While it is a stretch to blame Fox News or other conservative television and radio programs for the murder of George Tiller this week, it is necessary to ask whether shows that called the doctor an “executioner,” “Hitleresque” and “Tiller the baby killer” contribute to an environment that encourages individuals with extreme views to act on them. Condemnations of the murder are only a first step. Ending the polarization that surrounds abortion so that a productive dialogue on reducing its frequency can take place is overdue.
George Tiller was killed Sunday morning at his church in Wichita, Kan. Scott Roeder, a longtime anti-abortion activist, has been charged with his murder.
Words matter. If anyone knows this, it is journalists. So, it is especially distressing that a network that calls itself “fair and balanced” would, for years, use incendiary language to describe a doctor who performed abortions. Worse is for people like Bill O’Reilly, the Fox News host who used the “Tiller the baby killer” moniker, to point fingers at “Fox News haters” for questioning his tactics and their effects.
When asked about his role in the tragedy, Mr. O’Reilly, who said “clear-thinking Americans” should condemn the killing but did not condemn it himself, said he was being demonized and that everything he said about Dr. Tiller was true. Really? That the doctor was guilty of “Nazi stuff”? That the doctor was the moral equivalent of al-Qaida?
If any columnists or letter writers at the Bangor Daily News used such language or made such claims, their work would not be published. If a midsized daily newspaper has such standards, why doesn’t a major television network — especially when the consequences can be so dire?
Freedom of speech and the press, enshrined in the First Amendment, is not unlimited. “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man from falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic,” U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote in 1919 in Schenck v. United States. “[The] question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent.”
Killing doctors who perform a procedure that is legal is an evil that Congress certainly has a right to prevent. Inciting such killing with purposefully inflammatory language is also something that should be prevented.
When we can’t discuss our differences without resorting to name calling and invective, we lose some of our humanity. More immediately, we can’t solve difficult problems, such as reducing the frequency of abortion.
Making abortion illegal will only drive the practice underground where more women will die. This should not be acceptable to pro-life advocates. A better solution is to minimize abortion through contraception education and economic development (many women abort their babies for fear that they cannot afford to care for them).
Toning down the rhetoric is a good place to start.