Deadlier than Sticks and Stones

August 07, 1994|By SARA ENGRAM

In March 1990, when a congressional committee held hearings on legislation attempting to guarantee access to abortion throughout the country, a news report broadcast on Pat Robertson's ''700 Club'' showed film clips of two members of Congress acting to limit anti-abortion testimony, particularly the showing of VCR tapes.

Mr. Robertson had this to say about the incident: ''They suppressed testimony. . . . The pro-death group doesn't want to hear that. They just want to kill. They have a spirit of murder. Abortionists are worse than Ceausescu, worse than Stalin, worse than Hitler.''

This past week, a law firm funded by Mr. Robertson announced that it was withdrawing as defense counsel for Paul Hill on disorderly-conduct charges stemming from his anti-abortion activities. Those charges were filed six weeks before Mr. Hill was arrested July 29 for the killings of John B. Britton, a physician who performed abortions at the Pensacola, Fla., Ladies Center, and one of his escorts, retired Air Force Lt. Col. James Barrett.

The American Center for Law and Justice explained its decision by saying the firm ''strongly condemns the shootings and reaffirms its longstanding position that violence has no place in the pro-life movement.''

Question: Was that ''longstanding position'' in effect in 1990? If so, why did Mr. Robertson use such inflammatory language to describe proceedings in a congressional committee?

The two members of Congress he was criticizing, Rep. Don Edwards of California and Rep. Patricia Schroeder of Colorado, are liberal Democrats who believe that abortion should remain legal, while Mr. Robertson inhabits the opposite end of the ideological spectrum. Does that justify his charge that they have a ''spirit of murder,'' or that they are ''worse than Stalin, worse than Hitler?''

After years of heated rhetoric from Mr. Robertson and many other leading voices against abortion, is it really surprising that some overheated anti-abortion activists conclude that their cause justifies murder?

We all chanted it on some playground or other: ''Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me.'' But deep inside, we knew it wasn't true. Words do wound. They also inspire, for good and for ill.

Michael Griffin, the anti-abortion protester convicted in the 1993 murder of Dr. David Gunn, based his defense on claims that he was unduly influenced by zealous fundamentalist ministers, including one who kept an effigy of Dr. Gunn with a noose around the neck and red paint splattered on the gloves.

Alas, Griffin was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole for 25 years.

A country dedicated to freedom of speech does not easily censor political rhetoric, however inflammatory it becomes. But it can -- and should -- punish criminal activity.

That means, among other things, that leaders need to take responsibility for what they say, to respect the power of words just as they respect the law. When they indulge in inflammatory rhetoric, can they feign surprise and innocence when some unbalanced person follows their reasoning to its logical conclusion?

The three killings in Pensacola, plus a non-fatal shooting in Kansas last year, have severely damaged the credibility of a movement that claims devotion to life.

That black eye comes on top of several political setbacks, chiefly the election of President Clinton, whose pro-choice policies reverse much of the progress the movement had made in the previous decade.

But the political disappointments aren't to blame; violence is nothing new in the anti-abortion movement.

In Pensacola, now the site of three abortion-related murders, violence is an old story.

On Christmas Day 1984, two doctors' offices and a clinic were bombed by abortion foes who were later convicted and imprisoned. The clinic was bombed again on June 24 of that year.

In March 1986, six protesters were arrested after they stormed the same clinic, damaging equipment and injuring two women.

Around the country, more than 1,000 acts of violence have been committed against clinics where abortions are performed. These include bombings, arson and attacks with butyric acid. People were hospitalized and furniture and carpets destroyed. Clinic staff members have been harassed and stalked.

Given this history, recent federal legislation to protect access to clinics was overdue. So was Attorney General Janet Reno's decision to send federal marshals to guard clinics threatened with violence.

There's a lesson in all this: Rhetoric can produce its own reality.

Sara Engram is editorial-page director of The Evening Sun. Her column appears here each week.

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