Medgar Evers was a civil rights activist in Mississippi. Growing up black in a state where dark skin was a crime, he had the courage to stand up for his rights and the rights of his friends and family. He organized boycotts, sued for admission to a segregated law school, and became field secretary for the NAACP.
His house was attacked with Molotov cocktails, but he didn’t back down. In Phil Ochs’ immortal phrasing, “They tried to burn his home and they beat him to the ground/ But deep inside they both knew what it took to bring him down.” And on June 12, 1963, returning home from a meeting with NAACP lawyers, Evers was shot in the back. Ochs concluded that “The country gained a killer and the country lost a man,” and Bob Dylan sang that
A bullet from the back of a bush took Medgar Evers’ blood
A finger fired the trigger to his name
A handle hid out in the dark
A hand set the spark
Two eyes took the aim
Behind a man’s brain
But he can’t be blamed
He’s only a pawn in their game.
Like Byron De La Beckwith, the KKK member who sent Evers to his grave in Arlington Cemetery, Scott Roeder is just a pawn in a game. Roeder is the apparent murderer of abortion clinic ob/gyn George Tiller. Tiller’s was one of the few clinics in the country which performed third trimester abortions. He did so despite constant threats to his life, because he knew that the procedures he performed were necessary to save the lives of the pregnant women. Hilzoy has collected a number of testimonials from women who lived to bear healthy children thanks to Dr. Tiller. There are many more. Tiller’s medical practice was probably the most scrutinized in the nation, both in court and from the crowds of violent protesters who surrounded it, and the patients who came to him in dire need.
Tiller was shot not by a bush-shrouded finger, but in his church, with his family and friends watching. He was lynched, just as Evers was, and just as James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were in Philadelphia, Mississippi. While some try to “philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears,” I find myself stuck on that fact. Nearly 50 years since the last lynchings of the civil rights era, a decade after the lynching of Matthew Shepard, and 36 years after Roe v. Wade, lynching continues apace, and this lyncher felt free to do his dirt in public, in a church on a Sunday morning.
Roeder did not act alone. Setting aside the comings and goings at his house, Roeder operated at the fringes of society, in a world where phrases like “justifiable homicide” were routine, and everyone knew who “Tiller the Killer” was. He lived in a world where murderers of other doctors were lionized. He operated in circles that believed it was acceptable to cast off the shackles of our nation’s laws when you disagreed with them, circles where people declare themselves “sovereign citizens,” construct compounds to keep police out, and stockpile guns, ammunition, and bombs. He devoted himself to stopping women from receiving life-saving medical treatments, and, spurred on by the whispers of his supposed friends and whatever demons were crawling through his mind, he drove to Tiller’s church, opened fire, and then started the long drive home.
Some want to blame Bill O’Reilly for Tiller’s murder. O’Reilly unquestionably stirred up anger over Tiller’s legal and live-saving work, and he certainly pushed the “Tiller the Killer” nickname into the mainstream, but O’Reilly didn’t kill Tiller. The subculture that Roeder oozed out of didn’t need O’Reilly. That nickname, and the idea of that murder might be OK if it prevented abortions, circulated for a long time before O’Reilly’s prominence. O’Reilly isn’t quite a pawn in their game, but he’s not the king or queen, let alone the chess player. O’Reilly probably forgot that last Sunday was the anniversary of clinic bomber (and Olympic bomber) Eric Rudolph’s capture, but Roeder sure didn’t.
Roeder worked in a world that is isolated from much mainstream culture. Josh Marshall, as astute an observer of political happenings as we have today, professes that he “totally missed ? that questions about donations from Tiller, his wife and affiliated groups were a major issue pressed by Republicans during Sebelius’s confirmation hearings.” Sebelius, of course, is the former Governor of Kansas, and now the Secretary of Health and Human Services. This was a big issue in the wingnutosphere, and an overwhelming issue in the anti-woman/anti-choice world. But it barely made a splash outside those communities. No one cared.
James Dobson, who would very much like to think he’s at least a king to pawns like Roeder, simply threw up his hands over that nomination. On his radio show, he explored his impotence: “We tried with Kathleen Sebelius and sent thousands of phone calls and e-mails to the Senate, and they didn?t pay any attention to it because they don?t have to. And so what you can do is pray, pray for this great nation. ? As I see it, there is no other answer. There?s no other answer, short term.”
