When former director of victim's services for the Shawnee County District Attorney's office, Suzanne James, was asked by the LA Times how she would characterize anti-abortion militants like Dr. George Tiller's alleged killer Scott Roeder, she said, "Some of these guys had that John Brown look in their eyes."
The killing of Dr. Tiller by an anti-abortion militant has again raised the issue of fanaticism in the public consciousness. The fanatic has always occupied a unique space within American politics. Generally despised by the political mainstream as beyond reason, even mentally ill, the political zealot combines extremism and often violence in ways that brings moderates of the right and left together in harmonious -- if disingenuous -- choruses consisting of the righteous denunciation of violence on one hand and the moralistic defense of democratic debate on the other.
Insanity is a common epithet applied to zealots and fanatics. John Brown suffered them. Likewise, Roeder has been characterized as mentally ill, an all-too-common diagnosis in this society for those who act politically beyond what is considered moderate and 'rational'. The LA Times reported, however, that his fellow anti-abortion militants considered that he "held 'fringe' beliefs but was no hard-line lunatic." This is telling.
If not the product of the insane then, fanaticism, we are reminded at times like these, is at least anti-democratic and dangerous. Reasonable people, we are told, act in reasonable ways, and that means moderation and middle ground. Compromise and civility. The fanatic rejects these ideas and acts to obliterate them through her actions and words.
That anti-abortion activists describe pro-choice doctors as "baby killers" or Nazi doctors is an example of this framing. It draws a clear line that allows very little wiggle room for moderation and tends to force a choosing of sides on terms beneficial to the fanatic. After all, goes the argument, how can one be expected to compromise with those who would kill babies?
But the anti-choice militant is only the most recent manifestation of American fanaticism. And although anarchists oppose this extremist and his agenda for good reason, other fanatics have come before him and not all of them from the reactionary right. As a result, anarchists would do well to consider the politics of the fanatic and to consider if there is anything that we can learn from it.
When we look closely, what we see is that fanaticism is not a mental state or a political position opposed to "reasonableness" or "democracy". In fact, fanaticism is a political strategy, and one that can sometimes deliver positive results when employed by people with progressive politics, even if in this specific case it has not. Studying this application, then, even if we as anarchists would oppose the particular desired outcome of anti-choice militants, can be instructive for our own strategies and how we frame debates with regard to our own political opponents.
THE FANATICAL DEMOCRACY OF THE GARRISONIANS
In a recent talk, entitled "Politics of Protestant Violence: Abolitionists and Anti-Abortionists", NAU professor Joel Olson analyzed the two movements by comparing their use of fanatical violence to polarize the respective politics of their times. An anarchist himself, Olson has done a lot of interesting research on fanaticism, and specializes in the politics of the abolitionist movement. His insights on the matter are the perfect place to start for anarchists interested in the politics of the fanatic and I have drawn on them extensively for this essay.
The Garrisonian abolitionists, led by William Lloyd Garrison and his comrade Wendell Phillips, took an uncompromising stand towards the destruction of the slave system. Writing in their journal, Liberation, and acting through debate and civil disobedience, the Garrisonian movement refused to compromise on the question of slavery. Their demand was for an immediate and total end to the slave system and as a result they were routinely denounced as fanatics.
At the same time, they often took their arguments directly to anti-slavery moderates, which frequently led to physical confrontations, sometimes in their churches. Those that did not demand the immediate and total abolition of slavery were accused by the radicals as being just as complicit as the slave owner himself. One Garrisonian, Stephen Foster (famous for disrupting services at churches that didn't take a stand on slavery), denounced less fervent Northerners as “the basest of slaves, the vilest of hypocrites and the most execrable of man-stealers, inasmuch as they voluntarily consent to be the watch-dogs of the plantation.”
When challenged by less radical abolitionists, who advocated a more gradualist position, Garrison was famous for comparing the question of ending slavery to a house on fire: “You do not ‘gradually’ call for the firemen to come ‘gradually’, to ‘gradually’ put out your fire … you want it immediately extinquished”. When further faced with the charge that surely, regardless, an immediate end to slavery was not likely, Garrison would reply, “We have never said that slavery would be overthrown by a single blow, that it ought to be we shall always contend”.
