George Tiller: Casualty of the Culture Wars?

In the summer of 1993, a housewife from Grants Pass, Oregon, named
Rachelle Ranae (Shelly) Shannon traveled to Wichita, Kansas, with a
Bible and a .25-caliber pistol and shot George Tiller, a 51-year-old
doctor and abortion provider. Tiller was not the first
physician so targeted--six months earlier, an abortion provider named
David Gunn had been murdered outside his medical clinic in Pensacola,
Florida--but, despite sustaining wounds in both arms, Tiller managed to
survive the attack. Sixteen years later, while standing in the foyer of
his church, where he was serving as an usher and distributing bulletins,
Tiller was shot again. This time he wasn't so lucky.

The election of Barack Obama, it was said, would put the culture wars
behind us, and two weeks ago, in a commencement address at the
University of Notre Dame,
President Obama tried to inject a note of civility into the debate about
abortion. In his speech, Obama urged opponents and supporters of
abortion rights to seek common ground by working to reduce the number of
unintended pregnancies. He also told the story of an e-mail he'd
from a doctor who had voted for him in the Illinois primary but who'd
taken offense at a passage on Obama's website describing "right-wing
ideologues who want to take away a woman's right to choose." The doctor
characterized himself as prolife and wrote, "I do not ask at this point
that you oppose abortion, only that you speak about this issue in
fair-minded words."

Obama wrote back to thank him and directed his staff to alter the
wording, which, in its original form, was positively gracious compared
to the language on, a
website featuring the writings and video clips of Operation Rescue
founder Randall Terry, who showed up at Notre Dame to protest and who
compared Obama, unfavorably, to Herod. "Obama wants open ended
child-killing," declared Terry on the website, promising to "raze hell"
in the "war" to come. After the murder of Dr. Tiller, Terry came forward
with more inflammatory words, calling Tiller "a mass murderer" and
adding, "Those men and women who slaughter the unborn are murderers
according to the Law of God. We must continue to expose them."

It is too early to say whether the murder of Dr. Tiller will trigger a
wave of violent terrorism targeting abortion providers similar to the
one that took place during the mid-1990s. It is not too early to be
struck by the parallels. Then, as now, the violence came not in a moment
of triumph for the prolife movement but in the face of isolation and
defeat. The year Shelly
Shannon shot Dr. Tiller was the year that Bill Clinton assumed office.
It was the year after the Supreme Court ruled, in the Casey
that the central holding of Roe v. Wade "should be affirmed." It
was the
year that a small band of militant antiabortion activists began openly
endorsing murder and that a blueprint for violence and sabotage called
the Army of God Manual declared, "All of the options have expired. Our
Most Dread Sovereign Lord God requires that whosoever sheds man's blood,
by man shall his blood be shed."

The Bush presidency brought John Roberts and Samuel Alito to the Supreme
Court, but, for now, Roe remains the law of the land, and while
opponents of abortion have managed to chip away at the right to choose
in recent years, they have failed, even in states like South Dakota, to
get the procedure banned by popular vote. For all the talk during the
Bush years of the religious right's cultural and political resurgence, a
firm majority of Americans continues to believe abortion should remain
legal under at least some circumstances. The true believers who had
their hopes for dramatic change raised and then dashed by Bush are not
likely to be feeling optimistic right now.

"Fair-minded words" are what Barack Obama called for at Notre Dame. Yet
his election has brought coarsened rhetoric from the right on more than
just the abortion front. Sonia Sotomayor, the Puerto Rican woman Obama
recently nominated to the Supreme Court, has been denounced as a
"racist" and compared to David Duke by the likes of Rush Limbaugh and
Newt Gingrich. "Terrorist" and "Kill him!" were among the shouts heard
at right-wing rallies during last year's presidential campaign. Bullets
kill. Inflammatory words merely incite. But those who deploy hateful
language can hardly profess shock when their words are taken seriously,
particularly over emotionally freighted issues that have sparked
violence. Before he was murdered, George Tiller was a popular
topic on Fox's O'Reilly Factor, with the host referring to
him as
"Tiller the Baby Killer," a man guilty of "Nazi stuff." These are not
innocent words, as doctors targeted by antiabortion protesters have
pointed out in the past. In a letter to his hometown newspaper some
years ago, one such physician wrote:

The members of the local non-violent, pro-life community may
continue to picket my home. They may continue to scream that I am a
murderer and a killer when I enter the clinics at which they
'peacefully' exercise their First Amendment Right of freedom of speech.
They may do all of the above to me and other abortion providers of this
community. But please don't feign surprise, dismay and certainly not
innocence when a more volatile and less restrained member of the group
decides to react to their inflammatory rhetoric by shooting an abortion

This letter appeared in The Buffalo News in 1994, one year after
Shelly Shannon shot George Tiller. Its author, Barnett Slepian, a
physician and abortion provider, was murdered four years later while
standing in the kitchen of his home. He was the last abortion provider
to be gunned down in America, until George Tiller was.

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