As you may have read, George Tiller, a.k.a. “Tiller the Killer” who performed late term abortions in Wichita, Kansas, was shot to death outside of his Lutheran congregation this morning. According to the National Abortion Federation as reported in The Wichita Eagle, “Tiller was the eighth U.S. abortion provider murdered since 1977, and 17 others had been targeted with attempted murder.” I could not find any incidents reported before A.D. 1977. So, it seems that anti-abortion vigilantism has resulted in eight deaths in the United States. I do not wish to make the deaths of eight people a light matter, but one should bear the number in mind when the media cry about the scourge of anti-abortion violence. Violence in the 1960’s by antiwar protesters and black activists claimed many more lives, and yet the Left does not hold such acts against the peace and civil rights movements. Of course, I should not expect principled consistency by politically motivated journalists.
Unlike the mainstream prolife folks, I do not consider Tiller’s death a tragedy. I certainly do not consider him a hero worthy of candlelight vigils. His line of work was monstrous, and he more than deserved death. He killed innocents for treasure; I can think of few things as revolting. Nonetheless, the murder was foolish and wicked.
First, the murder is bad for the prolife movement; we cannot expect the media or stupid Americans to look at the numbers in an intelligent manner. In the most divisive civil conflict of our age, very few independent agents on one side of the dispute have resorted to violence—a miniscule number compared to agents of violence in other social conflicts. As the prolife side thinks that legal abortion has resulted in fifty million American fatalities, the fact of eight dead abortion providers does not condemn the prolife movement as violent. We should expect to have seen many more, given human passions and the extent of the injustice of abortion. Perhaps, the prolife movement is, after all, prolife.
Second, and far more importantly, vigilantism is an attack on all social order. Presbyterian preacher and abortionist killer Paul Jennings Hill argued in his last words before his execution, “The last thing I want to say: If you believe abortion is a lethal force, you should oppose the force and do what you have to do to stop it. May God help you to protect the unborn as you would want to be protected.” What Hill and his small group of comrades miss is the impact of their outlaw justice to the society at large. Assuming that abortionists do deserve death (as I certainly believe), do we trust their fellow men to exact it? Even in an organized political community, I do not really trust human beings with the power of life and death. The justice system has to exist, but we are all keenly aware of its many shortcomings. In the film version of The Fellowship of the Ring, Jackson has Gandalf deliver a remarkable line, “Many who live deserve death, and some that die deserve life - can you give it to them? Do not be so quick to deal out death and judgement. For even the very wisest cannot see all ends.” I think that we ought to be very wary of anyone who feels confident in such dealing.
Furthermore, do we really wish for every Joe with a grievance to take the law into his own hands? If large, ordered human communities fail so often in meting out justice, think of the lunacy involved with vigilantism. There are indeed instances where society’s rules result in injustice, but we cannot trust men to take matters into their own hands to resolve the injustice. Men would see their pet grievance as the exceptional case where the rules do not work; human beings are adept at rationalizing and at exempting themselves from universal rules that they expect others to follow. Such madness cannot be justified; it is a recipe for overthrowing the social order.
Vigilantism is the last resort for folks who live in a failed society—not a failing society, but a failed and destroyed society. A vigilante asserts that the social order, or what remains of it, is not worth upholding, and then he actively seeks to overturn it. For when one takes justice into his own hands, he jeopardizes the social order. From the perspective of the society, he becomes an enemy—as much as any criminal. I do not think that the United States is incapable of sliding into such a disordered chaos that vigilantism would be morally defensible, but it certainly is not such now. We have working organs of social order and justice. We have corrupt politicians and bad laws, but we also have a stable political process and social order by and in which we can work for reform and improvement. There are millions of people and thousands of institutions that are helping to hold American society together—helping to render it more just and correctly ordered. To kill a monster such as Tiller in disregard of the law and of society is nihilistically to assert that all has already been lost. Moreover, if such were the case, then what good could come from one dead abortionist? A better choice in such a hypothetical Gomorrah would be to retire to the desert to pray.
When I look at history, I conclude that revolutions almost invariably make things worse than they already were. Some aggrieved revolutionary fanatics—“perfectionists with guns,” as someone once remarked on the National Review, attempt to overthrow the status quo in order to usher in the glorious just state that they desire. Yet, the resulting disorder proves that the cure harms people more than the disease. When the chains that bind a society are loosened and anarchy sets in, the weak and innocent become prey to the wolves. What depraved situation would justify such a cost? I am not sure, but I do know that American society is not such a lost cause.
Tiller’s murderer may not have been an anarchist. He may not have realized how his breaking of the law in order to bring a supposed higher justice to a murderer erodes all laws. Nonetheless, his act, like all crimes, whether motivated by hate, greed, or some peculiar dedication to righteousness, harms the whole society by chipping further away at the social order.
Thus, I weep not for Tiller, though I should have rather seen his repentance than his death, but I find the murder, like all murders, a wound in our political body.