Irrational Anger vs. Courage: Tiller Documentary Showed Faces of “Culture Wars”


Rachel Maddow’s documentary, “The Assassination of Dr. Tiller,” was a very rare hour of prime-time coverage which was sympathetic to the pro-choice position in “the culture wars.” It accomplished this by attempting to clearly show how extremists on the anti-choice fringe choose to make those culture wars, as Maddow herself put it, into an actual war by turning their rhetoric into violence–or more perniciously by allowing more deranged members of their movement to do their violence for them.

In some ways the documentary was a letdown for an eager women’s activist community which wanted new information and new revelations. But in the end, it served a different purpose. As Jodi wrote earlier this week, “The Assassination of Dr. Tiller” wasn’t a film whose goal was to further edify us stalwarts of the pro-choice side who have immersed ourselves in this story for months, reading every news report and watching all the footage. Instead it was aimed at a broader, liberal-leaning audience, familiar with the basic structure of the horrible story of Dr. Tiller’s murder but maybe not with some of its more poignant and infuriating details.

These viewers might have been struck by Scott Roeder’s “revelation” while watching the 700 Club which turned him from a layabout to a fanatic. They might have felt overwhelmed by the relentless barrage of protest aimed at Dr. Tiller’s Kansas clinic, including repeated legal challenges that never held water in court; crazed, frenzied protests outside the door of the clinic; and most alarmingly, personally targeted messages aimed at making hardworking, dedicated clinic staffers into pariahs in their community. All of this information helps illuminate the fact that Dr. Tiller wasn’t just killed by a man, but by a movement which instilled that man with an evil purpose.

The medium of film–as opposed to writing or even news reporting– was most useful in vividly illustrating the anti-choice movement’s vicious modus operandi . This was quite a contrast with the fortitude and conviction and ultimately the pain of its health-care providing opponents. These two poles were seen on the faces of those interviewed by Maddow and her team, or caught on camera. Perhaps the most foreboding of these pieces of footage was the image of a distraught Roeder sitting in the back of a courtroom when Tiller was acquitted of trumped-up charges.

When told through pictures and videos, so much we already knew was illustrated again so powerfully. There was the fortitude on the faces of Dr. Tiller and his staff, who over the years looked into the cameras without apology, defending their work. There were the deflated backs of the anonymous (and one courageous woman who showed her face) patients of Dr. Tiller who spoke of trying to get past the protests for an operation they’d prayed would never happen.

Also given physical form was the reckless, wild hatred coming from a group of people who announce that they are all about love of the unborn. Watching footage of the contorted, twisted, frenetic faces of protesters outside Dr. Tiller’s clinic as they were getting dragged away by cops or scaling fences, or getting a glimpse of Scott Roeder’s dead-eyed stare as he calmly announces that he killed Dr. Tiller because fetuses were in “imminent danger,” offers us a picture of just who these people are. They are a group who claim to mourn the dead and protect the living but instead spend their time, energy and emotions making already-living people fear death.

And many of them don’t have much else going for them. Scott Roeder in a lot of ways was a quintessential example of a person ripe for the taking by this kind of right-wing ideology. A failure, a deadbeat dad, Roeder found an outlet for his blanket rage by glomming onto the extreme right wing of the anti-choice movement. He claimed to be motivated by humanistic empathy for the unborn but couldn’t maintain his own personal relationships with his family.

It was particularly tragic and distressing to hear Roeder’s ex-wife talk about the last night Roeder spent with their son just before he killed Tiller, and how he seemed reluctant to part with his child. One has to wonder, why did he make the choice to abandon his family in favor of a pathetic version of martyrdom and heroism? Fueled by venom and spite, Roeder had embraced a bizarre cult-like religion and extreme political zealotry. In fact, he was so out-there that his former buddies in the Montana freemen militia thought he was too violent for their tastes. If his story didn’t have such an utterly tragic and chilling conclusion, Roeder’s life would be subject to pity-tinged mockery. Maddow leaves us to extrapolate that Roeder’s life exemplifies the emptiness beneath the rhetoric and the dogma on the anti-choice side.

Jodi noted that “The Assassination of Dr. Tiller” left us to draw many conclusions ourselves–that Roeder was a neglectful dad, for instance, or that Randall Terry, whom her team interviewed, had a bug-eyed fervor, still hopped-up on hatred for Dr. Tiller long after his nemesis had been cruelly gunned down. As though he couldn’t let his favorite bogeyman go.

It’s also true that one of the biggest results of the short documentary was it left viewers wanting more: more on the women who came in desperation and were cared for by Dr. Tiller, more on the link between demagoguery and violence among extreme anti-choicers, more on what women in need will do now, more on the lack of law enforcement intervention before the attack, more on what’s being done now to protect other providers. But it’s my hope that that yearning for more information was felt by all of the documentary’s viewers on Monday night and will encourage Maddow and more journalists to continue probing into the issue not just journalistically, but by giving us that raw honest look at the faces of both sides of the debate which was so affecting.

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Follow Sarah Seltzer on twitter: @sarahmseltzer

  • genevieve-dusquesne

    Very well-written article.  I agree with everything you said, but I have one small quibble: you inverted Randall Terry’s first and last names in the second-to-last paragraph.