Is Dr. Tiller’s Killer a Terrorist?

I’ve been intrigued to watch the foment about whether the man who killed Dr. Tiller is a terrorist.

At the ThinkProgress Wonk Room, Matt Duss says, emphatically, “Yes, Dr. Tiller’s Murderer is a Terrorist.” LifeNews.com, a nominal representative of the other “side,” is equally eager to report that abortion activists are calling pro-life advocates “terrorists.”

Mostly, it appears, the Tiller/terrorist question is emotional energy-drink for both sides of the abortion debate. We should let these ideologues be ideologues and move on. But it is worth thinking about the issue in terms of terrorism broadly and in terms of reducing violence prospectively.

Here’s an interesting statement of Duss’ about the killing: “It’s [sic] goal was to intimidate women against exercising their right to choose abortion, and to intimidate doctors who perform them.” Perhaps Duss has had an opportunity to interview Tiller’s killer, who has been highly forthcoming, but more likely Duss is imputing motives to the killer that fit his own worldview and that start an argument he wants to have.

Knowing nothing about the killer, I think it’s a possibility that he might have wanted to avenge what he sees as wrongful deaths that the doctor has brought about, with no contemplation of the prospective effect on women or doctors. The killer might have been trying to impress someone he knows who hated Dr. Tiller. Perhaps he suspected Dr. Tiller was sleeping with his wife (very unlikely, but possible). I don’t think that Duss is wrong, but ascribing motivations to people based on the results they cause is a fascinating habit. To match the hugely shocking results of the 9/11 attacks, President Bush supplied huge reasons that terrorists do what they do, and a deeply unproductive “war on terror” was on.

Now, if the goal is to reduce violence, calling Dr. Tiller’s killer a “terrorist” seems distinctly unhelpful. The criminal laws against homicide contain every penalty that the killer deserves, and he should get justice as the criminal law prescribes it. There is no criminal offense called “terrorism” - and there shouldn’t be, for reasons that follow.

The question in play with Tiller/terrorism goes to future violence - the actions of others. If Tiller’s killer has allies - direct allies or people who agree with what they think he was doing - calling him a “terrorist” will tend to exalt his actions to them. They will perceive it less as an ugly murder and more as political violence done for a cause - something righteous.

If Tiller’s killer were to become widely viewed as a “terrorist,” this would deepen the resolve of his “allies” because they would come to regard the political structure as arrayed against them and their cause. Tiller’s killer would look heroic to them, and his example is one they might seek to emulate in their ideological struggle.

The better approach is to methodically and calmly apply the criminal law to the killing - without rhetorical excess. Putting aside the “political” content will let the ugliness and sadness of the murder carry the day in terms of public attention. This will signal to abortion opponents who might be susceptible to “radicalization” that violence is something sad and pathetic people do. The criminal law accords criminals the justice they are due, families grieve, and the society moves on.

These messages will drain power from the idea of using violence to advance political aims. The best way to talk about the killing of Dr. Tiller is to deal with it only as a grisly and pathetic murder - if the goal is to protect doctors who perform abortion from future violence.