Many pro-choice people have responded to the recent shooting by blaming pro-life advocates. In this article I show why such claims are completely unjustified by analyzing culpability and what it means to incite violence.
Last Friday a 57-year old armed man named Robert Lewis Dear walked into a Planned Parenthood facility in Colorado Springs and opened fire. He barricaded himself inside for hours, and before surrendering himself to police he killed three people and wounded nine more.
Ben Domenech at The Federalist summarized many of the weird things that have already come out about Dear:
As is so often the case in these circumstances, Dear is described by neighbors as an odd loner, who avoided eye contact and spoke unintelligibly. In South Carolina, his previous residence, he had been arrested after hiding in the bushes and peeping into his neighbor’s house. He shot a neighbor’s dog with a pellet gun and threatened him with bodily harm. In Colorado, he lived off the grid in a trailer, on a five-acre plot of land he apparently purchased for $6,000 in 2014. This followed a series of cabins and trailers — without electricity or running water — that he stayed in after his divorce in 2000.
Dear has no history of affiliation with the Republican Party or pro-life groups or politicians.
While we don’t yet know very many details about his initial questioning by police, it was leaked that he said something about “no more baby parts” at some point. This is a clear reference to the Center for Medical Progress’ (CMP) undercover videos that have provided evidence that Planned Parenthood illegally sells body parts from the babies they kill in abortion. Planned Parenthood and others are claiming or implying that pro-life advocates are partially to blame for the shooting because we have been saying that Planned Parenthood sells baby parts.
Are pro-life advocates culpable for the shooting? By culpable I don’t mean “the only person to blame,” or even “the primary person to blame.” I also don’t mean “ought to be legally prosecuted.” By culpable I mean “morally blameworthy for their actions.” Whether pro-life advocates are culpable for the recent shooting depends entirely on what it means to incite violence. While I will not answer every possible question about what circumstances could make one culpable, I will argue that there are two extreme ways of thinking about culpability that we should avoid. I will also argue that the right way to determine if a statement incites violence is to examine the statement, not merely whether or not it was credited for violence.
Let’s start by examining four fictional cases.
What We Can Learn from Obvious Cases
Case 1 (The Pastor): A pro-life pastor says in a sermon that abortion kills babies and hurts women, so the church needs to be more intentional about loving people that have been affected by abortion. A deeply mentally ill person listens to the sermon and decides that if doctors kill babies in abortion, then the doctors deserve to be killed, so he goes into a clinic and shoots and kills an abortion practitioner. The murderer says that after listening to the sermon, he felt he had to kill “one of the baby-killers.” Is the pro-life pastor culpable? I think not.
Case 2 (The Activist): An anti-abortion activist says in a speech that doctors who perform abortions might as well be Adolf Hitler. He goes on to say that if it was legal to declare open season on the whole lot of them, he’d go hunting full-time, and maybe some people more courageous than he should do just that. “After all,” he says, “it would have been justified to kill Hitler.” There’s a young man at the speech that traveled a long way to get there. He has been following this activist for years and deeply admires him. He gets tired of feeling like he can’t do anything to stop abortion, so he decides to do what his hero told him is courageous. He stalks an abortion practitioner, follows him to his house, and shoots and kills him. The murderer publicly thanks the anti-abortion activist for giving him the guidance he needed. Is the anti-abortion activist culpable? I think so.
Case 3 (The Blogger): A pro-choice blogger writes that pro-lifers are hurting women by restricting their rights, and that they need to be taught a lesson on what compassion means. A deeply mentally ill reader skims the article and hones in on the phrase “they need to be taught a lesson.” He decides to go teach them a lesson. He goes to the office of a well-known pro-life organization and shoots and kills a pro-life activist. The murderer says that when he read the article and he saw the phrase “they need to be taught a lesson,” he was filled with rage, so he had to go kill someone. Is the pro-choice blogger culpable? I think not.
Case 4 (The Professor): A pro-choice professor says in her women’s studies class that pro-life people are the modern day moral equivalent of slave-owners. An astute student points out that it would have been moral for a slave to kill their owner in order to escape, and asks if it would be moral to kill pro-lifers to stop them from enslaving women. The professor says, “Of course it would be. If only some brave students had the courage to do just that…” Several of the students get together, build a bomb, and plant it at a pro-life pregnancy resource center, killing the receptionist. The murderers say their professor persuaded them that they should kill pro-lifers. Is the pro-choice professor culpable? I think so.
An extremely broad understanding of culpability and inciting violence might consider the people in all four cases (the Pastor, the Activist, the Blogger, and the Professor) to be culpable. This seems wrong because it is obvious that in Case 1 and Case 3 the pastor and blogger are not culpable for the murder.