The Garrisonians pushed hard for an uncompromising position on slavery, but their extremism didn't end there. As Olson writes in his interesting essay, "The Freshness of Fanaticism: The Abolitionist Defense of Zealotry", while the Garrisonians were definitely fanatics,
[t]hey were also passionate democrats. They defended the ideals of the Declaration of Independence, fought against racial discrimination, advocated for women’s rights, and condemned the exploitation of industrial workers. Garrisonians championed free speech, welcomed African Americans and white women into their organizations, and developed new participatory practices in public meetings. Their zeal for the antislavery cause reflected their commitment to democracy; in turn, their democratic beliefs inspired fanatical opposition to enslavement and racial inequality. Garrisonians brimmed with zealotry, yet they used their fanaticism to strengthen democracy rather than undermine it.That is, their brand of fanaticism sought to broaden democratic participation, not to limit it.
Understandably, this brought them into conflict with other abolitionists. They denounced the Republicans -- Lincoln in particular -- as preservationists of the slave system by the fact of their commitment to the maintenance of the Union over the abolition of slavery. In other words, the political moderation of the less radical abolitionists was in fact, in the eyes of the Garrisonians, a capitulation and therefore equivalent the position of the slavocrats. Moderation, then, not just the slave owner, was the enemy of the liberation of the slave in the eyes of the Garrisonians.
FANATACISM AS A POLITICAL STRATEGY
In another presentation in 2006, Olson described fanaticism as "'the mobilization of collectivities according to a friends/enemies dichotomy by non-state actors who are willing to sacrifice themselves or others in such a mobilization.'" He reported that from his research on the abolitionist movement, particularly the radical Garrisonians, what he had found was that rather than being cowed by appellations like "zealot" and "fanatic", they embraced them in their quest to defeat slavery and broaden the democratic character of American society.
Olson continued: "[W]hen we understand fanaticism in this way, we see that it's not inherently undemocratic. That what zealotry really is is a critique and a rejection of political moderation - not a rejection of reason, of rationality or anything like that. And, as such, fanaticism and reason can be consistent. And furthermore, it can be consistent with justice and democracy in times when moderation lends support to the enemies of democracy... so at certain points in history perhaps fanaticism is the more democratic option over liberal moderation."
I take the question Olson has been investigating lately to be one of the orientation that revolutionary movements ought to take towards moderate or liberal elements. These elements often frame themselves against supposedly irrational radical - or fanatical - movements at the same time that they immerse themselves in the liberal democratic myth of the responsible middle ground, in which disagreeing sides can dialogue and come to compromises. American democracy treats the middle ground as hallowed ground. In this 'pragmatic' democratic tradition, fanaticism is treated as irrational or unrealistic, and fanatics are denounced by so-called reasonable moderates in the name of justice and democracy.
However, although Olson's conclusions contradict this commonly held American belief, those of us who study history and have organized in broader movements will probably understand it quite well. It expresses a common relationship that anarchists have to moderate elements in the movements in which we participate. While it can be useful at times, the moderate middle is also the engine of co-optation and recuperation -- and also sometimes the vehicle of left-cover reaction by the ruling class.
So how should committed revolutionaries relate to this malleable center? One possibility is to treat it as a potential ally and therefore to moderate our own actions and rhetoric in service of some larger goal that it is perceived can be achieved through such unity. This has been a path that many anarchists and other radicals have taken in the anti-war movement, for instance. The hope seems to be that either the moderates will come around to our way of thinking, or, perhaps, that their belief (and despite our equal un-belief) in the reasonableness of the system will somehow manifest in reality, persuading through speaking truth to power and other such measures.
But another way of looking at this dilemma is to view the moderate middle as an impediment to revolutionary progress. They are not to be persuaded so much as made irrelevant or politically eliminated from the terrain of political contestation. In that case, perhaps the proper course is not to take a moderate stance, but rather to stick to extremist positions, putting pressure on the middle, thus polarizing the debate and forcing recuperationist moderate elements to choose sides. In this sense, organizing in a fanatical manner means having two targets in mind when one acts: the opponent and the political moderate. This was the strategy of the Garrisonian abolitionists.
