Wednesday, June 03, 2009

The politics of fanaticism

Dr. George Tiller's murder on Sunday in his church, almost certainly by a Christian terrorist, has the Republicans in a tizzy trying to distance themselves from that time of crime.

It shouldn't be hard. "That's terrorism and murder and it's wrong. Period." should do it.

But, as the invaluable Dave Neiwert puts it, "Right-wingers have a problem admitting that there's such a thing as right-wing terrorism." And that's one thing that makes it difficult for them to distance themselves clearly from the murder of Dr. Tiller.

The Sedgwick County, Kansas, district attorney has filed charges in the case: Scott Roeder charged with first-degree murder in George Tiller shooting death by Stan Finger and Ron Sylvester The Wichita Eagle 06/02/09.

Perhaps ironically, one of the more human responses I've seen came from the Roeder's ex-wife in Man likely to be charged with killing Tiller had history of mental illness, family says by Laura Bauer and David Klepper Kansas City Star 06/01/09:

Lindsey Roeder’s focus now is on her son.

"It’s been an absolutely devastating 24 hours," she said late Monday afternoon. "I haven’t slept. My son can’t sleep. ... I can’t imagine, if it’s been like this for us, what it’s been like for the Tiller family."
I'm not criticizing Lindsey Roeder or her son in saying this, but they aren't doing Roeder's defense any good by talking to the press about him. I seriously don't mean that as a criticism; I can imagine more than one good reason why they would want to do so.

But they convey in that article the distinct impression that they pretty much accept that Scott Roeder did the shooting.

I'm sure it's partially because I've watched just about every episode of the Perry Mason show, including the TV movies, and came away with distinct images of how many people who appear unquestionably guilty of murder, e.g., caught standing over the body with the murder weapon in their hand, turn out to be Innocent. And in the real world, from Whitewater to Wen Ho Lee to the Olympic bombing to the anthrax attacks of 2001, I've seen cases where the authorities and/or the press were convinced someone looked good for a crime and their "evidence" later turned out to be misleading or frivolous. Remember the "dirty bomber" that John Ashcroft arrested and turned over to the Navy to be tortured with extreme isolation for years but was never charged on any such count, probably because the evidence came from someone being tortured to make false claims?

But this crime was almost certainly committed by a Christian terrorist of Roeder's reported political orientation. And the circumstantial evidence looks strong here, and it isn't based on torturing people or super-top-secret government documents or fabrications by segregationist redneck scammers from Arkansas.

The headline writer of that Kansas City Star article picked up what rather bizarrely has become the knee-jerk conventional wisdom in rightwing terrorism cases, that the alleged perpetrator was a lone nut. Laura Bauer and David Klepper don't fall into that trap in the article. They do report that Roeder is said by his family to have had mental health problems in the past but they also report clearly his involvement in far-right fanaticism, which has been already documented in court proceedings. Near the end they write:

Scott Roeder’s beliefs also came up in a custody battle in Pennsylvania. In 2003, Roeder sued for the right to visit a girl born the previous year. Roeder said he was the girl’s father.

The girl’s mother and her husband told the court they felt Roeder would not be a good influence on the child.

According to a court ruling filed in 2005, Roeder was earlier diagnosed with schizophrenia “for which he takes no medication, which may pose a clear and present danger to the female minor child.”

The child’s mother also brought up Roeder’s affiliations.

“… Past conduct and association with anti-government organizations is ongoing and poses a risk to her daughter,” the records said.

The child’s mother and her husband — who has raised the girl as his own since her birth — “feared that (Roeder) would kidnap and hide their daughter since he threatened to do so with his son.” [my emphasis]
Dave Neiwert caught reporters on Monday already singing the lone-nut tune. I'm sure I'll have more to say about this case. But here, I want to mainly focus on the how the words and actions of non-violent rightwingers, in this case essentially the entire base of the Republican Party, relate to a case like Tiller's murder.

I'm actually a little more hesitant than, say, Keith Olbermann on Monday evening's Countdown, to hang this around the necks of media blowhards like Bill O'Reilly. Decades ago, cult leader Charles Manson (in)famously took the fun, eclectic, mostly nonsensical lyrics to a Beatles song, "Helter Skelter", and took it to contain a prophetic calling for him to kick off a race war by taking his cult to go murder a pregnant actress (Sharon Tate). It would be crazy to blame the songwriters (the late John Lennon and Sir Paul McCartney ) or performers for that crime. But, then again, that song didn't explicitly say, "Sharon Tate has killed thousands of babies and is like Adolf Hitler."

