In seeking to make sense of Dr. George Tiller’s murder, some have asked whether the current tenor of the abortion debate is at least partially to blame. In response to such criticism, opponents of legal abortion have been quick to distance themselves from the killing – with varying degrees of sincerity. Extremist organizations like Randal Terry’s Operation Rescue seem to suggest that the assassination was bad political strategy rather than just plain wrong, but more mainstream abortion foes highlight the obvious incompatibility between murder and an agenda billed as "pro-life." "We condemn this lawless act of violence," said the group Americans United for Life. "The foundational right to life that our work is dedicated to extends to everyone."
Abortion rights opponents often style the effort to end abortion after the Civil Rights Movement, in deference to what many believe is a moral equivalence between the two struggles. In this vein, some antiabortion advocates also seek to imitate – if not emulate – the nonviolent philosophy adopted by leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. As such, the antiabortion movement tends to use tactics that harken back to the fifties and sixties: marches on Washington, civil disobedience, and summers of mercy.
Whether or not one accepts this comparison as valid, Tiller’s death, or more specifically the angry war of words that preceded it, has raised the possibility that an essential piece of King’s nonviolent legacy has been absent from the abortion debate for some time: namely nonviolence itself. King’s vision of nonviolence went far beyond a mere call to refrain from physical attacks on one’s enemies. On the contrary, he believed that nonviolence is only truly possible if it is wholly manifest in all aspects of one’s action. So while King hated an unjust system, he refused to condemn his adversaries, preferring instead to treat them with charity and compassion. "Nonviolent resistance does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win his friendship and understanding," he wrote in his famous 1957 essay "Non-violence and Racial Justice." "It is evil we are seeking to defeat, not the persons victimized by evil."
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Indeed, the struggle for racial equality adopted a much-different tone from the one which often characterizes the antiabortion movement of today. Whereas King called for a true social transformation in which hearts and minds were opened to new understandings, the abortion debate is more typically framed using the language of conflict, false dichotomy, scape-goating, and images of war. That which must be overcome is not a differing ideology, or even evil itself. More often it is "the liberals" – a mantra repeated ad nauseam on conservative talk radio – or some other personalized political demon. A "culture war" is afoot, we’re told, and the path to victory is less conversion than a snuffing out of countervailing thought through sheer political muscle.
Tiller’s assassination comes as many abortion rights opponents have ratcheted up a rhetorical war in the wake of President Obama’s election, prompting an uptick of verbal assaults on abortion rights proponents. Despite his efforts to bring all sides of the abortion debate to the table to discuss common ground – which should be universally construed as a monumental step forward for abortion politics – Obama is commonly referred to as "the most pro-abortion president ever." For his work, the late Dr. Tiller was known simply as "The Killer." But the rhetoric of violence is not confined to one end of the political spectrum. Abortion rights opponents are commonly called "enemies of choice" and "anti-woman" on the liberal blogs. Labels like these can do violence by dehumanizing and demonizing those who disagree. They extend a sword instead of an olive branch.
Let’s not forget that one of the hallmarks of war is that people get hurt. Another is that it leaves us in a state of perpetual impasse, fighting bitter struggles over seemingly unimportant real estate. So while the greatest danger of rhetorical violence may be the physical violence that it easily begets, we can’t lose sight of the fact that living in a state of constant conflict is profoundly unproductive. The Civil Rights Movement would not have succeeded if it had been known as the Civil Rights War.
I harbor no delusions that the highly charged atmosphere of modern politics provides any sort of fertile ground for the kind of nonviolence that King practiced and preached. Despite our best efforts, my own organization lapses into the rhetoric of anger and division from time to time, particularly when under fire from our political opponents. It’s occasions like these when it’s most difficult to remind ourselves that nonviolence is not the same as backing down. On the contrary, it is as much a moral principle as it is a means to an end – a way to win over those who disagree, and a way to find common ground.
Few would argue that the best responses to Dr. Tiller’s death should include guns and knives. But how many will tone down the rhetoric and call for love and kindness in the wake of this terrible act? According to Ghandi, himself one of King’s spiritual mentors, "courtesy towards opponents and eagerness to understand their viewpoint is the ABC of non-violence." As we begin this dialogue about common ground, it’s absolutely essential to model this comprehensive vision of nonviolence by working to bring a sense of civility to the abortion debate.