Monday, June 1, 2009

About that T word

Steve Benen at Political Animal:

I can appreciate the notion that "terrorism" may seem like a loaded, provocative term. But in a case like the Tiller assassination, the word clearly applies.

We're dealing with an act of politically-motivated violence, against a law-abiding American on American soil, intended to scare, intimidate, and change U.S. policy.

I read through the comments, and what struck me was one of the things that struck me while reading through some of the chatter on Twitter last night: there are a lot of anti-abortion folks who want to define terrorism as narrowly as possible to exclude Roeder's assassination of Dr. Tiller, and who want to frame the message that Roeder's act was an isolated event. Commenter Karen Marie does a great job of debunking the right-wing's spinning of Roeder's act of terrorism:

Bob M (and others) are defining terrorism narrowly to suit their current needs. but he'll need to narrow it a bit more in order to say that the murder of dr. tiller was not an act of terrorism.

people who identify as "pro-life" constitute a group. just as football fans are a group, motorcycle fans are a group, weekend gardeners are a group. groups don't act in formal concert, receiving instructions from one hierarchy, but nonetheless individual members can act in furtherance of the goals of the group.

terrorist groups, whether informal or formal, are not organized exclusively to achieve religiously-oriented goals. the tamil tigers, for instance, are a terrorist group not acting to further or protect religious beliefs. basque separatists are not acting to further or protect religious beliefs.

timothy mcveigh did not bomb the federal building in oklahoma as part of a plot of an organized group, he did it with the help of some friends, but that bombing was an act of terrorism. people are still terrified. you see proof of that every time you enter a courthouse or large federal building and walk through security. we are not being protected from common criminals but from terrorists.

radical pro-lifers share a philosophy with a goal to impose their views on the rest of us whether we like it or not, regardless of the death and destruction necessary to achieve their goal.

terrorism is a tactic, it is an act, it is not a philosophy or goal. it is the means to an end. a hallmark of terror is randomness, not knowing where it will strike.

the "pro-life" crowd wants you to believe it was a random act but only in a very narrow sense ("we're not responsible!"). but dr. tiller's murder was anything but random. he was targeted. to people who don't know dr. tiller, couldn't find kansas on a map if it was the entirety of the map, it appeared out of the blue, in a church -- someplace people think of as being safe -- it feels entirely random, it could have been their church, their medical clinic, their neighborhood.

that is terrorism.

roeder was encouraged, aided and abetted by his fellow travelers ("the group") to murder a fellow human being in furtherance of their common goal. that act of murder was done in a way to evoke fear of a similar fate in other people.

that is terrorism.

people are feeling terrorized today as a result of an act intended to elicit those feelings. an intent shared by roeder and the group of which he is a member.

that is terrorism, even by Bob M's definition.

Roeder could be said to have possible acted "alone" (and that itself has not yet been established) only in the narrowest of senses. I keep mentioning the importance of context - in the case of Roeder, there is almost certainly a support network upon which he drew leading up to the assassination of Tiller. Roeder certainly was savvy enough to know that Tiller was a target among those in his particular political and social network, and Roeder - unless he lived in a cave somewhere - had access to media that was replete with eliminationist rhetoric against those who provide abortions and those who support the right to choose. He was not truly alone in any meaningful sense of the term.

One thing I've learned about right-wing extremists (as opposed to say mainstream conservatives - and folks there is a difference) is that they are either unable or unwilling to discuss issues on their merits as such - rather they must demonize their opponents, in some way dehumanize them; in doing so it makes various acts of aggression and violence much more easy to accomplish. Unfortunately, their favorite authority figures have already successfully modeled such behavior (O'Reilly's diatribes on Tiller are quite educational in this regard, but I would broaden that to include the vitriol from any of the prominent right-wing authority figures in the world of punditry, the pulpit, or politics).

Something I wrote about five and a half years ago:
One of the things that Orcinus points out in his recent post Projecting Violence is that the general trend of political hate speech is truly the domain of the right wing's politicians, pundits, and rank and file. Research on authoritarian aggression is especially pertinent, as it appears that individuals who are high RWA tend to be prone to act in aggressive or violent ways if those actions appear sanctioned by those they consider as authority figures (see, e.g., Altemeyer, 1981, 1988, 1996).

What is troubling from my standpoint as a social scientist is that much of the writings and speech advocating violence against liberals and other political enemies is coming precisely from those authority figures. Television and radio talk show hosts are for better or worse viewed as authorities by those who make up their core fan base. Same with those who hold political offices or who are considered religious leaders. If these authority figures appear to sanction violent acts against other groups, there is an increased risk that someone among their followers will ultimately act violently. The danger isn't so much from what is said by these authority figures (most of it comes across as sophomoric at best) but rather the danger is from the interpretation of the meaning of those hate-filled words based on the rather black-and-white mentality held by their followers.
I perhaps tend to be a bit charitable to those authority figures whose stock in trade is essentially hate speech - perhaps more so than I should be. That said, within the present context of the Tiller assassination I have some advice to offer: those who consider themselves anti-abortion, but who haven't yet bought into the extremism that can come with their movement, would do well to consider carefully whom they chose as role models. As for my more mainstream conservative friends, I have to ask, surely you can do better than O'Reilly, Savage, Coulter, and Limbaugh? Surely, you can understand where their rhetoric can lead? Surely you can understand that their vitriol created the climate in which such violence would occur?

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