Wednesday, June 03, 2009


Barbara over at the Mahablog has a great post up about the use of the word "terrorist" and all that that implies for the actions of white, male, christianist, militia types in the US aimed at US targets. She links to a thought provoking interview with Jonathan Turley on Maddow's show. Here's one important paragraph:

Yes, but I would also caution though is that no matter what we do—we‘re probably never going to be able to stop the lone actor, the McVeigh, or the individual today, without becoming a totalitarian regime. I mean, lone actors are dangerous because they don‘t come up on the radar screen.

This is completely false. Roeder "came up on the radar" numerous times because of his actions, lone or not. He was actually caught with weapons and bombs earlier in his career. And apparently he tried to vandalize or attack Tiller's clinic prior to the shooting.

This matters to me because Turley's viewpoint, which is widely shared of course, is that crimes are, in a sense, individualistic and random. But of course they aren't. Any social scientist will tell you that they are more like epidemics, and that ideas are like viruses that propagate through the body politic. We've know, for instance, since Durkheim's groundbreaking work "Suicide" that even this most private and personal event has its seasons, its reasons, and its social aspects.

Turley might argue that Roeder is just sort of epiphenomenal. In a society like ours there are always going to be a certain number of impressionable, angry, armed men who will kill someone who has become a popular or celebrity target. In that model, I think, the assumption is that someone was going to kill Dr. Tiller, it just happened to be Roeder. If we had caught and imprisoned Roeder earlier, or had silenced some of his more vocal supporters, or even encouraged his family and friends to see his actions as somewhat abnormal and dangerous, then some other Roeder, by another name, would still have stepped forward to do the deed.

I see the dangers of trying to apply an epidemiological approach to crimes of violence in a society devoted to the idea of individual rights and individual wrongs. But I don't think we should give up on trying to find a way to balance a general right to "free speech and debate" with a recognition that one man's freedom of speech can lead pretty directly to another man's death--the final suspension and denial of all civil rights.

In Turley's interview the opposition "lone wacko" vs "terrorist" comes up in a discussion of whether we should insist that the term "terrorist," with all its new legal force, be applied to domestic acts of violence. Turley doesn't like that because he doesn't like the slippery slope that we've gone down, and neither do I, in which angry or intemperate political speech can be called "terroristic." As a (former) member of United with Justice for Peace or whatever-the-hell splinter groupy name we had I concur that draconian laws regarding peaceable assembly and political organizing should be voided and avoided. But what does that have to do with prosecuting hostile and intemperate political speech that encourages lawbreaking, criminality, and assassination? No one is suggesting that anti-choice forces don't have the right to be opposed to abortion and abortion rights. To organize against it, to petition against it and even to scream about it.

But Turley also thinks the word "terrorist" doesn't apply because Roeder was "just an assassin." This, to my mind, is also incorrect. A brief glance at Roeder's behavior indicates that he wasn't just interested in killing Dr. Tiller, he and his friends in the right to life movement are determined to move the country politically and legally through the creation of a climate of fear and intimidation. Roeder himself actually went in to the clinic in order to intimidate the Doctor physically. That intimidation is in service to a larger goal. If that isn't "terrorism" in its classic sense, I don't know what is.

I think we as civil libertarians have gone very far down the wrong path in allowing the right wing and especially the anti choice people to co-opt the language of free speech and free expression to include interference with people going about their lawful business and pursuing their health care. This is not the same as picketing at a military recruiters office since that office is, in fact, a branch of the same government over and against which we hold our civil rights. Of course its related to laws protecting free speech and assembly and financial boycotts of places of business, and for that reason we might want to tread lightly. But this is not all windy abstraction--there are actual facts here. Clinic pickets are violent and intrusive. Violence isn't the exception but the rule. Intimidation is the goal adn they are quite explicit about it. Why doesn't that rise to the level of conspiracy to intimidate? We should at least support doctors and patients who make this argument rather than shying away from it for fear of losing our civil libertarian cred. People feel very strongly, and rightly so, about a lot of political stuff from school vouchers to gambling and yet you very, very, very seldom hear of a case of physical harassment, the posting of pictures with death threats, or outright death threats being made on either side of these issues. And if they were made as routinely as they are made to abortion providers you can bet your boots the FBI would be more pro-active than they are.


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