Olbermann is a bit too much of a blowhard for my taste, and also too careless with facts and too weak on news judgment. I do feel much more comfortable with the analysis along those lines that Dave Neiwert does at his blogs and in his latest book, The Eliminationists: How Hate Talk Radicalized the American Right (2009). Not least among his accomplishments is that he took the "eliminationism" concept from Danny Goldhagen, who applies it in the shakiest of ways on behalf of a neoconservative policy outlook, and made it into something actually useful.

But I think abortion opponents are stuck with a real dilemma if they are serious about minimizing the chances that their rhetoric will encourage acts of violence. One columnist that O'Reilly has criticized by name on that issue is Mike Hendricks of the Kansas City Star who writes (Incendiary language creates climate that kills 06/02/09), "Language like that creates a climate for violence. When it becomes accepted parlance in the anti-abortion movement, we shouldn’t be surprised that some nut job might feel justified in picking up a gun to intervene." But the problem is deeper than a matter of word choice.

Not being sympathetic at all to the cause of outlawing abortion, I'm sure my advice on the subject would not be welcome. But there certainly is an outlook by which one can oppose abortion but be in favor of laws allowing women to choose whether or not to have an abortion within the legal boundaries of Roe v. Wade. Consumption of cigarettes or alcohol are behaviors that are proven in many cases to have deadly effects. It's an empirical fact that smoking causes many deaths and that drunk drivers cause a lot of fatal and debilitating accidents. Yet banning them altogether has proven to be unfeasible. It doesn't stop individuals, churches, governments, medical providers or other kinds of private groups from discouraging irresponsible behavior with tobacco and alcohol. I'm a major skeptic of the idea of decriminalizing the use of narcotics. But it's also true that banning them has scarcely been an unmitigated success story.

An abortion opponent could believe that abortion is wrong, immoral, against the will of God, even a "mortal sin", which is the Catholic Church's position, and still take that kind of position on legal regulations.

But that's not the real existing anti-abortion movement. In fact, that's pretty much a description of the position of pro-choice politicians, who typically say they personally are opposed to abortion but favor women's choice along with sex education and other "abortion reduction" strategies.

That's not how the anti-abortion movement as it actually exists approaches things, though. Obviously, we have to use care in generalizing about an entire movement. I believe, for instance, that one can still be considered a "pro-lifer" in good standing in the movement and advocate abortion exceptions in the case of rape or incest.

But the movement generally considers a fetus, even one moments old, to be a human being and that killing that fetus/human being/baby is murder. When you proceed from that premise, then how does an abortion not appear to be "baby-killing"? And when you look at a record of millions of abortions performed, isn't it perfectly reasonable to compare that to the Holocaust? Isn't it an unavoidable conclusion that a government which allows such mass killing of babies to go on is as bad as that of Hitler's, if not worse?

To me, a good rule in detecting fanaticism is that when your premises require you to adopt conclusions that are obvious bullshit, then it's time to look at things in a different way. To imagine that democratic government in the United States, or Spain, or Germany today, is worse than that of Nazi Germany because the laws in those countries allow a woman to choose to abort a fetus that cannot survive outside her own body, is a false and fanatical conclusion. Because that is a comparison that is equally true if you switch the subject and the object, i.e., Hitler's government was better than democratic government today in the US, Spain and Germany. Anybody who doesn't wanted to be conned by some really nasty fanatics had better develop a bullshit detector that goes off loudly when such conclusions are insisted upon.

Mine goes off also when I hear people saying that the number of abortions that have been performed in America since Roe v. Wade (1973) is worse than the Holocaust. That means that aborting a fetus that cannot survive outside its mother's body is at least as bad as killing a real live Jew. If not worse, because an unborn baby is considered to be perfectly innocent of anything wrong. Again, it seems to me if your inner bullshit alarms don't start going off loudly when statements like that get tossed around, then you really don't have sense enough to even begin to understand the theology of when a fetus becomes human.

