Thursday, June 4, 2009

In Memoriam Dr. George Tiller, 1941-2009

Now a large heard of swine was feeding there on the hillside; and they begged him to let them enter these. So he (sic) gave them leave. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and were drowned.
When the herdsmen saw what had happened, they fled, and told it in the city and in the country. Then people went out to see what had happened, and they came to Jesus, and found the man from whom the demons had gone, sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind; and they were afraid. And those who had seen it told them how he who had been possessed with demons was healed.
Luke 8:32-36 (RSV)

Quoted from Demons, by Fyodor Dostoevsky (Vintage Classics ed. 1995), trans by Mr. Richard Pevear and Ms. Larissa Volokhonsky.

I never met Dr. George Tiller; and before his murder, I had never heard his name. But I had heard of him. In Bill Maher’s film Religulous, one of the “out-takes” or deleted scenes involved Bill Maher talking to some militant Pro-Life jackass. The jackass was telling Mr. Maher how ironic it was (from the jackass’s perspective) that some woman he named was now in prison for “attempted murder,” when what the woman did was walk up to a doctor (who the jackass did not name) and calmly shoot the doctor in both elbows. The doctor, of course, provided abortions, and the shooter’s intention was to cripple the doctor (as opposed to “murder” him), and prevent the doctor from providing a desperately needed service to women. The unnamed doctor was George Tiller, and despite being shot twice in 1993, he continued to be only one of three medical providers in the United States who performed late term abortions, until his murder on May 31 2009.

While I know nothing about Dr. Tiller’s murderer, I would be surprised if the killer was other than some delusional idiot who was at one time active in the Pro-Life movement. No doubt the idiot also spent considerable time pretending to read various stories from the Old Testament about how yahweh (sic) and his (sic) proxies killed lots of people over trivial, if not meaningless, ideological differences. The idiot probably fancied themself as a modern day Joshua, proclaiming by word and deed how the idiot and idiot’s household would serve the LORD (Joshua 24:15). Remembering (but completely misunderstanding) Romans 13:1 (“Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God” KJV), the idiot probably felt good about murdering Dr. Tiller inside Reformation Lutheran Church, where that Sunday, Dr. Tiller had volunteered as an usher. As the idiot sped away from the murder scene, I can envision the idiot taking great comfort in condemning the Christians at Reformation as “whitewashed tombs” (Mathew 23:23-27), and how “not everyone that saith unto me ‘Lord, Lord’ shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven (Matthew 7:21 KJV).

We now have a new idiot to add to a growing list of idiots who have the talent of talking to themselves, convinced that “god” (whatever that is) is talking back. Now, lots of people are delusional to the point that they talk to themselves, and think “god” is talking back to them. But not all those people murder abortion providers, or blow themselves up in a mosque over a dispute as to who were the appropriate seventh century successors to Mohamed, or celebrate the infinite and transcendent love that is Vishnu with a pogrom against Muslim neighbors, following the 2002 massacre on the Godhra Train in Gujarat, India. So, what is the force, the reason, that turns your average delusional moron into a dangerous idiot?

For the dangerous idiot who murdered Dr. Tiller, no doubt the powerful inflammatory rhetoric of the morons in the Pro-Life Movement played a key role. After all, it is not hard to kill a man—if you believe that man’s death will mean life for thousands of babies. Even when that murder does nothing of the sort.

An early work about speech and the consequences thereof is Demons, the novel by Fyodor Dostoevsky. Professor Pevear, in his forward to a then new translation, explains why he and Ms. Volokhonsky translated the title as “Demons,” as opposed to “The Possessed.” According to Professor Pevear, one of Dostoevsky’s themes in Demons was how ideas pass from one person to another, and how those ideas could create problems. The “demons” are not the people (or the “possessed”)—but the ideas themselves. That is the significance of the opening quotation from Luke, about the man who was possessed by demons. Just like ideas pass from one person to another, the demons left the man and entered the pigs, driving the pigs to kill themselves—but leaving the man apparently none the worse.

Dostoevsky wrote in the middle nineteenth century, at a time when books and education became widespread. One of the conservative objections to popular education was what to do about powerful ideas and stupid people. If society cannot function with idiots running amok with dangerous weapons, then what can we expect from amok running idiots brimming over with dangerous ideas? 

