Heaping ‘moral blame’ on to crass anti-abortion broadcasters dangerously blurs the distinction between words and actions.
Shortly after the news broke of the assassination of abortion provider Dr George Tiller in Kansas on Sunday, the campaign to blame Fox News host Bill O’Reilly for the killing began. Of course, nobody went so far as to accuse the controversial, right-wing Fox presenter of pulling the trigger in the Kansas church. But many pundits were quick to point the finger of ‘moral blame’ at O’Reilly, arguing that his frequent strong-worded attacks on Tiller could have incited others to kill him.
Andrew Sullivan was one of the first to make the link, headlining his blog post on The Atlantic website: ‘O’Reilly’s Target Shot Dead In Church.’ According to Sullivan, the slaying of Tiller was ‘the culmination of a campaign of domestic terrorism against him’ with a clear ‘Bill O’Reilly connection’. Gabriel Winant of Salon went a step further, labelling O’Reilly’s campaign against Tiller as ‘sensationally irresponsible’ and a potential factor in the killing (1).
The popular Daily Kos website posted a video blog accusing O’Reilly of waging ‘jihad against Dr George Tiller, dedicating 29 segments of his show to demonising and dehumanising Tiller…’ The Kos blogger added: ‘As you can see from these video clip samplings of O’Reilly’s holy war, you don’t have to actually pull the trigger to help sponsor terrorism.’ (Watch the video below.)
The accusations against O’Reilly have crossed the Atlantic, too. Writing on the UK Guardian website, feminist blogger Jill Filipovic argued that: ‘Anti-choicers should certainly have every right to express their views, but they must also realise that actions have consequences and their rhetoric is not harmless. If you yell “Fire!” in a crowded theatre, it’s reasonably foreseeable that people will panic and someone will be injured. And if you yell “Murderer!”, “Baby-Killer!” and “Holocaust!” long enough, it’s reasonably foreseeable that someone will take it upon themselves to make sure that vigilante justice is done.’ (2)
By Monday night, the accusations against O’Reilly and other anti-abortion campaigners were migrating off the blogs and into the mainstream. The US network channel NBC cited ‘questions from critics’ about O’Reilly’s ‘blunt remarks regarding abortion and Dr Tiller’.
Undoubtedly O’Reilly has objected - again and again - to the work of Dr Tiller, particularly his provision of late-term abortions. O’Reilly referred to him as ‘Tiller the baby killer’. He accused Tiller of performing late-term abortions for nothing more than financial gain. He shamelessly used his fairly popular daily cable show, The O’Reilly Factor, to promote his anti-Tiller views to anyone who would listen.
Yet while O’Reilly was vociferous in his opposition to Tiller, it does little good to blame outspoken opponents of abortion for Tiller’s assassination. People like O’Reilly are passionately opposed to abortion, yet while their views are undoubtedly repugnant to those of us who believe in a woman’s right to choose, a sharp distinction should be made between their words and the shooter’s actions in Kansas on Sunday.
Bloggers like Jill Filipovic are quite wrong to make an analogy between O’Reilly’s rhetoric and the shouting of ‘Fire!’ in a croweded theatre. The point about the overused ‘Fire!’ example is that in a crowded theatre there is no time to think: if someone shouts, everyone runs, as there’s no time for debate or reasoned inquiry into the nature of the fire or the truth of the claim. The link between words and actions becomes blurred in this one, exceptionally rare instance.
In contrast, when O’Reilly says stuff on his show, there is every opportunity to question and challenge his claims. TV is not a panicked atmosphere but a media outlet, where the audience hears things, weighs them up, and decides whether to agree or disagree. Far from calling for anti-abortion activists to ‘mind their language’, their often crass remarks should be seen as an opportunity to meet fire with fire, to counter their claims with more compelling arguments and opinions. Far from needing less talk about abortion, we need more. Things might have turned out differently if O’Reilly’s arguments had provoked a robust public debate about why women need people like Dr Tiller and access to late-term abortions.
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But sadly, for too long the question of late-term abortion has been treated as a highly sensitive, even embarrassing issue by many pro-choice activists. And pro-choice politicians do not consider late-term abortion a good subject for public discussion. As President Barack Obama’s speech at Notre Dame University demonstrated, pro-choice politicians are keen to avoid the substantive issues in the abortion debate whenever possible.
But if the pro-choice lobby stays quiet on this issue, it will effectively vacate the public arena and allow people like O’Reilly to barge in and take the alleged moral highground; shamefacedness about late-term abortion allows anti-abortion campaigners to see it and treat it as, well, something shameful. In such a climate, it is little wonder that individuals like Dr Tiller were so effectively demonised. Late-term abortion should not be a dirty little secret never raised in polite society. It should be openly discussed and rationally understood. There are many very sound reasons why women need to have access to late-term abortion services, and there should be no shame in defending them.
It is a tragedy that it has taken the brutal murder of a decent and compassionate man to remind us why so many women turn to people like Dr Tiller for help. O’Reilly has been banging on about Tiller for years, but it is only now that we are beginning to hear the other side of Tiller’s story - a story about a brave doctor who believed passionately in defending women’s reproductive rights. This was the real Dr Tiller, who was seen by many of his patients as something like a knight in shining armour (3).