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Where Does Free Speech End, Terrorism Begin?

T here’s no question that what I did was a relatively new concept. Some day it will be commonplace and generally accepted as normal.

--Paul Hill, sentenced to death in December for murdering a doctor and his unarmed escort outside an abortion clinic in Pensacola, Fla.

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Last week, after a gunman opened fire in Brookline, Mass., killing Shannon Elizabeth Lowney, 25, and Leanne Nichols, 38, and wounding five other people, the words of former Presbyterian minister Paul Hill were hauntingly invoked in a news story about the latest carnage.

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One hates to use the word prophetic to describe the most un-Christian Hill, but you’ve got to wonder what he knows, and why he knows it. Could law enforcement officials make a case that a nationwide conspiracy is underfoot to destroy those who exercise their legal rights to obtain and perform abortions? Could we say that all the people who use the term “justifiable homicide” to describe these killings are inciting murder and are, in fact, terrorists themselves?

Where does free speech end and terrorism begin?

And if it is not a conspiracy, then what is causing those on the fringe of the anti-abortion movement to take up arms as a matter of course? And what are we going to do about it? What can we do about it?

After all, terrorists materialize where they are not expected, and armed with political agendas and guns, they murder and maim people they don’t know.

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On Friday, the day of the Brookline murders, I spoke to Kate Michelman of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League. Her contradictory response to my question, “Can the violence be stopped?” encapsulates the intractability of terrorism.

“Yes, I do think it can,” she said. “No, you can’t stop it entirely.”

But, she added, “If there were an international threat to our domestic peace and freedom from a fundamentalist group abroad, do you think there wouldn’t be brought to bear the full force of our governmental power--law enforcement and otherwise?”

What, finally, is the difference between a radical Islamic terrorist who blows up the World Trade Center and a radical Christian terrorist who shoots up abortion clinics?

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What do we think when we read about an Islamic theocracy that passes a death sentence on a novelist for committing “blasphemy” in his fiction? What do we think about societies that arrest and torture women for failing to cover themselves in the prescribed manner when they step into the streets? And what do we think about the people who hijack planes and kill passengers to advance a religious agenda in a country halfway around the world?

We shake our heads at the brutality of it.

But here, in our own country, after the brutal murders of two clinic workers, we find prayer vigils honoring the alleged killer, and very little in the way of counterdemonstrating. We hear plenty of praise for the terrorist acts from people proud of their religious beliefs.

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Our politicians--Clinton, Dole, Gingrich--have finally avowed that the nation will not tolerate such political violence. And yes, there is condemnation from certain anti-abortion quarters--and it seems, some sincere soul-searching. But much of the very rhetoric that seems to have inspired the terrorist acts has come from such groups. The oft-quoted Catholic priest David Trosch, inflammatory and unbending, has yet to be defrocked by the Church. On Friday, while John Salvi III, the suspect in the Brookline killings, was still at large, Trosch told a radio reporter that if the gunman showed up on his porch he would shake his hand and congratulate him.

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Abortion is legal. It is a sometimes painful, always personal decision. There is almost no possibility of neatly reconciling the two opposing views. Those who believe it is immoral will probably never be able to accept--as has the U.S. Supreme Court--that it is, finally, a woman’s decision to make.

So how do we respect each other’s positions? Is this even possible? All it can reasonably mean is respecting each others’ right to disagree without resorting to violence.

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The simple solution to this convoluted and ultimately unresolvable debate is to prevent unwanted pregnancies. Which is, of course, a fantasy. As long as there is physical passion, there will be unwanted pregnancies. As long as certain religions oppose contraception, there will be unwanted pregnancies.

So our job, as people living in a society governed by the rule of law, is to live with the differences and find ways to end the violence. We must insist on investigations of the possible links between the inflammatory rhetoric and murder. We must insist that law enforcement officials take seriously the threats against clinic workers. We must insist on energetic enforcement of the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act.

And we must acknowledge the heroes in this fight: the people who continue to staff the clinics where women come to exercise fundamental control over their reproductive lives. How do they summon the courage to go to work each day, knowing there are men and women with weapons, warped and willing to dispense a form of misguided vigilante justice that would have the National Guard on alert if the targets were bankers, or newspaper publishers or department store magnates?

For their sake, and ours, Paul Hill’s prophecy must never be allowed to come true.

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* Robin Abcarian’s column is published Wednesdays and Sundays.

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* Missed one of Robin Abcarian’s columns? There’s always a collection of recent ones available through TimesLink, the on-line service of the Los Angeles Times. Sign on and “jump” to keyword “Abcarian.”

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