Dangerous ideas and the idiots who have them have was a constant worry in the land of Dostoevsky’s birth. To keep dangerous ideas out of the heads of idiots, the Soviet “solution” was to stop the promulgation of ideas the Bolshevik Party considered dangerous. A good example happened when a marginal member of the Socialist Revolutionary Part (a party in hot competition with the Bolsheviks) shot Lenin (maybe), the then head of the Soviet nation. Following the shooting, the leaders of the Socialist Revolutionary Party were rounded up, and put on trial for promulgating the ideology that drove the poor woman insane to the point she tried to murder Lenin. The chief prosecutor, Leon Trotsky, was at his most eloquent in equating those who put the ideas in a near crazy woman’s head with those who would put the gun in her hand. 

A few years later, on December 1 1934, another crazy person named Nikolaev murdered Sergei Kirov, a popular Soviet leader. Eugenia Ginzburg in her book “Journey into the Whirlwind,” detailed the nightmare that followed Kirov’s murder. For the Soviet state, the guilt for Kirov's murder would lie not only with those who ostensively advocated a heretical version of the social and economic philosophy of a command economy, but also among those who were “insufficiently vigilant” in condemning the errors of others. In an effort to stamp out the ideas that inspired the actions of crazy people (including actions that in fact did not happen), the Soviet Union initiated the “Great Terror,” which destroyed the Communist Party, intelligentsia, and military. Ironically, one of the leading figures condemned for putting ideas in crazy peoples’ heads (which was the moral equivalent of putting guns in their hands) was Leon Trotsky.

While the Soviets were less than successful in their efforts to prevent the dissemination of ideas they deemed dangerous to people they considered idiots, the Americans have hardly been any more capable or admirable. Suppression of ideas perceived as dangerous is just one of many shared legacies of the Cold War. For example, to his continuing shame, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson in his dissent in Terminiello v. Chicago, 337 U.S. 1 (1949), expressed the same worry about dumb people getting the wrong kind of ideas. The Terminiello case involved an idiot named Terminiello who was convicted of violating a Chicago city ordinance for “breach of the peace,” when Terminiello gave a pro-fascist, anti-Semitic speech that caused a near riot. Justice Jackson felt that “radicals” if left unchecked, would deliberately give speeches, just to provoke violent conditions: “The choice is not between order and liberty. It is between liberty with order and anarchy without either.” For Justice Jackson, having “liberty with order” was the greatest good—and to allow otherwise would mean when US federal constitution’s bill of rights would become a “suicide pact.” 

Unfortunately, “liberty with order” also became an issue in New York Times v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964), when the entire state government and court system of Alabama conspired to financially cripple and silence the civil rights movement. Alabama et al were not about to allow any liberty, and were willing to go to any lengths (including murder) to preserve the “order” of the status quo. If racial segregation was going to survive, it would survive only if the advocates for integration and voter registration could be silenced. Fortunately, the civil rights movement in the US would not be silenced.

Litigation over so-called “bad speech” is notorious for generating more heat than light. Speech that advocates violence (Brandenburg v. Ohio, 395 U.S. 444 1969)); speech that is just asinine (Hustler Magazine v. Falwell, 485 U.S. 46 (1988)); speech only a moron would think advocated drug use (Morse v. Frederick, ___ U.S. ___, 127 S.Ct. 2618 (2007), naked people speech (Miller v. California, 413 U.S. 15 (1973)), libel (Masson v. New Yorker Magazine, Inc., 501 U.S. 496 (1991)), “religious” speech (Allegheny County v. ACLU Greater Pittsburgh Chapter, 492 U.S. 573 (1989)), “commie” speech (Dennis et al v. U.S., 341 U.S. 494 (1951))—all that speech creates problems. But as a rule, first amendment litigation tries—IN GENERAL—not to prohibit speech; the cure for “bad speech” is not to restrict the bad speaker, but to introduce more speech. Instead of preventing the Randall Terrys (founder of Operation Rescue) of the world from spouting idiocy, the “remedy” is for more people to come forward and explain how Randall Terry is an irresponsible douche.

