On July 29, 1994, a religious fundamentalist named Paul Hill attacked a Pensacola, Florida family planning center, murdering abortion provider Dr. John Britton and his bodyguard James Barrett with a single blast from a pump-action shotgun. With numerous eyewitnesses, Hill surrendered peacefully and confessed to his crime at the scene. Hill was charged with two counts of first-degree murder, convicted by a jury, and given the death sentence. On September 3, 2003, he was executed by lethal injection. He never once expressed any regret for his crimes, and urged others to do the same in his last statement before his death.
I’m against the death penalty in almost all cases, but this is one of the extraordinary few where I believe it was completely appropriate. The two crucial conditions for this sentence were satisfied: first, there was absolutely no rational doubt as to Hill’s guilt, and second, he had shown such a remorseless and cold-blooded indifference to human life that it was highly unlikely any prison term, no matter how long, would ever reform him. In such a case, I believe society is justified in putting the offender to death – not as a method of vengeance, but for the same reason we destroy rabid animals, as a means of self-defense.
But Hill’s legacy lives on in the radical fringes of the anti-abortion movement, where he is seen as a hero and a martyr. Appallingly, three Christian groups in Milwaukee are planning to stage “Paul Hill Days” (via), a celebration of this bloodthirsty fanatic’s killing spree that will include a re-enactment of the murders. The website, which other than its sincere praise of a convicted murderer is indistinguishable from standard evangelical right-wing rhetoric, speaks of its creators’ “admiration for Paul Hill and his act of love and mercy”, and wants to “recognize [him] as a hero”.
In my opinion, this is going too far. Anti-abortion activists should be free to claim that Hill was innocent of the charges against him, or that he should have been convicted of a lesser offense, or that the punishment he received was too harsh, or that the law he violated should be changed. What they should not be free to do, in my opinion, is to call an act of murder a heroic and praiseworthy deed and celebrate its occurrence. Free speech does not include the right to make threats or to encourage people to commit criminal offenses, and if this is not leaping over that line, it is at the very least straddling it.
If past experience is any guide, the mainstream media will maintain a deafening silence on this issue. Normally, the media is eager to promote sensational stories likely to produce fear and outrage. But when that story could reflect badly on Christians, or any other large, influential group which the powers that be are afraid to offend, it is obligingly swept under the rug and ignored. Politicians, likewise, will ignore it: Republicans because they count on the support of people like the ones who planned Paul Hill Days, Democrats because they are afraid to advocate any position that might be judged as anti-faith. Leaders of the religious right will keep silent, not wanting to damage their public standing by seeming to endorse violence, but also not wanting to alienate their fanatical pro-life followers for whom no anti-abortion action is too extreme. And this conspiracy of silence, this gentleman’s agreement to keep quiet, is exactly what emboldens Christian terrorists and makes it more likely that they will strike again.
This is not the first time such a thing has happened. On September 11, 2006, a Christian fundamentalist named David McMenemy crashed his gasoline-soaked car into a women’s health clinic in Davenport, Iowa which he thought provided abortions (it did not), intending to blow the clinic up and die in the fire. McMenemy’s attempted suicide bombing failed to destroy the clinic and he was convicted of arson, but it was striking how little media attention the story received. Had the perpetrator been a Muslim, there can be no doubt this story would have been in the headlines for weeks. Instead, it vanished with scarcely a ripple.
People like Paul Hill, McMenemy and other convicted fundamentalists (Clayton Waagner, Eric Rudolph, and others) are, in every sense of the word, religious terrorists. Exactly like Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, they use random violence against civilians to terrify and demoralize their enemies, hoping to impose their will on the populace and prevail in a battle they cannot win by open shows of force. Our society’s acceptance of the reckless, extremist anti-woman rhetoric of religious anti-abortion crusaders has created an atmosphere in which these fanatics can breathe, and until we cease to pay heed to these people and firmly avow our support for the right of all women to control their own bodies, we can expect Christian terrorism to continue.