Terrorism and the State: A Lesson, Again, for Right and Left
By Al Giordano
“…those who today, either out of despair or because they are victims of the propaganda the regime propagates in favour of terrorism as the nec plus ultra of subversion, contemplate artificial terrorism with uncritical admiration, even attempting sometimes to practise it, do not know that they are only competing with the State on its own terrain, and do not know that, on its own terrain, not only is the State the strongest but that it will always have the last word.”
- Gianfranco Sanguinetti
On Terrorism and the State
The assassination this morning of Wichita doctor George Tiller, on his way into a Lutheran church service, was the second attempt on his life, this one successful. The first attempt on the doctor who works in a reproductive health clinic that has long been targeted by Operation Rescue and other anti-choice organizations came on August 19, 1993, when a woman named Stanley Shelley Shannon’s bullets wounded the doctor in both arms. (Shannon served an 11-year sentence for that crime.)
Just two-and-a-half years ago, Dr. Tiller was targeted with the usual vitriol by Fox News talker Bill O’Reilly, who falsely accused the doctor of performing late term abortions – legal to protect the health of the mother – to treat temporary psychological depression of the patient. Tiller denied the charge, and accused the then-attorney general of the state, Phill Kline, as being O’Reilly’s source for the claim. Kline had charged Dr. Tiller, in 2006, with 30 counts of administering abortions to minors and other crimes. The Court dismissed the charges. In 2007, Democratic Attorney General Paul Morrison charged Dr. Tiller on 19 counts. Two months ago, a jury acquitted the doctor on each and every charge.
Just as Situationist Gianfranco Sanguinetti warned the international left, in his 1979 essay, that acts of terrorism always reinforce the powers of the State (his thesis was that State power and terrorism are mutually symbiotic and dependent on each other), the North American religious right is going to suffer great losses as a result of this morning’s terrorist act in Wichita. That, this time, the assassination attempt succeeded, and that it happened in the sanctuary of a church of a mainstream Protestant faith, will provoke a double whammy of shock and revulsion, including among tens of millions of Americans that do not like abortion, but likewise believe that assassination is obviously just as (or more) anti-life.
The original assassination attempt on Dr. Tiller came eight months into the Clinton presidency. The parallel with today’s offense ought to be obvious: a pro-choice president takes office and the violent extremists go all crazy, whipped up by some of the same right wing radio talkers today as sixteen years ago.
The predictable knee-jerk response from some in the pro-choice majority will be to attempt to demonize and link all Americans that define themselves as “pro life” as aiding and abetting this act of terrorism by having a mere opinion, just as George W. Bush and others attempted to link all oppositional dissent to the attacks of September 11, 2001. And while it is an absolute certainty that the Obama Justice Department will investigate and prosecute this latest crime - and criminal - to the maximum extent of the law, those that want to, like Bush, demonize dissent itself are not going to get much rhetorical backing from the President. His May 17 remarks at Notre Dame are now prescient:
A few days after I won the Democratic nomination, I received an email from a doctor who told me that while he voted for me in the primary, he had a serious concern that might prevent him from voting for me in the general election. He described himself as a Christian who was strongly pro-life, but that’s not what was preventing him from voting for me.
What bothered the doctor was an entry that my campaign staff had posted on my website – an entry that said I would fight “right-wing ideologues who want to take away a woman’s right to choose.” The doctor said that he had assumed I was a reasonable person, but that if I truly believed that every pro-life individual was simply an ideologue who wanted to inflict suffering on women, then I was not very reasonable. He wrote, “I do not ask at this point that you oppose abortion, only that you speak about this issue in fair-minded words.”
After I read the doctor’s letter, I wrote back to him and thanked him. I didn’t change my position, but I did tell my staff to change the words on my website. And I said a prayer that night that I might extend the same presumption of good faith to others that the doctor had extended to me. Because when we do that – when we open our hearts and our minds to those who may not think like we do or believe what we do – that’s when we discover at least the possibility of common ground.
That’s when we begin to say, “Maybe we won’t agree on abortion, but we can still agree that this is a heart-wrenching decision for any woman to make, with both moral and spiritual dimensions.
