NEW YORK--All too often in American politics opposing sides talk past one another, firing off arguments loaded with language that stands no chance of persuading those who hold other views.
The debate over what to do about 9/11 was such a moment, one that initiated the current era of polarization. When liberals recoiled at torture and GOP attacks on civil liberties, conservatives accused them of being anti-American traitors. When Republicans supported preemptive warfare against Iraq, liberals called them fascists and warmongers.
If we had the chance for a do-over, it would probably happen just the same way. The attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., exposed a fault line in Americans' views of what makes our country great: Liberals treasure the United States for the Bill of Rights, whereas conservatives value living at the center of a wealthy and powerful empire. The kill-'em-all-let-God-sort-'em-out crowd doesn't live in the same universe as those of us who would have used diplomacy and international law to apprehend the murderers of September 2001.
The murder of doctor George Tiller at his Kansas church has again exposed the fault line over abortion. Both sides talk past one another. The pro-choice contingent snaps that pro-lifers--usually right of center--care only about human life between conception and birth. For their part, many pro-lifers fail to concede some obvious points, like the fact that forcing a girl to bear a child that results from rape or incest is obscene.
I am militantly pro-choice on practical grounds. You can't tie a woman down for nine months and force her to bear a child. And also on moral ones: Women must be able to control their bodies. Nevertheless, I am disgusted by much of my fellow pro-choicers' rhetoric in the aftermath of the shooting of Dr. Tiller.
Reveling in the same kind of smug self-righteousness that characterized George W. Bush and his supporters after 9/11 (did they really think questioning liberals' patriotism would convince them to support invading Iraq?), my fellow pro-choicers are attempting to marginalize pro-life Americans as out of touch and possibly insane.
"It's senseless," said the director of an abortion clinic in Portland, Ore. Even President Barack Obama weighed in: "However profound our differences as Americans over difficult issues such as abortion, they cannot be resolved by heinous acts of violence," said a White House statement.
If you're intellectually honest, however, murdering an abortionist isn't inherently "senseless." If you believe (as I do) that life begins at conception, then the first cellular division after a sperm fertilizes the ovum represents human life every bit as much as you and I. The standard feminist claim that a baby isn't alive until it's "viable" outside the womb is ridiculous. I know 25-year-olds who aren't fully viable.
Abortion is murder. In my view, women have--and ought to continue to have--the right to murder their unborn babies. Each abortion is a tragedy, some necessary and others not, and all of them are murder. It's not a position that I'm comfortable with. But as sad and horrible as abortion is, I can't see telling a woman who doesn't want to carry a pregnancy to term that she has to do so.
For those who choose to prioritize the fetus over the mother, on the other hand, it is a simple straightforward leap to the next assumption. Since murder is wrong and mass murder is even worse, then it becomes morally incumbent upon people of goodwill to do whatever it takes to stop it. President Obama says the abortion debate "cannot be resolved by ... violence," but he's too cute by half. With abortion the law of the land since 1973, a Democratic-majority Congress and Obama about to see his (pro-choice) pick seated on the Supreme Court, there is nothing anyone can do within the existing legal and political system to put an end to what pro-lifers view as the annual murder of millions of Americans. What are they supposed to do? Write a blog?
"According to God's laws," wrote Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry after the shooting, "and the laws that govern how we protect the innocent in times of peace, George Tiller was one of the most evil men on the planet; every bit as vile as the Nazi war criminals who were hunted down, tried, and sentenced after they participated in the 'legal' murder of the Jews that fell into their hands."
Tiller wasn't just any doctor. His practice's focus on third-trimester abortions--60,000 in all, according to Fox News' Bill O'Reilly, but exact numbers aren't available--had already prompted an anti-abortion activist to shoot him. "Dr. Tiller was well-known for providing abortions for women who discovered late in pregnancy that their fetuses had severe or fatal birth defects," reports the Wall Street Journal. "He also aborted healthy late-term fetuses. Some of his patients, he said, were drug addicted and some were as young as 9 years old." Complexity is so damned complicated. He aborted healthy late-term babies? Sick! But who wants a 9-year-old girl to become a mom? Not me.
For those who oppose abortion, the question is: Would you kill Adolf Hitler?
As liberal talking heads have been saying repeatedly, abortion is legal. But that's not much of an argument. So was slavery. So was denying women the right to vote. As Randall Terry points out, so was killing Jews in Nazi Germany. If obeying the law was always the right thing to do, we would teach our kids that George Washington was a terrorist. And no one would drive faster than 55.
True, many pro-lifers are right-wingers with their own problems with hypocrisy--I'd love to see the stats on "pro-lifers" who voted for Bush in 2004 after he'd murdered more than 100,000 Afghans and Iraqis. But liberals don't do themselves or the pro-choice movement any favors by glibly dismissing every fetus as a soulless lump of protoplasm or calling those who resort to violence to try to save them psychotic terrorists.
Ted Rall, president of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, is author of the books To Afghanistan and Back and Silk Road to Ruin: Is Central Asia the New Middle East?