With that in mind, and recognizing the reactionary character of the attack and the goals of the anti-choice movement, I think that looking at the case of the murder of Dr. Tiller can in fact provide useful information for anarchists engaged in our own admittedly quite different struggle.
There are three key elements to the fanatical approach to politics playing out as a result of the attack. They can be discovered first by looking at whether and how the action contributes to a polarization in the debate both within the broader popular discussion and within the anti-abortion movement itself. Then, let's consider the question of whether this fanatical act contributes or challenges notions of democracy because, as Olson has pointed out so aptly, fanatacism and democracy are not necessarily at odds, even if the two are generally portrayed as opposites. In fact, as in the case of the abolitionists, fanaticism can actually open up space for broad democratic participation.
THE NATIONAL DEBATE
The national media reacted to the murder of Tiller with near universal condemnation and revulsion. Katie Couric posted on her CBS News blog: "No matter what your moral position may be on abortion, Tiller was first and foremost a doctor and acting within the law. That should not have cost him his life." President Obama echoed this point, saying that "[h]owever profound our differences over difficult issues, they cannot be resolved by heinous acts of violence." The New York Times concurred, calling for increasing national police attention to the issue of extremism while calling on anti-abortion advocates to "refrain from the 'baby killer' rhetoric that inflames an already heated debate." The Dallas Morning News called the murder "a tragedy".
If anything then, this attack seems to have provoked from within the mainstream media a call to a national spirit of moderatism that the Garrisonians would have found familiar. We can enjoy the obvious hypocrisy of the NY Times, head chearleader of the war in Iraq, and Obama, replacement architect of this war, denouncing political violence as a means of accomplishing political goals. But this is to be expected. Certainly their tendency to defend the moderate middle is due in part to the fact that the national press is the beneficiary of its position as the official mediator of the national dialogue. Likewise the "Washington Consensus" and other elite capitalist policy positions reflect a genuine unity in the capitalist class, which may differ internally on some tactical questions but tends to agree broadly on most strategic questions. The press reflects this tendency as well for obvious reasons.
What's interesting about this attack is that it comes as the religious right finds itself in retreat and political disarray. Yet, according to NARAL Pro-Choice America, 87% of counties in the US lack an abortion provider and that is largely thanks to the actions of militants like Roeder. While the media appeals to moderatism, in fact the bombings, the murders and the fake anthrax attacks have had their desired effect. The fanatical application of violence, sabotage and civil disobedience has accomplished genuine reactionary victories that affect real people's lives. And the decision of Tiller's clinic not to re-open following the murder only puts an exclamation point on this fact.
The question now becomes whether this attack will reverse or advance the achievements of the militant wing of the movement. In 1994 and 1998, when two past murders of abortion providers happened, the right was in the ascent. This is not the case now. Will the changed political terrain further the attack against abortion providers outside the legal arena, or will there finally be some push back from the society at large? What effect will the attack have on the positions held by Americans on the question of abortion? This murder will be a test case. Will the moderate middle in the abortion debate be pushed to one side or another by this action? Or will a general moderatism continue to prevail?
One problem that pro-choice organizers have when debate is polarized around abortion is reflected in the growing numbers of Americans who report that they sympathize more with anti-abortion arguments than with pro-choice ones. Because of the general lack of a discussion around abortion that centers around the equality and liberation of women -- that is, of the centrality of abortion rights to women's equality -- the pro-choice movement has little to fall back on when fanatical anti-abortion militants take action to frame the discussion in harsh terms. In a religious country like the US, allowing the terrain to shift towards the moral rather than the libertarian puts the reactionary militant in a powerful position to project his will and this is precisely why they do it. Likewise, the lack of an equivalent response from pro-choice militants maintains a space defined by religious right moralists and this is to their advantage.