An extremely narrow understanding of culpability and inciting violence might consider none of the four people to be culpable. This also seems wrong because it is obvious that in Case 2 and Case 4 the activist and professor are culpable for the murder.
We need an understanding of how culpability works that explains why there is culpability in Cases 2 and 4, but not in Cases 1 and 3. The only solution is to examine what the individuals said, and whether the leap from their statement to the act of violence is a reasonable leap.
There can be logical reactions to statements and completely off-base reactions to statements. A person who makes a statement is not culpable for completely off-base reactions, he is culpable for logical reactions. The same is true of emotional responses. I have a friend that once said “Emotions are never wrong. Whatever emotional response you have in a given moment is justified.” The problem with that is that I could inappropriately became furious with her for merely frowning at me, and in her worldview she would be responsible for my anger. Similarly, if I make a statement that is not actually violence inciting, I am not culpable if someone later gets violent and blames me for it. If you want to know if a person incited violence, you need to look further than whether a murderer says they did. You have to look at their message. Does the message actually encourage violence? In Case 1 (the Pastor) and Case 3 (the Blogger), the message did not encourage violence, so the pastor and blogger are not culpable.
The four hypothetical cases I used are intentionally obvious cases. Unfortunately, real world cases are less obvious. Let’s examine two real world cases.
How Should We Think About Harder, Non-Fictional Cases?
Case 5 (Center for Medical Progress): The Center for Medical Progress released a series of undercover videos accusing high-ranking Planned Parenthood staff of breaking the law, including “using partial-birth abortions to sell baby parts” and “haggling over payments for intact fetal specimens and offering to use a “less crunchy technique.” CMP denounced Planned Parenthood as a criminal enterprise and lead the pro-life movement in declaring that Planned Parenthood sells baby parts. On November 27, 2015, a mentally disturbed man named Robert Lewis Dear walked into a Colorado Planned Parenthood and killed two civilians and a police officer. Is CMP culpable?
Case 6 (Southern Poverty Law Center): The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) lists the Family Research Council (FRC) on their list of “Extremist Groups and puts the FRC office on their map of “active hate groups.” On August 15, 2012, a man named Floyd Lee Corkins II bought 100 rounds of ammunition and 15 Chick-fil-A sandwiches and then walked into FRC’s office and opened fire. A security guard subdued him despite being shot. Corkins plan was to kill as many people as possible and then to smear the sandwiches on their faces as a political statement.
This is a 19-second video of Corkins’ FBI interrogation, where he answers the question of how he knew about FRC’s office:
It was a uh, Southern Poverty Law, uh anti-gay groups. I found them online. I did a little bit of research, went to the website, stuff like that.
It is believed that if the security guard had not succeeded in stopping Corkins, he would have succeeded in killing dozens of people. Is SPLC culpable?
If you have a really broad understanding of inciting violence, you can consider the Center for Medical Progress culpable for the recent shooting, but you will also have to consider the Southern Poverty Law Center (and, to a lesser extent, the many gay rights groups that condemned Chick-Fil-A) culpable for Floyd Lee Corkins’ attack on FRC (thanks to Robert George for pointing out this case). If you want to blame pro-lifers for the recent shooting, go ahead, as long as you’re willing to be consistent.
It seems like there is something deeply problematic with that view of what “inciting violence” is. If a non-violent statement becomes transformed into a violent statement the second a crazy person shoots someone and mentions you, the world would be an absurd place. It would be a world where literally any statement can be a violence-inciting statement; you just need a mentally ill person to act violently and then blame you for it. This would be a world where we cannot condemn any kind of evil or injustice because any statement condemning anything could make us culpable for a murder if we stated our opinion openly and a crazy person happened to be present. As David French said, “To clamp down on speech (or even self-censor) for fear of bitter hermits and angry lunatics is absurd.”
Either both organizations are culpable in Cases 5 and 6, or neither of them are. My view is that neither CMP nor SPLC is culpable. Violence was a completely unreasonable (not to mention completely evil) response to their messages in both cases. It is understandable for people on either side of the issue of abortion to ask honest questions about whether violence is an appropriate response, but only an insane person or an extremely stupid sane person would jump from that philosophical question to murder.
I have been involved in pro-life ministry either vocationally or as a volunteer for fifteen years. I have been asked more than a dozen times by well-intentioned, peaceful pro-life people why it is not justified to shoot abortion practitioners, given that they are killing human beings. I consider it a natural, understandable question, but no remotely reasonable person responds to such a question by killing people. Remotely reasonable people ask other people with more understanding to help them think well. Remotely reasonable people notice that only a ridiculously tiny percentage of anti-abortion people act violently, so they pause and ask trustworthy people if they should do something so drastic.