Yet those kinds of claims are as common as dirt in the anti-abortion movement, yes, including the vast nonviolent majority of anti-abortion activists, including high officials in the Catholic Church and some of the most popular Protestant ministers in the US. Jamison Foser takes William Saletan to task in Slate's Saletan plays with fire County Fair blog 06/02/09 for this column, Tiller's Killer: Is it wrong to murder an abortionist? Slate 06/01/09, and Duncan "Atrios" Black labels Saletan his "wanker of the day" for it. In that piece, Saletan argues along something of the same lines I do here, which is that given the premises of the real existing anti-abortion movement, killing an abortion provider may be a crime but not a sin. "If abortion is murder," he writes, "the most efficient thing you could have done to prevent such murders this month was to kill George Tiller." He does conclude with saying:

If you don't accept what he [Tiller's assassin] did, then maybe it's time to ask yourself what you really believe. Is abortion murder? Or is it something less, a tragedy that would be better avoided? Most of us think it's the latter. We're looking for ways to prevent abortions—not just a few this month, but millions down the line—without killing or prosecuting people. Come and join us.
Saletan's argument is so flabby I don't like it either. He makes a far better case on why the principles of the movement justify murdering abortion providers than he does to say what's might be wrong with their thinking. As we're seeing in practice, people who think they are doing the Lord's work by saving innocent "babies" from being "murdered" aren't going to be moved by dippy appeals to support sex educations programs. A great many of them are against honest sex education programs, for reasons on which I won't speculate here.

I think his basic point is correct, though. but I don't see that as grounds for appeal for anti-abortion zealots to sit down and let's reason together. They don't need invitations to polite dialogue. They need to snap out of their fanaticism. Because even though most anti-abortion activists may be too moral or too straight-laced or too repressed or too cowardly to actually murder an abortion provider, as long as they promote an ideological framework that equates abortion with murder, their propaganda is going to encourage some people to consider acts of violence against abortion providers.

And as long as they are willing to accept ideological constructions that make Nazism morally superior to democratic government and that equate aborting a fetus that has no possibility of surviving outside its mother's womb with murdering a living, breathing Jew just because you feel like killing a Jew, then their activism and propaganda is going to encourage far-right violent extremism.

To put their alternatives another way, it's theoretically possible for anti-abortionists to recognize that until very recently in history, i.e., a century or so ago, Christianity didn't see reason any reason to assume that a zygote was a full human being. And that abortion in the United States was first banned around the turn of the 19th to the 20th century because even medical abortions were dangerous to the lives of the women carrying the fetus. Both Christianity and Judaism in medieval times had some notion that "ensoulment" (the point at which the soul enters the body of the fetus) occurred at some time during the first months of pregnancy. But they didn't get that directly out of the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament, because it's not there. And that absence is signficant, too. Because in Jesus' time, a form of abortion was practiced in the Roman Empire. And neither Jesus (so far as we see in the Gospels) nor the writers of the canonical books of the New Testament thought it necessary to even mention it.

So a little Christian humility in this matter could go a long way in getting anti-abortionists out of a fanatical mindset. Maybe God isn't speaking to them quite so unambiguously on the subject as they might think.

And more plain honesty would help, as well. Yes, miracle premature births have been around for a long time. Lots of babies that were conceived on or soon after a couple's wedding night have been born four or five months later perfectly healthy, as the incomparable Miss Manners once pointed out. But that is a purely social "reality". Roe v. Wade was based on a medical reality that hasn't changed, despite all the prenatal and postnatal care advances since 1973: a fetus cannot survive outside its mother's body until the end of the second trimester. So in medical terms, the fetus is part of its mother's body until that point. And government should rely on that medical reality when it comes to abortion laws. According to Roe, US Constitutional law requires it to do so.

Still, it would be entirely possible to reconceive the issue as a fetus being potentially a human life or spiritually human and to campaign for laws and/or Constitutional amendments against abortion, but doing so without resorting to fanatical constructions that equate aborting a fetus to murdering a living breathing human or to view a democratic government that protects women's rights as worse than Nazism.

Theoretically. But that's not the real existing anti-abortion movement in America. And until they break with their fanatical framing of the basic issue, they are going to continue to encourage the kind of fatal extremist practice that ended Dr. George Tiller's life this past weekend.

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