So let’s work together to reduce the number of women seeking abortions by reducing unintended pregnancies, and making adoption more available, and providing care and support for women who do carry their child to term. Let’s honor the conscience of those who disagree with abortion, and draft a sensible conscience clause, and make sure that all of our health care policies are grounded in clear ethics and sound science, as well as respect for the equality of women.”
An assassin in Kansas has just inadvertently strengthened the hand and command of this head of State. A very similar dynamic will come into play as did on April 19, 1995, when a terrorist car-bombing of the Oklahoma Federal Building killed 168 people, and wounded 450 more, including children in a day care center there. That terrorist act - the man convicted for it, Timothy McVeigh, believed he was avenging an act of State terrorism two years prior in Waco, Texas - returned the upper hand to an already embattled President Clinton. His Democratic Party had lost the US House in the 1994 elections to what then-Speaker Newt Gingrich’s called his “revolution” of the right. The Oklahoma City bombing shook public opinion enough to considerably slow what had been, prior, a juggernaut's momentum by the Gingrich revolution, allowing Clinton to again claim the terrain of the political center.
That today’s atrocity occurs not under the helm of an embattled liberal president, but of one that enjoys 67 percent support, still, from the American people, will have even more devastating consequences for the cultural and political right that has placed abortion at the center of its agenda. There is no need to demonize them with a broad brush for it. The first immediate consequence of the assassination of Dr. Tiller will be that it virtually removes the political points to be scored by those who planned to wage an anti-choice argument against US Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor.
I would also be very surprised if, in the coming days, some right-wing radio talkers and those from anti-choice organizations like Operation Rescue can’t help but make the sorts of outrageous statements about this act of terrorism that shock and provoke backlash from the American public. As a crew, they have already whipped themselves up into a mental state of frenzied derangement. The countdown now begins to find out which will shovel their own political graves over this one.
Dr. George Tiller spent much of his 68 years on earth working for an ideal – every woman’s right to safe reproductive freedom – for which he was long persecuted and today he paid the ultimate price. I do believe that if the good doctor could watch what happens next, he would not at all feel the sorrow that comes from dying in vain or after a life without meaning. His was a life that did not end in death, but lives on with even greater purpose and reason than it already had deservedly accrued. As we say South of the Border, where we have many martyrs - old and new - for human freedom: George Tiller, presente.
Update: Cue up Randall Terry, head of Operation Rescue, to step right into this tragedy with inflammatory rhetoric. He told Associated Press:
"George Tiller was a mass murderer and we cannot stop saying that," Terry said. "He was an evil man — his hands were covered with blood."
Terry said he was now concerned that the Obama administration "will use Tiller's killing to intimidate pro-lifers into surrendering our most effective rhetoric and actions."
Terry was already a very self-marginalized fringe player, but, still, he knows not isolation like that which he has brought upon himself and his organization now.
Update II: Josh Marshall has a statement from Attorney General Holder, with shades of of 1962*:
"The murder of Doctor George Tiller is an abhorrent act of violence, and his family is in our thoughts and prayers at this tragic moment. Federal law enforcement is coordinating with local law enforcement officials in Kansas on the investigation of this crime, and I have directed the United States Marshals Service to offer protection to other appropriate people and facilities around the nation. The Department of Justice will work to bring the perpetrator of this crime to justice. As a precautionary measure, we will also take appropriate steps to help prevent any related acts of violence from occurring."
(* In 1962, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy sent US Marshals to the University of Mississippi to protect its first African-American student, James Meredith, from segregationist rioters. "Americans are free, in short, to disagree with the law," President John F. Kennedy said in a nationally televised broadcast, "but not to disobey it." In 1963, the Kennedy administration sent US Marshals into Alabama - and put the Alabama National Guard under federal control - to tell then-Governor George Wallace to step aside from a university door in which he had been standing to block two African-American students. See: The Civil Rights Act of 1964, by Robert D. Loevy, SUNY Press, 1997, pp. 39, 40.)