The XX Factor

Dr. George Tiller’s Killer Was a Domestic Terrorist

The murder of Dr. George Tiller in his church this Sunday sent a special chill down my spine; not the kind one gets when someone young, or important, or defenseless is gunned down in cold blood, but the kind one gets when domestic terror strikes. I don’t mean to be too alarmist about the first killing of an abortion provider since 1998. Of course, any such assassination is illegal and wrong. But the lawlessness and vigilantism of this particular murder-or, as the anti-abortion zealout who allegedly shot him might put it, judgment -is very worrisome. Is total anarchy just around the corner?

Michelle Goldberg finds a reason to be worried . At The Daily Beast, she narrates how a strengthening pro-choice, pro-gay, pro-progress consensus (otherwise known as a Democratic president) has left anti-abortion and religious groups embittered at the loss of political power. Goldberg flags the infamous Department of Homeland Security report on right-wing fringe groups, and speaks with a hate crimes specialist who sees the far right becoming, as it had been under the last Democratic administration, “restless, apocalyptic, and ready for action.”

Earlier this spring, conservatives went into paroxysms of outrage after a leaked report from the Department of Homeland Security warned of the possibility of right-wing violence. “Paralleling the current national climate, rightwing extremists during the 1990s exploited a variety of social issues and political themes to increase group visibility and recruit new members,” the report said. “Prominent among these themes were the militia movement’s opposition to gun control efforts, criticism of free trade agreements (particularly those with Mexico), and highlighting perceived government infringement on civil liberties as well as white supremacists’ longstanding exploitation of social issues such as abortion, inter-racial crimes, and same-sex marriage.”

Tiller’s slaughter may thus be seen as the result of growing radicalism combined with growing political impotence. Goldberg continues:

That’s especially true with regard to abortion. “They see the mainstream anti-abortion leadership as being traitorous or emasculated at best,” Levin says of the radical anti-abortion movement. After all, Rick Warren gave the invocation at Obama’s inauguration. Notre Dame gave him an honorary degree and invited him to speak at commencement. A recent Gallup poll showed that, for the first time ever, more Americans identify as “pro-life” than “pro-choice,” but the anti-abortion movement still can’t find momentum. “They feel like their leadership is not carrying the ball on this and has basically become patsies or traitors,” says Levin.

Jonathan Chait thinks he’s found “a unified theory of Obama” -which is that, while negotiating touchy issues both foreign and domestic, Obama likes to assume good faith, and thereby alienate individuals who are obviously pissing in the legislative or diplomatic soup. This may be true (Mark Schmitt has written persuasively on this subject as well); but warring over reproductive rights is something different entirely. If true villians exist, they create a moral space in which they must be stopped. And anti-abortion activists, including prominent hit men like Bill O’Reilly , had made Tiller, who performed therapeutic late term abortions and saved many women’s lives , a villain.

We saw the seeds of this entropic, extralegal movement in the Republican men and women who yelled “terrorist!” at then-candidate Obama during campaign rallies. So while Obama has tried conciliation ( the Notre Dame speech is a great example ), the “common ground” he seeks may not exist-Tiller was the latest victim of this Manichean world view. What’s worse, the search for common ground, however clever and symbol-laden, may actually encourage murder.

So, I’m sad to say, domestic terror is back.

UPDATE: Adam Serwer at TAPPED offers a working defintion of terrorism . Ann Friedman lays out Obama’s policy options .