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How Should Congress Respond to George Tiller's Murder?

PH2009053101238.jpgThere is an impulse to understand George Tiller's murder as a horrific, but comfortingly aberrational, act of extremist violence. That is the wrong way to think about it. Tiller is not the first abortion provider to be shot to death. Hell, this wasn't even the first time an anti-abortion extremist tried to shoot George Tiller to death. In 1993, Shannon Shelley traveled to Tiller's clinic and shot Tiller in both arms with a semiautomatic pistol. Scott Roeder's contribution was managing to actually kill him.

As The American Prospect's Ann Friedman writes, this has to be understood in context. It is the final, decisive act in "an ongoing campaign of intimidation and harassment against someone who was providing completely legal health-care services." That campaign stretched over decades of protests, lawsuits, violence, and, finally, murder. The different elements were not always orchestrated. But the intent remained constant: To counter the absence of a statute that would make Tiller's work illegal with enough intimidation to render it impossible.

This was, in other words, a political act. Tiller was murdered so that those in his line of work would be intimidated. In conversations with folks yesterday, I heard well-meaning variants on the idea that it would be unseemly to push legislation in the emotional aftermath of Tiller's execution. I disagree. Roeder was acting in direct competition with the United States Congress. And it's quite likely that he changed the status quo. Legislative language and judicial rulings had made abortive procedures legal and thus accessible. Yesterday's killing was meant to render abortive procedures unsafe for doctors to conduct and thus inaccessible.

If a woman cannot get an abortion because no nearby providers are willing to assume the risk of performing it, the actual outcome is precisely the same as if the procedure were illegal. Roeder has, in all likelihood, made abortion less accessible. It would be, in my view, a perfectly appropriate response for the Congress to decisively prove his action not only ineffectual, but, in a broad sense, counterproductive.

That's not to suggest fast-tracking legislation that radically transforms the county's uneasy consensus. But there are plenty of remedies that speak to the question of access alone: Bills that make abortion centers safer and help poor women afford treatment, for instance. We can't stop Scott Roeder from killing George Tiller. But we can stop him from having his intended effect on a woman's ability to choose.

Update: Ann Friedman has much more on this subject.

(Photo credit: Orlin Wagner - AP)

By Ezra Klein  |  June 1, 2009; 7:05 AM ET
 
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Comments

"This was, in other words, a political act."

You are absolutely right. We have a word for murder-as-political-act: George Tiller was assassinated. Any response from Congress or the Obama administration, whatever else it does, should at least refer to the assassination of Tiller. Maybe then a few more of the American Taliban's fellow travelers will reconsider their relationship with those criminals.

Posted by: michael1605 | June 1, 2009 7:24 AM | Report abuse

What's another word for a person who commits highly public and visible murder and mayhem to cause fear in the populace and effect political change? Oh yeah, that word would be TERRORIST.

The problem with bills that make abortion centers safer is that they don't protect women's healthcare providers when they're not actually in the center. Bernard Slepian was murdered in his home, and George Tiller was murdered in his church.

What Congress needs to do is recognize that certain sections of the anti-choice movement are highly organized domestic terrorism cells, and treat them as such. These groups have been vocally and relentlessly calling for the murder of women's health providers, and their calls have been--and will continue to be--answered.

The government should prosecute those calling for the murder of abortion doctors as conspirators, and should prosecute those that commit the murders as terrorists. Because that is exactly what they are.

Posted by: mlrlizard | June 1, 2009 7:56 AM | Report abuse

"Tiller was murdered so that those in his line of work would be intimidated."

You are absolutely wrong. While this murder may have an intimidating effect, this was not a "terrorist act" regardless of how much the pro-abortion crowd would like to make it so. Terrorists kill indiscriminately for intimidation. This killer killed to stop what he believed to be a mass murderer. Quite different from killing unknowns who are not connected.

Posted by: ElViajero | June 1, 2009 8:21 AM | Report abuse

"Tiller was murdered so that those in his line of work would be intimidated."

