The last time a doctor was
murdered in cold blood for providing abortion care to women, we were
not in the digital age. While the pro-choice community in the 90s reacted
to Dr. Bernard Slepian’s murder with the same outrage and hurt as
it has this week to Dr. George Tiller’s, the Internet has provided
us with tools that have enabled us to more effectively shape the discourse.
Yes, many TV shows and mainstream
pundits (ahem! Chris Matthews and Will Saletan, popular offenders) have
trotted out the expected all-male panels and high-minded philosophical
musings in the wake of an unspeakable tragedy. But a strong counter
movement calling the incident "terrorism" and pointing out the the
far-right "pro-life" movement’s rampant hypocrisy has emerged
online. We owe this to an engaged, savvy and active blogosphere and twittersphere of feminists that have been able to
launch accurate, appropriate language into circulation and gather evidence
that this assassination was part of a larger pattern of purposeful hate
Here are six ways that the
Internet has shaped the discourse that followed Tiller’s murder:
6. Exposing the opposition
for what it is
In the afternoon after Tiller’s
murder, chatter from the Internet’s anti-choice faction was relatively
quiet, and many condemned the actions of the killer. But in the days
since the killing, comments and tweets of the most extreme "he deserved
it" variety have begun to surface all over the web, revealing the
callousness of some (though certainly not all) in the opposition camp
and exposing those who were in pain to a renewed sense of being under
A number of comments on blogs
have shown an obtuse unwillingness to directly respond to previous comments
or posts-such as the fact that many of the abortions performed by
Tiller were therapeutic and performed in heartbreaking circumstances.
Sickening and cruel though such comments may be, they reveal the limits
of the "common ground" mantra, which assumes that both sides are
acting in good faith.The reality is that although many so-called "pro-lifers"
have embraced the common ground idea, there is a hard-core group that
sees it as treasonous and are perhaps willing to back up their beliefs
with violence. They also reveal the myopic vision that led to this incident
in the first place, and remind more casual observers – some of whom
may have little patience for pro-choicers’ ongoing struggle to secure
women’s reproductive rights – that extremists on the right do pose
an imminent and immediate threat to the lives of women and doctors.
5. Twittering the hypocrisy
of the "pro-life" moniker
"Pro-life" was a trending
topic on twitter in the hours after Dr. Tiller’s death. But 9 out
of 10 tweets in the torrent (by my reckoning) came not from so-called
pro-lifers, but rather from pro-choice folks calling out the hypocrisy
of the killer: "How can you murder someone and call yourself pro-life?"
Tweeters also pointed out how many in the "pro-life" camp espouse
contradictory positions, such as being pro-war or pro-death penalty.
The tweeters exposed a movement
that has manipulated language and facts to gain a perceived moral high
ground. For a few hours, term "pro-life" was taken back by
people of all stripes who reject violence. The groundswell of angry
tweets proved that it’s still possible to win the linguistic battle,
and that people recognize the double standard of a movement that espouses
using sadistic means to a supposedly idealistic end.
4. Amassing Evidence
The kind of quick footage-culling
that has been a staple of the blogs and shows like The Daily Show proved
brutally effective this week, producing
several reels of footage of mainstream figures delivering fiery, reckless
jeremiads against Dr. Tiller.
Outlets like ThinkProgress and Salon documented Bill O’Reilly’s relentless
campaign against Tiller. These clips clearly illustrated the climate
of fury and demonization that influenced and fostered this desperate
act of violence.
Even though the New York Times
raised the question of culpability in a typically dry way, by saying
pundits like Bill O’Reilly weren’t
(which they are certainly not-moral responsibility is the issue),
the fact that the paper of record responded directly to the idea of
O’Reilly’s role in the murder at all is a victory for pro-choice
forces on the internet.
Bloggers also engaged in evidence
gathering from the web, trawling through right wing sites to spread
knowledge of the words and images that were staples of the killer’s
virtual community. Within minutes of the announcement of the suspect’s
name, some diligent Kossacks
had started Googling, and they quickly figured out his ties to far right
groups like Operation Rescue, the Freemen, and more. This effectively provided a counterweight
heading off the expected mainstream narrative that Tiller’s murder
was the act of a lone psycho and not the product of the outermost edges
of the right wing.
"domestic terrorism" into the popular consciousness
Over the course of the past
few years, the liberal blogosphere has been in the forefront of challenging
conventional narratives surrounding terrorism. One of the ideas that surfaced is that intimidation
by right-wing groups, from anti-government militias to violence specifically
targeting abortion clinics, qualifies as terrorism in many instances:
violence committed with the aim of frightening people towards a political
end. The theory gained prominence when a series of ugly incidents took
place during the end of the 2008 presidential campaign at Palin and
McCain rallies, which recalled the 90s, a decade that saw a spate of
both anti-government and anti-choice bloodshed.
As soon as this tragedy occurred,
therefore, dozens blogged and tweeted about classifying the killer as
a "terrorist." The word was repeated with astounding frequency and Matt Yglesias’s concise explanation circulated widely. Rachel Maddow and
Keith Olbermann labeled the killing "terrorism" and The New York
Times editorialized to that effect as well.
2. Rachel Maddow on TV
Rachel Maddow, heroine of the
blogosphere, devoted a large portion of her Monday night show not only
to the senseless assassination of Dr. Tiller, but also to many of the
issues that have since arisen. She detailed the entire history of anti-abortion
violence. She discussed with a lawyer how to approach the rhetoric that
might have contributed to the killing. She hosted acompelling segment
Schaeffer, a former
member of the religious right who argued that that movement’s rhetoric
and strategizing were partly responsible for such violence. Finally,
she talked with heroine of the feminist internet Dr. Susan Wicklund,
in a segment that wrenchingly described
the dwindling access to abortion
and targeting of providers.
The following night, Maddow
again devoted much of her show to the issue, interviewing abortion provider
Dr. Warren Hern
as well as Vicki
Saporta, president of National Abortion Federation who talked about the safety of clinic
Maddow has a symbiotic relationship
with the blogosphere-she picks up ideas that are circulated during
the day and then her ability to gather expert commentators and footage
and her own thoughtful take provides fodder for blogs the following
day. Without that relationship, the kind of nuance and depth that she
applied to the issue would never have showed up on cable television.
1. Women’s stories at the
Lastly and by far most importantly,
the Internet has permitted the wide circulation of real-life
stories chronicled by patients at Tiller’s clinic, many of whom
previously identified as pro-life or were terminating badly-wanted pregnancies
because of horrible medical circumstances. They have circulated everywhere:
on blogs, on this
site, in comments.
To a one, they described the kindness and compassion they received at
the clinic, and they thoroughly undid the "baby killer" meme so
often circulated next to Tiller’s name. Stories surfaced from Tiller’s
friends and others who had been through tragic late-term abortion procedures
elsewhere. Even big-shot writers like Steven
Waldman and Andrew Sullivan have (to a certain extent) ceded their
voices to those of women who have actually undergone the procedure.
The inherently democratic quality
of the internet has allowed more than one narrative to take shape. Rather
than viewing a single mainstream media take on the killing, Americans
are seeing a number of counter-threads: about the hypocrisy of "pro-life"
violence, the primacy of women’s stories, the terrorizing effect of
stalking clinic workers. As horrifying as the tragedy is, we’re lucky
to have this medium helping us set the story straight and get justice
for Dr. Tiller, the women he served, and those who need him whom he
never had the chance to help.