President Obama has received considerable criticism because he has refrained from strongly endorsing the anti-regime street demonstrations in Iran. Much of that criticism has come from the same neoconservative geniuses, such as former deputy secretary of defense Paul Wolfowitz and Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, who brought us the Iraq debacle. My colleague Christopher Preble does an especially good job of showing why meddling, even verbally, in Iran’s internal political affairs would be a bad idea. Given America’s less-than-savory reputation with many Iranians ever since the CIA overthrew the country’s democratic government in 1953 and put the brutal, corrupt Shah back on the throne, a U.S. endorsement of the opposition would likely be the kiss of death.
The alleged election victory by hardline President Mahmoud Amadinejad was probably the result of fraud, and most Americans hope that the ongoing demonstrations ultimately oust the clerical regime. But if a revolution occurs, the Iranian people must do it for themselves. It would be both improper–and given the unfortunate history of U.S.-Iranian relations, counterproductive–for the U.S. government to meddle. So far, President Obama has struck the right cautious and balanced tone.
I usually avoid writing about the emotional abortion issue, in part because of my own ambivalent views on the topic. But I’m going to make an exception because of the events of the past week. On Sunday, May 31, a gunman murdered Kansas doctor George Tiller, in church in front of his wife, no less. Tiller was one of the few doctors in that part of the country willing to perform late-term (third trimester) abortions, and he had long been a lightning rod for the anti-abortion movement.
His killing was a horrific incident, but almost as troubling has been the reaction of conservative pundits and other right-wing opinion leaders. Although some expressed perfunctory criticism of the killing, a far more dominant theme has been distraction and denial.
The distraction component, exemplified by syndicated columnist Michelle Malkin, is to contrast the media coverage of Tiller’s killing with an incident a day later when two military recruiters in Little Rock were gunned down, one fatally. Because the accused gunman is a Muslim convert who cited U.S. actions against Muslims in the Middle East as a motive for his attack, Malkin and other conservative pundits charged that it was an act of terrorism and should have received at least as much media attention as did Tiller’s assassination.
I actually agree with her that the assault on the recruiters should have received more coverage, especially since the alleged gunman had previously made a trip to Yemen–a country that has had a significant Al Qaeda presence. But one can’t help escape the conclusion that Malkin and her allies are desperately trying to put down a smokescreen to take attention away from the Tiller incident. In other words, they want to reframe the debate into one about media bias rather than having to debate whether the hate-filled rhetoric used by portions of the anti-abortion movement is responsible for Dr. Tiller’s death.
I’m not surprised that they’re uncomfortable about dealing with the latter issue. Tiller’s assassination was hardly the only case in which anti-abortion extremists have used violence to intimidate or eliminate opponents. Tiller himself was wounded in an earlier assassination attempt, and his clinic had been bombed in yet another incident. There have literally been dozens of such assaults over the years around the United States.
And that brings us to the second part of the conservative reaction: denial of any responsibility. The spin used by pundits and religious leaders is roughly the following: “Even though we routinely referred to Tiller and other abortion doctors as executioners, murderers and baby killers–often in media outlets that reached hundreds of thousands or millions of people–you really can’t blame us if some unstable individual took us at our word and concluded that the world would be a much better place if he eliminated such executioners, murderers, and baby killers.”
Pontius Pilate might be impressed with such excuse making, but the rest of us should not be. And, yes, some left-wing extremists have used similar incendiary rhetoric against the U.S. military. But one key difference is that such extremists are usually Marxist yahoos ranting on a street corner, reaching (at most) hundreds of listeners, not hundreds of thousands. It has been said that with great power comes great responsibility. When high-profile conservative opinion leaders like Fox News host Bill O’Reilly referred to Dr. Tiller (not once in some emotional outburst, but repeatedly over a period of years) as “Dr. Killer” and an “executioner” of babies, they abdicated that moral responsibility. The other key difference is that the murder of the military recruiter was an isolated incident. The killing of an anti-abortion provider was part of a long and bloody pattern of conduct.
It is time that conservative leaders take some moral responsibility for the inevitable outcome of their spewing of hate against pro-choice activists. Abortion is an emotional, wrenching issue on which good people reach polar opposite conclusions. The debate should be conducted with respect and humility. At the very least, there needs to be an attitude that one’s opponents are honorable people who are merely misguided in their views. It is not only unhelpful, it is morally monstrous to demonize one’s opponents as vile murderers. The killing of Dr. Tiller gives the conservative movement one more chance to recognize that reality and abandon their toxic rhetoric.