The avenger's zeal a deadly by-product of abortion debate

October 07, 1994|By MIKE LITTWIN

Poor, miserable, pathetic Paul Hill. What a loser.

As you probably know, Hill is the anti-abortion gunman who was convicted the other day on a conspiracy charge in the shooting deaths of Dr. John Britton and his bodyguard. Later, Hill will stand trial for murder.

And, since the case is in eye-for-an-eye Florida, if Hill is convicted, he might even be sentenced to death. That would neatly complete the twisted irony of a so-called pro-life activist killing a doctor and then the state killing him in turn.

Only in America, as somebody once said.

There wasn't much to the Hill trial, certainly no O.J.-style flashes of color and light. In fact, the Hill case played out as a tired parody of a courtroom drama. Hill was, however, brilliant in the role of sorry little zealot -- firing his lawyers, defending himself with no defense at all, then smiling serenely at the verdict. Only God, he would say, can judge him.

Are there really people like him? Or is this an early Woody Allen movie -- "Shoot the Doctor and Run"?

In the Woody vernacular, Hill is a nebbish. He looks as harmless as . . . well, what is harmless this days? I guess that's the point.

This pathetic little man has proven himself -- probably to his own great surprise -- to be extremely dangerous. And the danger doesn't end with those on the wrong end of the gun. He is also dangerous to those he would wish to lead.

It doesn't take a genius to see that much. Hill's actions radicalize, and therefore marginalize, the anti-abortion movement. If you haven't noticed, most Americans don't cotton to radicals. You could look it up.

But to many, Hill and Michael Griffin and the other members of the lunatic fringe have come to represent the movement. They carry the flag. They man the barricades. They get most of the publicity, all of which is bad.

After these guys pull the triggers or they throw the bombs, anti-abortion leaders have to either embrace them (few do) or explain them (few can) or distance themselves from them.

But it isn't that easy. That's because Paul Hill and the rest are creatures of the anti-abortion movement.

Once you say doctors who perform abortions are baby killers, Hill and those like him inevitably follow.

You may know somebody who resembles Hill -- the true believer who needs more than anything to believe in something. And believing that these doctors are baby killers is a natural fit. You get to fight evil, at least as it's explained to you (wouldn't crime-fighter uniforms be swell?). You get to tell yourself you're the good guy. And if you're good enough, you get a shotgun and blow somebody's head off.

You become the avenging angel. And why not?

Let's say these doctors were killing actual babies. Let's say they were taking healthy 1-year-olds and putting them to death. In that case, who wouldn't conclude that killing a doctor who kills babies is morally justifiable?

You've heard the rhetoric: Doctors who perform abortions are the moral equivalent of Nazis. Where is left to go from there?

Hill himself was the author of these words: "We proclaim that whatever force is legitimate to defend the life of a born child is legitimate to defend the life of an unborn child."

How extreme is this position? How many in the anti-abortion movement smile, at least to themselves, when they hear that?

I don't know.

Can people really believe there's no difference between abortions and killing babies? I know many moral people who believe in abortions. In my experience, no moral people believe in killing healthy infants.

Many moral people come down on both sides of the issue -- saying they don't believe in abortions for themselves but reserve the right for others to make that choice. This position is not always a cop-out either. This position recognizes an ethical ambiguity.

Here's the problem. Zealots tend to have at least one important weakness: They don't get ambiguity. They don't see gray. They rTC use words like moral certainty.

Which brings us back to Paul Hill.

Yes, to poor, miserable, pathetic Paul Hill. And to the two people who lie dead from a shotgun's blast.

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