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In The Proud Tower, Barbara Tuchman’s portrait of the world in the 20 years prior to WWI, the popular historian included a chapter on anarchism. She called it “The Word and the Deed.” Anarchist evangelists, such as Proudhon and Kropotkin, preached violence but seldom soiled their own hands. Fanatics, some perhaps quite mad, did the dirty deeds. She notes that some seven or eight heads of state, including President William McKinley in 1900, were assassinated by self-proclaimed anarchists during this era.
We see the same phenomenon at work in the anti-abortion movement today. Try as they might, the pro-lifers cannot absolve themselves of guilt for the murder of Dr. Teller. They are the Proudhons and Kropotkins of their cause. I cannot believe that they are not secretly applauding Teller’s assassination.
Is the pen mightier than the sword? That question qua cliché is probably unanswerable. What is certain is that the pen can unleash the sword. Another case in point may be the November 1963 assassination of JFK. Re-reading Norman Mailer’s brilliant 1995 book Oswald’s Tale: An American Mystery, I was struck by his several hypotheses about possible Mafia involvement. Mob Leader Santo Trafficante is known to have rhetorically inquired, referring to President Kennedy, “Can someone remove this stone from my shoe?” Mailer believes the Mafia and Jimmy Hoffa may have had a hit out on the president, though he concludes that Oswald was a lone gunman, not a gangland hit man.
Trafficante’s comment, in turn, evokes the more ancient inquiry of King Henry II concerning Thomas Becket: “Will no one rid me of this priest?” In contrast to the Kennedy mystery, history leaves no doubt that some of Henry’s henchmen acted on his rhetoric and murdered St. Thomas in his own cathedral.
Yet again, as I point out in a chapter of my new book Al Qaeda Goes to College (Praeger 2009), the rhetoric of the radical animal rights movement has led to attacks on research scientists, their labs, and lately even their homes, by fanatics willing to break the law and destroy human lives and property on behalf of laboratory animals.
The law wrestles constantly with the distinction between Constitutionally protected opinion and unprotected incitement. Supreme Court Justice Holmes a century ago famously remarked that a person has no right to shout fire in a crowded theater. Holmes’s comment is clear enough, but not very helpful here. From Al Qaeda to Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, modern times are replete with examples of individuals and cells inspired by the exhortations of fanatics who neither exercise direct control over nor necessarily even know of those who will do the desired deeds.
My own view is that in our free and open society, the law neither can, nor should it, control the speech of such fanatics. To do so is to start down the slippery slope of censorship. Furthermore, in our Internet age, no law, no matter how draconian, can control the flow of information, no matter how inciting it is.
Having said this, I repeat that the anti-abortion crowd, no less than Al Qaeda or the militias who inspired McVeigh, must take the blame for the “dirty deeds done dirt cheap” (to borrow a phrase from the band AC/DC) by those who act on their behalf.
Empathy suggests a sort of instinctual sense of justice. Here is what David Hume had to say about that:
"As justice evidently tends to promote public utility and to support civil society, the sentiment of justice is either derived from our reflecting on that tendency, or like hunger, thirst,and other appetites,... arises from a simple original instinct in the human breast, which nature has implanted for like salutary purposes...."
But, he continues, "who is there that ever heard of such an instinct? Or is this a subject in which new discoveries can be made? We may as well expect to discover, in the body, new senses, which had escaped the observation of all mankind." (An Inquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals)
Hume seems to be saying that we cannot rely on any instinctual or innate sense of justice.
How does this relate to the murder of Dr. Teller? I contend that his killing demonstrates Hume's point precisely. The killer's instinctive response to the privacy right accorded by the Supreme Court to women wishing to terminate their pregnancies was to kill one of the facilitators of this right.
Empathy appears to have had no place in this killer's thinking. We cannot count on one another's good will for justice.