You are absolutely wrong. While this murder may have an intimidating effect, this was not a "terrorist act" regardless of how much the pro-abortion crowd would like to make it so. Terrorists kill indiscriminately for intimidation. This killer killed to stop what he believed to be a mass murderer. Quite different from killing unknowns who are not connected.

Posted by: ElViajero | June 1, 2009 8:21 AM | Report abuse

El Vaj says, "Terrorists kill indiscriminately for intimidation."

Who says? Why is it not terrorism to kill someone *discriminately* for intimidation? Choosing to define terrorism in a way that draws the line between one and the other makes no apparent sense.

Just because you're being selective in who you're terrorizing, rather than terrorizing *everyone*, doesn't make you any less a terrorist. If I were to 'only' bomb synagogues, Christians would have nothing to fear. But I'd still be a terrorist.

Posted by: rt42 | June 1, 2009 9:03 AM | Report abuse

"Terrorists kill indiscriminately for intimidation. This killer killed to stop what he believed to be a mass murderer. Quite different from killing unknowns who are not connected."

With all due respect, terrorists choose their targets precisely because the attack will intimidate. There is nothing random in their attacks except for the anonymity of the people killed. They choose their targets for maximum effect. That is precisely what happend in the killing of George Tiller. Message sent: If you are a doctor practicing a consitutionally protected medical procedure that we disagree with, we will kill you. Poltical Message--yes. Assasination--yes. Terroristic--absolutely.

Posted by: kristilj | June 1, 2009 9:07 AM | Report abuse

I don't find ANY differences between substantial parts of the American Taliban (the 'my interpretation of god's will is above the civil law' people) and the real thing in Afghanistan, Pakistan and other troubled places.

The Bill O'Reily's, Rush Limbaugh's, and Randall Terry's of the american scene are terrorists, while their impact on our lives is no different than any other religious extremists in other countries. They wish to achieve their objectives through fear - because the majority of people won't support their objectives.

This isn't free speech ("Congress shall make no law", in famous words), it is the same as crying 'fire' in a theater and then setting a fire: terrorism.

Murder is murder. But this is WORSE than murder: it is terrorizing the populace through fear. It must be stopped, or we will have no government of laws, but instead have a government of unelected men imposing their views on us as citizens. It is totalitarian, radical, 'ends justify the means' dictatorship by a religious and political minority.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | June 1, 2009 9:14 AM | Report abuse

this was an outrageous and terrifying act.
i am so sorry for the family and patients of dr tiller.
and for all women who need to be free, safe and protected,
to make their own choices.
and for all americans today.


Posted by: jkaren | June 1, 2009 10:03 AM | Report abuse

ElV, I don't see any reason to determine that being indiscriminate in your target is the primary definition of terrorism. Rather, I think the more logical part of a terrorist act to consider its central purpose is to terrorize a group beyond the people directly hurt/killed by the immediate action. A suicide bomber's goal isn't to kill lots of people randomly, it's to achieve a political goal by intimidating a larger population by killing a subset of that population. The idea is to instill the fear that anyone could be killed at any time unless the group's demands are met. Similarly, killing doctors in their churches or in their homes makes the point that attacks will not just come at their place of business but at any place and at any time in their lives.

Clearly, there was an intent to stop George Tiller from performing any further abortions, but I think it's a pretty tough argument to make that there wasn't also an intent to discourage similar actions by other doctors.

Posted by: MosBen | June 1, 2009 10:37 AM | Report abuse

By the way, there's plenty to miss about the Prospect Blog, but I have to say that I love the lack of a captcha here as well as the fact that it actually remembers my info.

Posted by: MosBen | June 1, 2009 10:38 AM | Report abuse

Ann strikes a very clear distinction when she makes the point: "It is the final, decisive act in 'an ongoing campaign of intimidation and harassment against someone who was providing completely legal health-care services.'"

Anti-smoking advocates believed that tobacco companies were killing hundreds of thousands of Americans a year with their "legal" product. But you didn't see them murdering tobacco company executives now, did you? They made progress through legal means, and while the outcome wasn't perfect, it has been nonetheless popular, and continues to be well-supported. And no one on the anti-tobacco side has to write any columns, as I'm sure we will see over the next few days from the right-to-lifers, that say, "We're sorry for what happened, but . . ."

