I was saddened and disturbed on January 8th when I heard the news about the shooting in Tucson that left six people dead and 14 others injured, including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. As the coverage began to focus on possible political motivations for the attack and the influence of violent rhetoric, I couldn’t help but think about the parallels between this tragic event in Arizona and the senseless murders of eight abortion providers and clinic staff, including my friend Dr. George Tiller.
Both Congresswoman Giffords and Dr. Tiller were gunned down in public. Congresswoman Giffords was interacting with her constituents at a “Congress on Your Corner” event and Dr. Tiller was ushering at the church where he and his wife had been active members for more than 20 years. Both of them were shot in the head at point-blank range, and both incidents caused our nation to examine the prevalence and effect of violent political and ideological rhetoric.
Unfortunately, this discussion is not new to the abortion provider community. Since 1993, there have been eight murders and 17 attempted murders of physicians and clinic staff.
Abortion opponents have a long history of using violent rhetoric to attempt to justify their crimes and incite others to violence. They regularly refer to abortion providers as “murderers” in interviews and articles and utilize imagery associated with murder such as “wanted” posters and “hit lists” in their campaigns to end legal abortion. Unfortunately, instead of marginalizing these extremists, other opponents of abortion have picked up on this dangerous rhetoric to advance their political agenda.
The devastation this rhetoric can cause has been keenly experienced by the abortion provider community. In late 1992, Michael Griffin, who had no history in the anti-abortion movement, became involved with a local anti-abortion leader who took him under his wing and mentored him by showing him graphic anti-abortion videos and involving him in efforts to target a local clinic where Dr. David Gunn worked. Earlier that year abortion opponents had distributed western-style “wanted” posters featuring a picture of Dr. Gunn, his home phone number, and other identifying information. In 1993, Dr. Gunn became the first abortion provider to be murdered; shot to death by Griffin in Pensacola, Florida.
Following the murder of Dr. Gunn, anti-abortion extremists publicly advanced the idea that the murder of abortion providers was “justifiable.” Paul Hill appeared in media outlets, including the nationally televised Donahue show, calling for the execution of abortion providers. In fact, he was so well-known for making such inflammatory statements that reporters often asked him, “If you believe so strongly in killing doctors, why don’t you do it yourself?” One year later, Hill acted on the violent words he had been preaching when he shot and killed Dr. John Bayard Britton and volunteer escort Lt. Col. James Barrett, and injured June Barrett, in the driveway of a Pensacola, Florida, abortion clinic. Hill’s ideas were carried forward by others including James Kopp, who unsuccessfully attempted to use a “justifiable homicide” defense during his trial for the 1998 murder of Dr. Barnett Slepian in Buffalo, New York.
Scott Roeder, convicted last year for the murder of Dr. Tiller, also testified in court that his actions were justified and made repeated unsuccessful attempts to use a so-called “necessity defense.” Prior to murdering Dr. Tiller, Roeder had been in contact with others who advocated using violence against abortion providers, and was influenced by the media and what he watched on TV. He testified in court that he converted to Christianity as an adult after watching conservative programs like “The 700 Club.” Roeder stated that he believed Dr. Tiller was a murderer, a belief advanced by Bill O’Reilly, who repeatedly referred to Dr. Tiller on national TV as “Tiller the Killer.”
Violent rhetoric can clearly influence individuals to retaliate against not only abortion providers, but also, like Tucson shooting suspect Jared Loughner, against government authority and government officials. Some, like Scott Roeder and Eric Rudolph, target both. Roeder was a member of the Montana Freeman Militia and Rudolph, who was convicted of murder resulting from a bomb he detonated in Olympic Park in Atlanta, also bombed two abortion clinics where one person died and another was seriously injured.
Perhaps Loughner has the most in common with murderer John Salvi. Like Loughner, Salvi was a mentally unstable loner in his early 20s with no association to any politically motivated group when he opened fire with a semi-automatic weapon in two Boston-area abortion clinics in 1994, killing clinic staff members Shannon Lowney and Leanne Nichols and injuring five others. After shooting Congresswoman Giffords, Loughner fired randomly into the crowd and killed six people including a federal judge and a nine-year-old girl. Salvi committed suicide in prison, and just hours before the shooting in Tucson, Loughner posted “Goodbye friends” on his MySpace page.
While some people purposefully use violent rhetoric to incite others to action in order to advance their own agendas, others do so without considering the consequences of their actions. In a civilized society, there is no room for political rhetoric or imagery that encourages and incites others to commit acts of violence. Those in politics and the media have a responsibility to use their influence to foster civil dialogue and debate.