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Belmont Club

Gory, gory hallelujah

June 1st, 2009 - 8:09 am

The assassination of Dr. George Tiller by a man suspected of being part of the anti-abortion movement was described by the BBC in these terms. “To anti-abortionists George Tiller, who was shot dead on Sunday, was a mass murderer known as ‘Tiller the Killer’. To his patients and many pro-choice supporters, he was a hero committed to women in need of help.” The person accused of shooting him was described by the Washington Post as “known in anti-abortion circles as a man who believes that killing an abortion doctor is justifiable.”  It seems safe to say that the circumstances of the case ensure that this murder won’t just be a murder, the deceased doctor not simply another MD, and the suspect not just another perp. The act, the victim and the perpetrator are all at the heart of a political dispute. The shooting was a crime, no doubt; but in a wider sense will be treated like a political event.

There’s an adage that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. In this case you can’t really take your pick. Most people in the pro-life camp aren’t rallying to the support of the suspect, but they are worried that Dr. George Tiller will become a martyr to a cause they despise.  In the calculus of crime Dr. Tiller is indisputably the victim. Yet on the scales of politics George Tiller is very much alive.

Politics has a way of obscuring rights and wrongs. People are divided to this day on whether John Brown was “a great man” or the “father of American terrorism”.   Brown was at all events sentenced to death for the raid of Harper’s Ferry and hanged within a month of judgment. But these things have a way of going on; and present and watching at Brown’s trial was John Wilkes Booth. The only way to understand the Tiller case outside the strictly criminal context is to see it as one of the flashpoints on the boundaries of a political divide. Wikipedia notes that even in the mid 19th century, the facts were less important than the narrative.

On December 14, 1859, the U.S. Senate appointed a bipartisan committee to investigate the Harpers Ferry raid and to determine whether any citizens contributed arms, ammunition or money. The Democrats attempted to implicate the Republicans in the raid; the Republicans tried to disassociate themselves from Brown and his acts.

The Senate committee heard testimony from 32 witnesses, including Liam Dodson, one of the surviving abolitionists. The report, authored by chairman James M. Mason, a pro-slavery politician from Virginia, was published in June, 1860. It found no direct evidence of a conspiracy, but implied that the raid was a result of Republican doctrines. The two committee Republicans published a minority report, but were apparently more concerned about denying Northern culpability than clarifying the nature of Brown’s efforts. Certainly the 1860 Republican Presidential candidate, Abraham Lincoln of Illinois, echoed his party’s view when he called Brown a delusional fanatic who was justly hanged.

John Brown’s body may have been a-mouldering in his grave, but the memes — one way or the other — went marching on.


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