Second, there are serious questions about free speech and incitement that should be touched upon, at the least. The law, of course, treads with great respect around individuals’ rights to freely express themselves on all matters. Whether this is the best interpretation of our constitutionally guaranteed right to free expression, or not, is a deep and distinct question. The law stands as it stands. My concern is a moral concern: to what extent should we, ought we, to hold responsible those whose exercise of their legal rights to free expression implicates them in inflaming the passions of those who are unable to control their passions, inciting to violence those who are unable to conform their conduct to law and basic moral constraints, or providing the informational means for violent action to those ready to engage in violence? If you want to see the several web sites that were devoted to demonizing Dr. Tiller, just go to Google. If you want to hear a well-known public pundit demonize Dr. Tiller and intimate that he deserved to die, go to UTube and search for Bill O’Reilly.
Unsurprisingly, most of the identifiable persons and groups who pronounced Dr. Tiller ‘Tiller, the Baby Killer,’ or compared his medical services to ‘Nazi stuff’ and the Holocaust, now condemn his murder. They are shocked, shocked. Shocked and appalled, no doubt. The anonymous haters trolling about on numerous websites do not need to be so condemnatory; they prefer to ask how much money Dr. Tiller earned through his medical practice, or to claim that the death of one man is not comparable to the deaths of thousands of fetuses, or to dismiss the anguished stories of women [and men] and girls who find themselves in desperate need of a late abortion.
These apologists for murder, however repugnant one may find their words, do not belong to the same moral class as those who fueled hatred and encouraged or facilitated violence. Perhaps the rhetoric of “Tiller the Killer’ can be attributed to the irrationality of rage on the part of a blogger here or there, but why would a public personality such as O’Reilly persist in that rhetoric? Surely, either he or his producers must have had some more rational, sober moments in designing their attacks on Dr. Tiller? Perhaps O’Reilly simply is the irresponsible blowhard so many believe him to be. But what purpose could there be in web sites showing maps of Dr. Tiller’s home and clinic? What could possibly explain, or excuse, the offering of private information about Dr. Tiller and his family on the Web? Perhaps those who provided that information simply intended to have the Doctor and his family harassed. Perhaps they really believed it would go no further. Yet, the man who is accused of murdering Dr. Tiller was known to Operation Rescue personnel (as was the woman who shot him some years earlier); indeed, Operation Rescue kept him informed of Dr. Tiller’s whereabouts.
There is a mental state [mens rea] in the law known as connivance. ‘Connivance’[i] describes the mental state of one who claims to not recognize that a trailer truck full of flat screen TVs with all numbers defaced - and no purchase receipts - pulled up to the back of one’s pawn shop is, in fact, a trailer truck full of stolen goods. But, connivance has a forward-looking mode , as well. When my son was about 6 months old and sitting in his highchair, my daughter – about four years old - stood before him, slowly and deliberately eating his beloved Cheerios. Staring him in the eyes, she put one Cheerio after another into her mouth and made loud sounds of relish . Imagine her ‘shock’ when he began to cry.
I think that ‘connivance’ is the apt term for the cognitive states that allowed people like Bill O’Reilly, Operation Rescue operatives, and numerous bloggers and ‘journalists’ to express – in print or vocally – views that painted George Tiller as a monster who deserved to die. Indeed, I believe that the rhetoric of many of these people, groups, and media outlets can only be explained as evidence of connivance, both personal and collective. (I reserve as a possibility, of course, the judgment that some persons and some groups were quite purposive in their design to incite the murder of George Tiller and any other medical professionals who would not acquiesce to their threats of physical violence or legal/social/financial blackmail.) But let me be clear: ‘connivance’ means ‘guilty ignorance.’ Connivers are not innocently ignorant. Rather, they connive to hide the obvious truth from themselves and, thus, to obscure their own moral fault.
I imagine there is a continuum of self-awareness among connivers, particularly among the kind of moral connivers who publically denounced and demonized Dr. Tiller. Some may be simply so limited in imagination or foresight as to recognize the effects their words and exhortations could have on others. Some, such as O’Reilly, might be so taken up with the need to be exciting – so as to support a lucrative career as a ‘public personality’ – that they obstinately refuse to contemplate the likely effects of their demagoguery. And, of course, it may be difficult to distinguish between genuinely innocent expression and expression connivingly expected – if not intended – to provoke criminal conduct by others. The questions that need be asked to make the discernment, however, are simple enough: ‘Why?” ‘ For what purpose?’ ‘To what end?’
For what purpose would a public ‘pundit’ repeatedly describe Dr. Tiller as a ‘baby killer’ or liken him to the Nazis? What end was served by publishing maps of Dr. Tiller’s home? More broadly, to what end would any person or group persist in targeting a single individual for harassment if that individual or group did not recognize that ‘harassment’ takes many forms – that it might range from ugly abuse to stalking and to violence? What kind of moral agent wants to single out any person for harassment? What fool is unaware that encouraging the harassment of an individual inevitably leads to much worse than ‘harassment’?
None of those who pilloried Dr. Tiller on the Web or on television or radio shows is responsible for the acts of the man who killed the doctor. They are responsible, however, for their own conduct. Putting aside questions as to the legal limits on freedom of speech, those who exercise their right to free speech are responsible for the content of their own expression. The internet makes it easy for ay one of us to express her/himself with little consequence. The significant benefits of becoming a popular figure through the media make it tempting to maintain one’s popularity through unethical behavior. But neither the ease of abandoning self-restraint nor the temptations of success can release us from the obligation to speak and write as responsible moral agents.
[i] 1. ‘Connivance’ may also mean something like ‘conspiracy,’ when there is more than one person involved, The conceptual relation is fairly clear: either (a) a person connives to ignorance on his/her own part or (b) a person connives to ‘innocent’ participation in the criminal activity of others.