Many members of the pro-choice community have urged the Justice Department to treat Sunday’s events as an act of domestic terrorism. At first, I thought “of course!” As I’ve done more reading and heard the perspectives of some constitutional law scholars interviewed in the media I’ve become considerably more ambivalent about this. Make no mistake, I feel that Dr. Tiller’s death is deeply tragic, but I remain unsure about labeling this event as “terrorism.” I have two concerns about the expanding definition of terrorism, one is tied to civil liberties and ‘thought policing’ and the second is more political.
First my concerns about calling Dr. Tiller’s death terrorism: On Monday, Rachel Maddow interviewed George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley. He suggested that under the Bush administration the definition of “terrorism” expanded to include many, many crimes. Turley also feels that murder or assination are not exactly the same thing as terrorism especially given that the Supreme Court has protected violent speech. Perhaps a better category would be to call Roeder’s crime a “hate crime” defined as:
Hate crimes… occur when a perpetrator targets a victim because of his or her perceived membership in a certain social group, usually defined by racial group, religion, sexual orientation, disability, ethnicity, nationality, age, gender, gender identity, or political affiliation.
A “hate crime” can take two forms: “hate crime” generally refers to criminal acts which are seen to have been motivated by hatred of one or more of the listed conditions. The second kind is hate speech, which is speech defined as crime. While hate crimes are rarely debated, the hate speech concept is controversial, as criminalizing speech can be seen as impugning freedom of speech. Incidents may involve physical assault, damage to property, bullying, harassment, verbal abuse or insults, or offensive graffiti or letters.
In contrast, terrorism is defined by “a policy or ideology of violence intended to intimidate or cause terror for the purpose of “exerting pressure on decision making by state bodies.” The term “terror” is largely used to indicate clandestine, low-intensity violence that targets civilians and generates public fear.” Pamela Sumners, who works for NARAL, wrote an excellent piece for RHRealityCheck.org defending labeling Tiller’s death as terrorism and an assassination used to intimidate women, doctors, and the public at large. She chastized people (like me) who tend to believe that although Tiller’s murderer might have been in a climate of hate speech that doesn’t necessiarily mean he comitted an organized act of terror with the intent of creating a media presence and generating widespread public fear. Sumners asserts that:
Don’t call it murder. Call it an assassination. George Tiller was the fourth doctor who performed abortions to be targeted, stalked, and executed in the United States since 1993. If the Scott Roeder in custody is the same Scott Roeder who posted on Operation Rescue’s website the thinly veiled invitation to OR’s supporters to help him scope out the floor plan of Tiller’s church, he may have had help with everything but pulling the trigger. He pulled that trigger on the sixth anniversary of the capture of Eric Robert Rudolph, whose bomb at the Birmingham clinic contained five pounds of dynamite and hundreds of nails that killed a police officer and almost killed nurse Emily Lyons.
I’m nevertheless sympathetic to the claims that one ought not police thoughts, even hate speech, until it becomes an open incitement to commit a specific crime. As of yet, I have not heard evidence that suggests (to me) that Roeder is more than a deeply troubled man under the influence of an especially radical group but who acted not based on the specific instructions of the larger organization. While I feel this might be a perfect opportunity to reconsider how America defines hate speech and what counts as an open incitement to violence, Roeder seems to be that 1% you just can’t control for. I stand corrected. According to reporting at RHRealityCheck, Roeder had been at Dr. Tiller’s trial earlier this year and arrested with bomb making materials in the past. Although he had the phone number of Operation Rescue in his car, it does not appeare that he was in contact with anyone in the organization about his specific plans. Specificity of the communication seems to be the most important thing to me.
Second, I think that the pro-choice movement calling for Dr. Tiller’s death to be labeled terrorism opens up a whole new line of attack by the anti-choicers. I can just see years of “oh it wasn’t terrorism when the abortionists kill a billion babies a day in their so-called clinics but the death of one abortion doctor is ‘terrorism’– Hypocrites!” Although I don’t think that the pro-choice movement ought to be making choices based on a defensive posture to the religious right, I’m bracing for the blow back from this debate.
I’m also ambivalent about labeling the anti-choice movement as a terrorist group because I think it grants them legitimacy that they don’t really deserve. When I think of terrorists I tend to think of groups like AL Qaeda, the IRA, or other large quasi-nationalist groups that have an agenda beyond a single political issue. This is, perhaps, an overly limiting definition but I think at some point it is important to differentiate between a “hate crime,” “terrorism,” and just average “crime.”
Roeder may have comitted a hate crime but I do not yet feel certain that he carried out an act of terrorism.