Everything about the murder of Dr. George Tiller in Wichita yesterday is tragic.
First, Dr. Tiller had a family and friends who have lost their husband, father, brother and neighbor. Because the murder happened in his church, Tiller’s fellow church-goers will doubtlessly be traumatized in a unique way every time they enter the vestibule of their place of worship.
Second, the killing is a tragedy for the pro-life movement. Despite the fact that most pro-life activists are peaceful people, committed to prayer not violence, the whole movement will be tarred with this murder. The charge of hypocrisy – murdering in an effort to stop murder – will ring loud and for many it will ring true.
Third, the killing is a tragedy for the nation. For thirty-five years, both sides in the abortion debate have been shouting at each other, and demanding political orthodoxy on the issue. This has always obscured the fact that most Americans feel ambivalent about abortion. Finally, we have a President who is willing to admit his misgivings about abortion. I don’t think he gets nearly enough credit for changing the way his party has come to view the issue. The murder in Kansas, alas, will only serve to radicalize the discussion again.
Over at the New Republic, Damon Linker argues that there was a kind of logic in the murder. After noting the responsible and respectful statement put out by abortion opponent and Princeton Professor Robert George, Linker asks, "If abortion truly is what the pro-life movement says it is -- if it is the infliction of deadly violence against an innocent and defenseless human being -- then doesn't morality demand that pro-lifers act in any way they can to stop this violence?" No, actually, there is a long tradition in Christian thought that violence only breeds more violence, so morality does not "demand" that pro-lifers go on a murdering spree. Indeed, it is the essence of Christian witness that we see all attacks on human dignity as repulsive.
Which leads to the greatest tragedy of all. How de-humanized have we all become? Here we are – here I am – analyzing the political consequences of a man’s death. You can bet the fundraisers at NARAL know they are in for a few good weeks and the communications director at Operation Rescue is working on his talking points. If the Notre Dame controversy had the positive effect of focussing the nation’s attention on abortion in a way that held out promise for finding common ground on the issue and lowering the abortion rate, the murder yesterday undid all that. The pro-choice crowd will proclaim a new hero and martyr, and while I see nothing heroic in Tiller’s work, I do not doubt he died for his beliefs. The debate will coarsen. The moral uneasiness most people feel about abortion will be replaced by the moral revulsion they feel at the prospect of a man being killed in church.
The goal, let us recall, is a culture of life, a culture that restrains all that de-humanizes us as a people and as individuals. (Original sin, alas, will always find a way to assert itself as a principal part of our inheritance.) And, the only way we in the pro-life movement can provide a truthful witness to the culture of life is to be apostles of love and forgiveness and peace. Someone yesterday thought they could kill in the name of God and in defense of the unborn. Everyone in the pro-life movement must look searchingly at our rhetoric and our attitudes to make sure that we do not provide fodder for such thoughts and actions. De-humanization is not just something other people do.