As a liberal American male WASP, “more speech” (as opposed to censoring “bad speech”) makes perfect sense to me: banning speech rarely is effective. For example, virtually no one would have heard of Salmon Rushdie—but for Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa over “The Satanic Verses.” Far from discouraging anyone from reading “The Satanic Verses,” as a result of the fatwa, that book is now a modern classic.

But what feels so comfortable when discussing abstract concepts of governance, feels much less comfortable after someone gets shot in both elbows. Would I hold the same belief in the power of freedom of speech, if I had to worry about theInterahamwe’s Radio Television Libre des Mille Collines broadcasting “Chop down the tall trees”? During the brutal civil war that followed the break up of Yugoslavia, would I have been satisfied to respond to calls for genocide with the old saw how sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me?

On May 31 2009, an idiot murders a man, arguably inspired by a delusional ideology spouted by morons. And that particular murdering idiot was hardly alone. The windows at Dr. Tiller’s Wichita clinic consist of four layers of bulletproof glass, after an unknown person fired five shots into the building. The clinic was also firebombed in 1986. Would that security be necessary, or would that idiot have murdered Dr. Tiller, but for other morons spouting their ideology of delusion? 

What should our response be to Randall Terry, who called Dr. Tiller a “mass murderer”? Or to notorious slimeball opportunist Bill O’Reilly, who “discussed” Dr. Tiller twenty-eight times on O’Reilly’s television program, referring to Dr. Tiller “Tiller the baby killer”?

The bullshit ideological rational of the end justifying the means is the demonic idea that killed Dr. Tiller—but so what? A good man is still dead, and women who face the nightmare of needing a late term abortion are now reduced to two options. And preventing the spreading of idiotic ideas and/or the spread of idiots just seems impossible. So--is there a deeper meaning in Dr. Tiller’s death?

Perhaps not. In “They Would Never Hurt a Fly,” Ms. Slavenka Drakulic’s excellent collection of essays on the war criminals from the former Yugoslavia, her epilogue describes the Scheveningen detention unit in The Hague, where the men accused of committing the worst war crimes seen in Europe since 1945 are housed. In this facility, the worst of the Serb, Bosnian, and Croat war criminals live together in peace and harmony. For example, when Goran Jelisic arrived at Scheveningen, he was pleased that the first person to greet him and show him the ropes was Esad Landjo—a Muslim. Jelisic is a Serb who specialized in executing Muslim prisoners at close range, while Esad Landjo’s particular especiality was torturing Serbian prisoners. But such differences are forgotten at The Hague. The war criminals now mock the people who took their orders seriously, and ridicule anyone who believed in the fascist nationalism and genocide they themselves once preached. Ms. Drakulic concludes “. . . [I]f all the brotherhood and unity among the sworn enemies of yesterday is indeed the epilogue of this war, one wonders what was it all for? Looking at the merry boys in the Scheveningen detention unit, the answer seems clear: for nothing.”

Much like Ms. Drakulic’s “merry boys in the Scheveningen detention unit,” Randall Terry, Bill O’Reilly, and the rest of the armchair agitating hypocrites will continue to make a good living—and see no reason whatsoever to be less irresponsible.

But the idea that Dr. Tiller’s death could also be “for nothing” is unacceptable. Still, some ringing denunciation that the ends never justify the means, that would be both pointless and trivial. Yet what else can be done? 

Instead of trying to find a larger meaning in Dr. Tiller’s death, and running the risk of belittling his life in a sea of platitudes, would it be better to just honour and celebrate Dr. Tiller’s life, and his courage? If the meaning that Dr. Tiller found in being only one of three options for desperate women was enough to make up for being shot twice, then isn’t drawing inspiration from that same meaning and purpose enough, without trying to find some broader purpose?

Regardless; Dr. George Tiller, nunca te olvidamos.


Anonymous said...

I am sure that this "doctor", if he could go back in his life, would have prefered to work as a salesman of whatever it is. He probably thought that when saw the gun pointing at him. Burn in hell, "doctor".

Anonymous said...

I am sure that this "doctor", if he could go back in his life, would have prefered to work as a salesman of whatever it is. He probably thought that when saw the gun pointing at him. Burn in hell, "doctor".