Posted by: Rick00 | June 1, 2009 10:56 AM | Report abuse

"The Bill O'Reily's, Rush Limbaugh's, and Randall Terry's of the american scene are terrorists..." ---JimPortland

And this is the defining moment when you show the world you're a moron. Exercising free speech never makes one a terrorist nor does a criminal.

For those who wish to argue that this murder was done as a terrorist act to deliberatly intimidate, it's up to you to prove those intentions. Do so. The more likely reason was to stop what the killer thought would be thousands of more baby murders, not "sending a message".

If you have something that we don't know about then please share. If not, then you are not taking the more logical and likely approach....and doing so because it fulfills your paranoia.

Posted by: ElViajero1 | June 1, 2009 11:39 AM | Report abuse

Look up the Southern Poverty Law Center. They sued the KKK in Alabama over the murder of a young black man, thereby making every member responsible for millions of dollars in reparations. That branch of the KKK is now defunct and the mother of the deceased is $7,000,000 richer. That much money could also put anti-abortion groups out of business and help fund safe and effective family planning services. And it would be galling for those self-righteous extremists to be paying for the very thing they say they are opposing. Just the fear of that outcome could stop the violence.

Posted by: paularock11 | June 1, 2009 12:38 PM | Report abuse

In this country over the past eight years, Quaker church groups and animal welfare activist groups have been designated terrorist organizations and have been infiltrated and spied on by government officials.
Yet Operation Rescue has not been designated a terrorist gang. It deserves that official designation now and it has deserved it for years.

Posted by: fishermansblues | June 1, 2009 12:51 PM | Report abuse

Kinda funny. Islamic Terrorists enact a well organized attack that kills 3000+ Americans and Ezra and his ilk are saying (rightly) we shouldn't tear up the constitution in the name of "safety". Five Abortion doctors killed in disconnected acts means the First Amendment should be shredded and anyone who dares disagree with the pro-Abortion position is a terrorist and should be attacked by their government. Y'all are just as brain dead as the Haniity/Limbaugh crowd.

Posted by: DonRobbie | June 1, 2009 1:40 PM | Report abuse

Why can't they do the same thing as is done when politicians come to town -- send the protesters off to a Free Speech Zone 20 miles from the clinic?

Posted by: evenadog | June 1, 2009 2:15 PM | Report abuse

"Terrorists kill indiscriminately for intimidation."

BS. The Tory MPs blown up outside their homes were murdered by terrorists, and that wasn't indiscriminate. If you want to support a particular strain of terrorist, at least have the guts to admit it.

Posted by: pseudonymousinnc | June 1, 2009 3:28 PM | Report abuse

What I find most fascinating about the conservative movement today is how closely it aligns to the"by any means necessary" political philosophy espoused by Malcolm X during the Civil Rights movement.

From Cheney's advocacy of torture to the murder of a medical practitioner, they clearly are eager to do "whatever it takes" to get their way.

http://wardonwords.blogspot.com

Posted by: anne3 | June 1, 2009 3:44 PM | Report abuse

That's right, ElViajero1. Inciting to riot, whipping up hatred with lies, and the like is just exercising free speech. BillO and Randal Terry have no blood on their hands for convincing Scott Roeder the lie that his murderous act of terrorism was actually saving life.

Please, tell me another. Can you sell me the Brooklyn Bridge for a dollar?

Posted by: goaway41 | June 1, 2009 11:30 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, you are exactly correct. The solution you recommend I agree with. However I don't believe that the U.S. Congress has the necessary will to take on the religious/rightwing fundamentalist and their powerful exploiters (e.g. O'Reilly, Limbaugh, et al).

Posted by: mickster1 | June 2, 2009 12:08 AM | Report abuse

Dear goaway41,

YOU and people like you that would like to control who can speak and what they can say is the reason why the first amendment was added to the constitution.

They saw you coming.

Posted by: ElViajero1 | June 2, 2009 11:40 AM | Report abuse

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