The murder of Dr. George Tiller in Kansas raises again the question of what it means to defend life through killing. When militant antiabortionists began bombing clinics and shooting doctors in the 1980s and 1990s, law enforcement officials looked for some conspiracy among the perpetrators. They did not find one. What they needed to look for was a cultural explanation for how members of a movement dedicated to defending life began to kill for life. Dr. Tiller’s assassination signals the return of an apocalyptic zeal that has lately been directed elsewhere.
The late twentieth century rise of antiabortion violence grew out of a sense that America was severing its ties to God and all things good. To prolifers, abortion was a sign of national inhumanity and increasing antichristian barbarism. Racist prolifers argued that abortion was a bourgeoning Jewish-engineered industry geared toward a white Christian genocide and praised those who killed abortion providers. “So-called doctors who commit murder on unborn white babies deserve our undying hatred. It’s a miracle that more of them haven’t been terminated. Men such as Paul Hill are heroes for eliminating baby killers and saving the lives of unborn beautiful white babies,” a Klansman said in 1994 after Hill murdered Dr. John Bayard Britton in Florida.
Less bigoted prolife perspectives also entailed a sense of escalating evil. In inventing the term “partial birth” to demonize late-term abortions, for example, Janet Folger coined a phrase in 1995 that perpetuated the idea that the country was savagely dismembering its young in unprecedented ways, despite the fact that abortion rates had actually gone down.
Under the force of this apocalyptic thinking, blockading and bombing reproductive health facilities in the 1980s gave way to even more aggressive tactics in the 1990s. Instead of trying to close clinics, abortion opponents used anti-personnel bombs built to maim people. In Alabama in January 1998 one nail-filled bomb was set to go off about twenty minutes before a second explosive was detonated so that the media would be there to witness the wrath suffered by any law enforcement and rescuers who had rushed to the scene. When that same bombing strategy was apparently used by Al Qaeda, which flew one plane into the first World Trade Center tower about twenty minutes before the second one crashed into its twin, it was no longer possible to deny that what had been going on in the name of defending the unborn was terrorism.
In November 2001, the anthrax scares sent by a prolifer to news media and politicians were the last large-scale, high-profile antiabortion domestic terrorism. After 9/11, the government could no longer turn a blind eye to the same tactics that caused us to launch a war on terror. Antiabortion violence became recognizable as domestic terrorism and consequently decreased significantly. The apocalyptic sense that the world was spinning out of control was refocused on an external enemy, the “evil-doers” in Iraq. Plus we had a president who made prolifers feel their voices were heard.
The recent election of a Black prochoice president has the potential to return that sense of urgency to the matter of abortion. The killing of Dr. Tiller in church on Sunday recalls the murder of Dr. Barnett Slepian, who was picked off by a sniper after coming home from religious services in 1998. Like Slepian’s killer, the suspect in Tiller’s assassination, Scott Roeder, has compared abortion providers to Nazi doctors. This is not just an appropriation of rhetoric, but a twisted logic in which Christian White men see themselves in the “unborn” as innocents whose persecution is as great as – or greater than — that of Jews or blacks. It should come as no surprise that Roeder appears to be enmeshed in the right-wing populist “Patriot” movement. Both movements share an apocalyptic idea that evil is on the rise. As protests of President Obama’s recent visit to Notre Dame made clear, even mainstream prolifers no longer see abortion as just a sin among many other sins, but as an “intrinsic evil.” The murder of Dr. Tiller suggests that a sense of an impending cultural Armageddon – that apocalyptic battle with “evil-doers” — may be returning to the homeland.