It is Never Justified to Murder Abortion Practitioners
As I have told numerous people before, abortion is analogous to the Holocaust in some ways (for instance, the vast number of innocents who have been killed) and disanalogous in other ways (for instance, who is doing the killing and what kind of government existed at the time). When you’re in a war zone, it’s reasonable to act violently to protect innocent life. We are not in a war zone. My brother Josh Brahm wrote a blog post two years ago where he articulated well why it is not justified to use violence against abortion practitioners. With his permission, I’m including a lengthy quotation from his piece:
There are several morally relevant differences between modern-day America and Nazi Germany, where Dietrich Bonhoeffer plotted to kill Hitler. I’m going to name one critical difference below, and I believe it is a sufficient reason to demonstrate that it is not only morally wrong for American pro-lifers to kill abortionists, but it’s even wrong to kidnap people.
America is not a despotic nation.
Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a despot as “a ruler who has total power and who often uses that power in cruel and unfair ways.” Another definition is “a ruler with absolute power and authority.”
Regardless of the frustrations you may feel with how much power President Obama has and former President George W. Bush had, America has clearly not transitioned into despotism. We still have representatives in congress. We still have a Supreme Court. We still have freedom of speech. (For the most part.) We still have freedom of the press. (For the most part.)
As long as America is not lead by a despot who changes our entire system of government, there are other ways to save lives and end abortion without using violence or other illegal or fear-inducing tactics like kidnapping. And that matters. If we can end abortion by non-violent means, then we are morally obligated to pursue those non-violent means.
Could the philosophers who read my blog create a thought-experiment that forces me to bite the bullet and say that maybe in a circumstance where X, Y and Z are true that it would be morally permissible to start a civil war over abortion? Perhaps, but that thought-experiment will by necessity look REALLY different than America in 2013 does.
“But we’re killing people, Josh! Don’t you get that?!”
Yes, I believe people are being legally killed in our country, yet I do not think that makes America comparable in ALL the morally relevant ways to Nazi Germany. Thus, even IF Bonhoeffer was justified in his plan to assassinate Hitler, that would mean literally NOTHING for pro-life activists in America until our political situation was much more comparable to Bonhoeffer’s.
This is one of the reasons that it is morally wrong to kill abortionists. Scott Roeder, the man who killed late-term abortionist George Tiller, may have intended to do good, but he was absolutely wrong when he became a vigilante and murdered George Tiller. Killing abortionists is certainly not justified until the political environment is a despotism and every other method of saving lives has been tried, and even then it wouldn’t be obvious that killing abortionists is justified. We have a long way to go before I believe a discussion can even begin comparing our situation with Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s.
You could also understand Josh’s argument by thinking in terms of Just War Theory. An extremely important part of Just War Theory is the idea that in order for a war to be just, it has to be the “last resort.” Even if you have just cause, right intentions, etc., you cannot go to war if you have an alternative course of action. We are in an extremely odd country where people are legally allowed to kill innocent babies, and what’s even odder is that millions of citizens believe it is moral to kill babies. Violence must be used only as a last resort, and there are other (not to mention, more effective) courses of action we can take. We can persuade people that the law needs to change, and we don’t live in a dictatorship where we can’t change the law. It is grossly immoral to kill born human beings when it is not absolutely necessary to do so, just like it is grossly immoral to kill unborn human beings when it is not absolutely necessary to do so.
Another important criterion of Just War Theory is “probability of success.” Due to how destructive war is, if you don’t have good reason to believe you have a high likelihood of being successful, it is not just to go to war. The likelihood of any serious good being done from killing abortion practitioners is virtually zero. Killing a given abortion practitioner does not end abortion. On the contrary, now it will be harder to end abortion. More babies will die because of what Robert Lewis Dear did last week.
It is clearly immoral to kill abortion practitioners, but wondering “why” is common and understandable. Given that, all pro-life advocates should denounce violence towards abortion practitioners to avoid any possible misunderstanding. I don’t think they’re culpable for murder if they don’t, because remotely reasonable people should know better. But being very clear about why it is evil to kill abortion practitioners is a worthwhile measure to reduce the tiny likelihood of a not remotely reasonable person acting violently.
In the next few weeks as you read and listen to what people say about this horrific attack, you should take careful note of untrustworthy people. Anyone that inconsistently attempts to silence their opposition in the wake of a tragedy should be distrusted in the future. This includes any pro-choice advocate that blames the recent attack on pro-lifers, but does not apply the same standard when a conservative group is attacked. It is opportunistic, ghoulish, and despicable. God forbid, if a pro-life organization is ever attacked, I hope the pro-life movement will have the moral fortitude and decency to restrain themselves from attempting to silence people who disagree with us.