“We heard her scream”: the consequences of speech

It feels wrong to drop a sad and sobering post in the midst of these joyful celebrations of our blog and its one-year anniversary. Look at it this way: many of us have taken the time to acknowledge the positive results of your words online, creating a space for dialogue, community, support and Church. I have to say something about a tragic event this week that showed us how online speech can be used to diminish life and place others in danger.

A doctor who performed abortions was killed this week at his church. (His wife was summoned to the foyer, a fellow parishioner said, “and then we heard her scream.”) I can’t stop thinking about Dr. George Tiller’s wife and family, who must have spent years under the weight of knowledge that their loved one had survived one assassination attempt and a bombing and would almost certainly be the victim of further violence. Why was this private citizen in so much danger for doing something that is, while validly controversial, permissible under the law of the land?

He was in danger, and he lost his life, because groups like Operation Rescue chose to publish his private address, church address and personal information, and Bill O’Reilly and others with national platforms chose to single him out as an individual. They could have stopped at decrying the practice of late-term abortion, which drew special censure on Dr. Tiller. They could have chosen to work through the legal system to end this and other abortive practices. Instead, they chose to associate one private citizen with all that is sad, unequal and disturbing about abortion in this country, to justify extreme action with terms like “Nazi” and “blood on his hands,” and to encourage supporters to accost him and his employees in their private spaces, as if vigilante justice were a solution to a problem with systemic roots. When the accused killer–allegedly a person with mental illness and a history of violence–entered this situation, Operation Rescue and groups with similar tactics made it easy to stalk his target, and O’Reilly and other hyperbolic commentators lent a moral sheen to his mission.

Do you remember Megan Meier, the teenager who killed herself after being cyberbullied by a friend’s mother? As the outcome of that case shows, legal consequences for reprehensible actions taken over the Internet don’t yet match up to the sometimes tragic repercussions. I believe legal precedent will develop that would hold groups liable for publishing the personal information of a targeted individual, for inciting violence against someone through words, or even for allowing users to do so in proprietary spaces. For now, we’ve got public outrage. I want to hear pro-life activists renouncing the individual targeting of abortion doctors and clinic employees, demanding that personal information used to target these people be scrubbed from public spaces, and expecting leaders to offer solutions for reducing abortion that don’t involve demonizing human beings.

Why should only the pro-life movement be held to this standard? It’s not unusual for advocacy groups to publish the home address of, say, a CEO to encourage activists to bring a message home in an escalated way. We could argue over when a person is no longer a private citizen (for example, it’s easy to find the home address of a governor or bishop, which seems appropriate; clergy’s private residences are often matters of public record too, and is this fair?)

But the reason pro-life activists need to immediately stop the practice of targeting individual abortion doctors is this: theirs is the only political issue in America where one side routinely attempts fatal violence toward opponents. I want to be fair. I’ve been thinking about this. If someone corrects me, I’ll amend it. PETA, for whatever reason, is nearly synonymous with extremist social action, and yet their most violent resort is a tofu pie to the face. Those who believe abortion is murder cannot be taken seriously as long as murder is done in their name, and these tragedies will slow down attempts to lessen abortion without outlawing it as well.

Why? Because some will make the case that violence in the anti-abortion movement is justification for silencing anyone who considers herself part of that fight. (If you’ve ever heard every form of religious belief dismissed with a reference to the Crusades, you won’t let such arguments fly.) Opponents of abortion share the opportunities for action available to any other social movement–legislative action, judicial action, shareholder activism, nonviolent resistance, altering public opinion through speech, on and on. Some extremists among them choose violence, and some de facto if not moral leaders among them–Bill O’Reilly, Operation Rescue and others–engage in speech that tacitly or even explicitly promotes and aids such violent acts. There should be no tolerance for making humans targets in a movement that calls itself pro-life.

2 thoughts on ““We heard her scream”: the consequences of speech

  1. I think the murder of any human being is wrong, including abortion, euthanasia, and capital punishment.

    I think we live in a society that treats violence as a novelty rather than appreciating the ripple of violence that emanates from even the most mundane violent acts (like a fight at school, which itself is probably a ripple from violence or neglect in a home).

    I also believe that you have to be EXTREMELY careful when you desire the regulation of speech, any speech. I feel that the person advocating for censorship today will be the one decrying the censorship of their own thoughts and ideas in the future.

    Finally, no one’s address is truly private. If you own real property, and have not taken expensive legal remedies (such as forming a living trust to hold your real property for you), you address is a matter of public record. A simple run through the local municipalities tax records or the record of deed transfers will supply anyone with the will the information they desire. Most privacy that people think they have is an illusion.

  2. Thanks for bringing this up, Kate. A couple of thoughts …

    1) It is ironic that someone who is part of the pro-life movement would kill someone to prove that killing someone is wrong. Perhaps the only other social issue over which people are killing others is the death penalty, which of course is being done by the elected government. This hypocritical contradiction seems in line with why the Sierra Club sends the thickest mailings with the most paper out of any other cause.

    2) The other irony here is that he was shot in church. Isn’t it a common argument of the pro-life movement to reason that being pro-choice comes from not having any values and not going to church? I don’t know what denomination church this was, but clearly, there are people who are pro-choice who go to church and participate in leadership roles there.

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