Roeder thought he did, apparently. With anti-woman and anti-abortion rhetoric heating up again over the nomination of a (presumably) pro-choice woman to the Supreme Court, Roeder must have worried that the chances of Roe being overturned were slim. A Democratic Congress and White House might even pass the Freedom of Choice Act, a bill locking the key holdings of Roe into federal law. Roeder must have felt powerless. In my article on the Texas science standards, I mentioned that “conservatives, out of power in Washington, seem to be shifting their attention to the states,” a pattern other civil rights observers have noted. The Freedom of Choice Act would limit such state experiments, and Sotomayor’s vote could hold back efforts to unravel Roe.
In this sense, Roeder’s lynching is not like De La Beckwith’s. Of Beckwith, Bob Dylan wrote:
He’s taught in his school
From the start by the rule
That the laws are with him
To protect his white skin
To keep up his hate
So he never thinks straight
‘Bout the shape that he’s in
Two juries refused to convict De La Beckwith of murder, and Medgar Evers wasn’t given justice in court until 1994, 31 years after the lynching. Roeder will face a speedier trial, and a jury of his peers will not accept a claim of justifiable homicide, the way a Mississippi jury would when a white man killed a black man who wanted equal rights. De La Beckwith struck from the darkness, beneath a peaked hood, but he knew that his neighbors wouldn’t mind if they knew what he did. Roeder knew that his neighbors disagreed with him, perhaps not about the morality of abortion, but certainly about the morality of murder. That fear and isolation made him that much more dangerous, a more effective pawn in the game.
For a sense of how those pawns move, check out the National Abortion Federation’s tabulation of anti-choice violence (PDF). Looking at murders, attempted murders, stalkings, arsons, bombings, and attempted arsons or bombings, you can see a pretty clear line between the Clinton and Bush years, when such extreme, personal violence dropped off, and a rise again when Democrats retook the House, and you can even see a rise in hate mail and harassing calls since the change in power. When Republicans were in a position to appoint conservative judges or pass laws making it harder for doctors to save the lives of women with potentially lethal pregnancies, these sorts of violence nearly stopped. The pawns where held back while the bishops and the knights made surgical strikes, trying to advance an agenda. That restraint is gone now, and violence against clinics is rising. Tiller’s is the first abortion-related murder since the Clinton years.
Given all this, should we follow Hilzoy’s advice and roll out a series of laws extending the right to abortion and ensuring that all ob/gyns are properly trained to perform the procedures Tiller provided, and which his friend Leroy Carhart will now provide? No. We should do that because it’s good public policy. We shouldn’t enact laws just because it will punish someone, to assuage the horror we all feel from seeing a lynching unfold before us. The desire to exact a punishment as broad in its reach as the violence Roeder committed against our national psyche is strong, and it is natural, but it is wrong.
If the memory and example of George Tiller, a good man who provided necessary medical procedures to save the lives of so many women, can help pass laws ensuring that never again must women travel halfway across the country to get a life-saving procedure, then I’m sure he would welcome the honor. If his death brings attention to this crisis in women’s healthcare, and forces long-delayed action on that front, that’s great.
And if his death reminds us how easy it would be for terrorists to destroy a critical part of our nation’s medical infrastructure, that two clinics performing these procedures creates potentially lethal chokepoints in medical treatment, then I’m sure no one can object.
But terrorists win when we enact policies simply to punish. The time is past ripe for the reforms Hilzoy recommends, but we can’t advance them as a means of punishment. That isn’t what the law is for, and it isn’t what George Tiller gave his life for.
He did give his life, and he seems to have paid the price willingly. For decades he strapped on his bullet-proof vest, braved anthrax hoaxes and bomb scares, vicious protesters and smear campaigns that would singe your hair or mine. Like Medgar Evers, he had to know that it was likely he’d be killed for his work, but he still got up and went to work every day, because he knew that what he was doing mattered, that women relied on him, and he couldn’t let his fear or his anger take over.
Leroy Carhart is carrying on in Tiller’s clinic for the time being. We can pray that other doctors will step up too, and that medical schools and medical licensing boards will use all their might to ensure that the next generation of doctors is prepared to provide those services. We can make sure Congress withdraws barriers to that training, and to the life-saving work of doctors like Tiller. This is not punishment for anyone, it’s a victory for women.
Too many martyrs and too many dead
Too many lies too many empty words were said
Too many times for too many angry men
Oh let it never be again