Tiller's Death: A Debate About Speech

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The assassination of Dr. George Tiller, an undeniably political act, has been roundly condemned by the mainstream groups associated with the abortion debate, and within the mainstream of abortion lobbying/activism, the political significance of Tiller's death has not yet become manifest. With Randall Terry as a notable exception, the major pro-life and pro-choice figures have issued statements almost entirely devoid of politics. Pro-lifers, especially, have said their movement is about the sanctity of life, and thus cannot support an act of murder.

But in opinion circles, a debate is raging about speech. Pro-choice commentators have condemned Bill O'Reilly, for instance, for labeling Tiller as "Tiller the Baby Killer"--a Salon article by Gabriel Winant outlines O'Reilly's use of such phrases. At Kansas City Star blog PrimeBuzz, columnist Mike Hendricks indicts vociferous pro-lifers as Tiller's real murderers, for demonizing him in similar language over the years. In other words, the topic of Tiller's death has become about whether it's appropriate to talk about a person in those ways, and whether language like "Tiller the Baby Killer" constitutes inciteful speech--whether the speech of passionate pro-lifers has been hateful, whether they constitute a fanaticism that promulgated the fanaticism of Tiller's shooter, and whether it effectively sentenced Tiller to death.

Tucker Carlson, in a Washington Post chat, was faced with a charge that O'Reilly was "playing with fire" in his condemnations against Tiller. His response: "Every one of those descriptions of Tiller is objectively true. I sincerely think it's appalling that he was murdered. But Tiller was a monster, no doubt." Will Tiller's shooting have an impact on the national debate about abortion? We can't know yet. But if Carlson's response is an indicator, even Tiller's harshest critics will likely denounce his shooting, seeking to draw an undeniable line between speaking against him and supporting his murder. Perhaps Tiller's shooting will make everyone more cognizant of "fanaticism"--and perhaps, even, it will lead a few to reconsider criticism of the Department of Homeland Security's recent and widely panned report on right wing extremism. But as Tiller's death is discussed today, the debate is less about abortion itself, and more about how it is debated.

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Chris Good is a political reporter for ABC News. He was previously an associate editor at The Atlantic and a reporter for The Hill.

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