence that the suspect was a fan of O'Reilly—according to the Kansas City Star, the suspect had been a weird, anti-government, anti-abortion nut for some time—Winant's logic is that public debate should be watered down to the level of polite tea-party disagreements, lest any borderline cranks be agitated or inflamed by it.
Michael Tomasky, formerly of The American Prospect and now American editor for The Guardian, says it's a "fair question" to ask, "Does O'Reilly have blood on his hands?" Echoing censors throughout history who have claimed that words and ideas pollute society, Tomasky says O'Reilly and other shrill media commentators have contributed to a "toxic atmosphere" on the abortion issue.
The Manhattan-based feminist writer Jill Filipovic points the finger of blame not only at O'Reilly but also at various mainstream anti-abortion groups that use "outlandish and inflammatory rhetoric." She says the killing of Tiller was "the logical outcome of years of increasingly violent, dehumanising and threatening rhetoric and action on the part of supposedly mainstream pro-life groups."
In a sure sign she has caught the censorship bug, Filipovic even falls back on the "fire in a crowded theatre" argument: "If you yell ‘Fire!' in a crowded theatre, it's reasonably foreseeable that people will panic and someone will be injured. And if you yell ‘Murderer!', ‘Baby-Killer!' and ‘Holocaust!' long enough, it's reasonably foreseeable that someone will take it upon themselves to make sure that vigilante justice is done."
This reaction to Tiller's death is driven by cowardice and censoriousness, by a desire to protect the pro-choice argument from the extremely vivid, sensationalistic, and, yes, frequently hysterical attacks of the anti-abortion brigade. In a left-leaning version of the traditional effects theory—which holds that some films, TV shows, and videogames should be toned down or wiped out entirely since they allegedly make young people violent—pro-choice commentators now seem to want "outlandish rhetoric" restricted on the grounds that it is, literally, murderous.
But like all instinctive censors, they blur the distinction between words and actions. There is neither moral equivalence nor a direct link between O'Reilly's rants and what happened to Tiller on Sunday. To seek to restrict a broadcaster's speech on the basis that it might inflame viewers to do something awful is an insult to all of us, since we're treated as little more than dumb attack dogs that hear "orders" and then carry them out. And to seek to restrict speech on the basis that it might coax one or two unhinged loners to do something awful would be turn society into the equivalent of a lunatic asylum, where everyone watches their words and controls their tone of voice just in case they give a madman the wrong impression.
I fully support a woman's right to choose abortion, including late-term abortion. I also find O'Reilly's rants and those anti-abortion websites nauseating. But the best way to make the case for the right to choose is not to criminalize the speech of the anti-abortion lobby, but to inject public debate with more and more convincing arguments for abortion rights. In short, we need more "extremely vivid" speech, not less.
Brendan O'Neill is editor of spiked in London.