THE INTERNAL DEBATE
Now let's turn to the question of what effect the action had inside the anti-abortion movement. It is vital to recognize that this murder aimed to affect the debate there as well, which the attacker seems to have viewed as broadly too moderate. Because this is a fanatical act, it is aimed both at movement enemies - Tiller in particular and those that provide abortions in general - but also, critically, at the anti-abortion movement as well. It's a two-pronged tactic that seeks to evaporate the middle ground so that all that remains is the political extreme represented by the killer and his comrades in the movement. So, the New York Times only gets half the story when they report that the attack was aimed "toward the dwindling cadre of physicians who risk their safety to perform legal medical procedures." Clearly that, but not just that.
When we look at the debate in the religious right, what we see on one side is a fear of a backlash and the pressure to moderate and hunker down. The AP reports that, rather than striking a mortal blow to those few remaining doctors willing to perform abortions, the killing has actually put some in the anti-abortion movement on the defensive. At a recent press conference denouncing the president's supreme court nominee, the Christian Defense Coalition headman Rev. Patrick J. Mahoney was flanked by activists from Operation Save America, an anti-abortion group that promises to use "only biblical principles" in its fight against abortion rights.
Mary Kay Culp, executive director of Kansans for Life, said, "In the immediate future, it makes it difficult to even speak about an issue we've been speaking about for 365 days a year. Anything you say — somebody is going to pounce on us." Anti-abortion groups in Kansas distanced themselves from the killer and lamented the timing with regard to the upcoming debate on Obama's supreme court nominee.
The Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission president, Richard Land, explained his reaction this way, saying, "First of all, I thought, 'how horrible'. I thought this is going to be the same song and dance that we had the last time this happened, people trying to paint all of us as wild-eyed crazies." Rev. Pat Mahoney of the anti-abortion Christian Defense Coalition complained, "Please, don't use this tragic situation to broad-brush the pro-life community as extremists... politically, this could not have happened at a worse time."
However, on the other hand, extremists within the movement have taken a harsher stand. “Scott is not my hero in that sense; he has not inspired me to shoot an abortionist," wrote Dave Leach, publisher of Prayer and Action News, a publication to which Roeder subscribed. "But, definitely, he will be the hero to thousands of babies who will not be slain because Scott sacrificed everything for them.” Roeder himself allegedly posted to anti-choice websites comparing Tiller to a Nazi: "Tiller is the concentration camp 'Mengele' of our day and needs to be stopped before he and those who protect him bring judgment upon our nation."
Randall A. Terry, the founder of Operation Rescue, wrote in an editorial on June 1st that "[i]t now falls to pro-life leaders like myself to stand strong and unflinching in the face of the unjust criticism we will now endure because of his killing. And so I turn my attention to the attacks that will follow his death. We must use this as a 'teaching moment;' a chance for 'dialogue' with our fellow Americans concerning this terrific holocaust of the unborn." Rejecting the call for moderation, he closed his piece saying, "These foolish accusations fly in the face of equally radical rhetoric, images, and images in the civil rights movement, the suffragette movement, and the abolitionist movement. If Dr. Martin Luther King had followed the advice of the timid in his day, President Obama would still be riding in the back of the bus."
That's certainly a hell of a comparison for a movement that generally sat out or even opposed the civil rights movement and took quite a conservative stand on women's liberation. Nevertheless, it's worth noting the recurring reference to the abolitionists within the anti-abortion movement, and there has been some discussion within the movement of the abolitionists as a model.
So, it does seem like Roeder has at least hit on a division within his own movement and time will tell whether the rush to moderation by some anti-choice elements will result in a political vacuum that can be filled by more fanatical elements. His attack has if nothing else forced the taking of sides in his own movement, which is a primary goal of fanatical political actors. Kansas City anti-abortion activist Regina Dinwiddie said, "If anybody needed killing, George Tiller needed killing. The gut reaction from everybody who doesn't have their thoughts filtered by fear is 'Yahoo!' "
The remaining question is whether the attack has broadened or narrowed the space for democratic activity. This should concern anarchists not because we either limit ourselves to bourgeois definitions of democracy, but because broadening the participation of people in the society they live is one of our goals. In a sense, knowing the truth of the bourgeois press's general lack of commitment to actual democracy is enlightening in the context of their galloping defense of it in the face of fanatical acts. Therefore, it's worth considering the way that the mainstream defenders of that narrow spectrum that masquerades as the democratic debate related to this murder. We should analyze the response understanding that some fanatical acts can open space for democracy even if this one may not have.
