The Death of George Tiller


Pro-lifers like to style themselves the modern equivalent of the '60s civil rights movement. In the wake of the murder of the Kansas abortionist George Tiller, many pro-choicers are doing their foes the favor of recycling arguments once favored by the civil rights movement's opponents. If you blame "extreme rhetoric" for the sporadic anti-abortion violence of the last few decades, you're not so far from the people who blamed angry words and nonviolent disobedience for the ghetto riots of the '60s.

If you're not familiar with those old accusations, Rick Perlstein's recent book Nixonland is full of illuminating examples. A particularly potent passage summarizes an article written by Richard Nixon in 1966:

"Who is responsible for the breakdown of law and order in this country?" it asked….Blame the actual individuals who burned down buildings, certainly. But "the more important collaborators and auxiliaries" were otherwise. "It is my belief that the seeds of civil anarchy would never have taken root in this nation had they not been nurtured by scores of respected Americans: public officials, educators, clergymen, and civil rights leaders as well." He named Hubert Humphrey, who'd declared that he could "lead a mighty good revolt"; the "junior senator from New York," who declared "there is no point in telling Negroes to obey the law"; and generically, "the professor" who, "objecting to de facto segregation," ends up turning youth into insurrectionists: to him "it may be crystal clear where civil disobedience may begin and where it must end. But the boundaries have become fluid to his students."

And no, I'm not denying the influence of words: just the idea that people must be morally responsible for the ways their words are received, and the easy assumption that Tiller's killer would not decide to murder an abortionist—or that angry black people would not decide to riot—absent the influence of an external force. For an extended critique of the idea that moral blame for Tiller's death extends beyond the person who pulled the trigger, see Brendan O'Neill's excellent column from yesterday, a powerful assault on the notion 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."