Defending the traditional church of moderation, Brad Hirschfield wrote in his blog in the "On Faith" section for Newsweek: "Ultimately though, we need to reframe this debate from one about abortion to one about democracy. This debate needs to be framed as being about nothing less than democracy in America. When zealots act as they did this week in Kansas, they are making war on America, upon the constitution and the rule of law."
Similarly, a Dallas Morning News editorial denounced the polarizing rhetoric surrounding the issue, claiming that "Violence undermines any hope of a civil debate about important issues. Sadly, this atrocity is likely to push both sides further from finding any common ground. Democracy is noisy, but it should not be violent. Abortion opponents must focus their efforts on changing the law — not taking it into their own hands."
While violence may or may not push apart opposing sides depending on the circumstances, it's far from clear that violence in all cases is contrary to democracy, as Olson has noted in his research. In the case of the abolitionists it led to the expansion of democratic forces both within the abolitionist movement and American society as a whole.
However, the question for anarchists is not whether the attack broadens democracy in the anti-choice movement (although that would be interesting in itself), but whether it has any potential to broaden democratic participation beyond that. Given the nature of the anti-choice movement's goal of restricting the options available for women with regard to reproduction and the power that flows from that, however, this would indeed be very, very unlikely.
Unlike the civil rights movement and the liberation movements that preceded it, the anti-abortion movement seeks to limit choices that are central to whether women can operate in society as free and equal human beings. Indeed, the anti-abortion movement's historical points of comparison fail when they try to frame themselves as liberators of the unborn. After all, if Tiller is Mengele, then what is the woman who goes to him for an abortion? Is she a Nazi as well? Just a 'good German'? In the end, what we see is that in fact it is ultimately the woman herself who is the target of the anti-choice movement. This can't help but have reactionary results with regard to democracy. As anarchists, however, it is this argument that should appeal to us, not the fake and self-serving defenses of the moderate middle ground and capitalist democracy by the bourgeois press.
What awaits the anti-abortion movement and its militants remains to be seen. As American politics has taken a vaguely noticeable turn to the left, will the movement turn increasingly towards fanaticism in the political sense or will the moderate elements maintain the politically advantageous terrain of broker between their opponents, the American public and the extremists? Already, we see more moderate activists within the movement shifting gears to more local and state-level activity. This is a reflection of their evaluation of their diminished opportunities in the new administration.
Interestingly, Roeder said in a recent interview with the AP that he knew that more attacks were planned by others for the future. And meanwhile, the Daily Mail in the UK reports what so many Americans know: secretly, there are millions who support the murder. "I don't lose sleep over the death of anyone who pushes a needle through a crying baby's brain," said a woman interviewed in the article.
The proof will come in whether the debate polarizes and if a solution to the extremists liking is forthcoming. For anarchists, it will be worth keeping our attention on the movement, not leastwise because our fates are tied up in it, but also because political developments there may provide lessons for us in how we orient towards the movements with which we find ourselves allied, whether through political convenience or historical inertia.
The anarchist movement has a well-known history of falling victim to the knives of our so-called allies on the left and in the popular fronts, so the fanatical strategy is one anarchists ought to consider. Certainly as many liberals and leftists continue their failed moderate strategies with regard to issues like never-ending wars and a collapsing environment -- at the same time that these very crises continue to grow and worsen -- the question of how to relate to these so-called progressive forces will become more and more pressing.
When the alliances we find ourselves in keep us muzzled or marginalized, it might just be worth questioning whether it's time to re-evaluate the allies we keep and our orientation towards them. A break with the "play nice" strategy that can tend to dominate big tent coalition-type organizing may be in order. If so, a fanatical voice for liberation may be the appropriate response.