“I’ve got a little list, I’ve got a little list,” twitters the Lord High Executioner in a famous line of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado, and indeed these days who doesn’t have one? Abortion protester Paul Hill seems to have had a little list of his own, and early in the morning on July 28 of this year he leveled a shotgun at two of those whose names led all the rest and dispatched them to that great abortion clinic in the sky (or perhaps it’s located in a rather lower altitude). For the next several days, the official pro-life movement spent its time condemning, distancing itself from, and expressing repugnance for what Mr. Hill had done, even as the supporters of “choice,” the preposterous euphemism for abortion that everyone now uses, insisted that the murders with which Mr. Hill was immediately charged, if they did not have the explicit support of the pro-life movement, at least grew logically out of the pro-lifers’ own rhetoric and ideology. Whether they did or not is a question not to be dismissed as derisively or as speedily as most respectable pro-lifers habitually do, but whatever the answer to the question, it’s clear that Mr. Hill is not alone in having come to the conclusion that there is a time to get down to the business of ridding the planet of those society offenders who might well be underground and who never, never, never would be missed.
A few years ago a friend of mine told me there are only two political movements in the country for which he had any respect—the animal rights and anti-abortion movements—because these are the only ones composed of persons who are willing to go to jail for their beliefs. Perhaps this tells you more about the kind of people I have for friends than anything else, but he had a point that many on the right seem to find incomprehensible. It is all very well to canvass the neighborhood for votes, raise money by direct mail, publish magazines, host talk shows, and write books and newspaper columns, but unless you’re willing to suffer for the cause in which you are enlisted, it will never get very far.
Willingness to suffer, of course, does not necessarily mean willingness to die, to be maimed for life, or to lose your job and family, but it does mean willingness to endure rather more unpleasantness than most on the political right these days seem prepared to accept, and it implies also a willingness to inflict some suffering upon one’s adversaries. It is characteristic of the right that its adherents tend to be well-off and comfortable, and any political action they endorse or involve themselves in must not threaten that comfort or even suggest that there may be times when living in affluent vegetation and voting Republican are not enough to preserve a way of life, a nation, or a civilization that consists of something more than fiscal restraint and cakes on the griddle. Antiabortion crackpots like Mr. Hill are merely among the first to reflect on such matters, but the time may soon be coming when others on the political right in this country need to ponder the same matters: When, if ever, is political violence justified? What other kinds of extralegal action might also be justified or necessary? And—perhaps for many on the right the most unthinkable thought of all—just how close are we in the United States to such a time?
For the left, such issues have never been a big deal. The left appeared in history armed with a formal political theory that wrapped itself in absolute natural rights (later replaced by the dialectic of history and the myth of progress) and the myth of the consensual basis of political legitimacy. If a political order violated what the left took to be such “rights,” if it behaved in a manner that did not respect the mechanisms of political consent, or even if it enlisted itself on the wrong side of history, woe betide it and its partisans. Thus, the notorious “double standard” of the left, by which it ignores or applauds the most brutal repression and the most vicious violence committed by its pals even as it giggles in glee over the punishment of its enemies on the right, is not really a logical contradiction.
A few years ago, when neo-Nazi thugs were ripping up the streets of a newly unified Germany, the German government talked seriously of banning even moderate right-wing groups there, and the Progressive element amongst us clapped and cheered at the prospect, even though the neo-Nazis had done virtually nothing that both the European and American New Left in the 1960’s had not also done. The neo-Nazis, you see, were simply on the wrong side of history and had no rights, while the New Leftists over whom the progressive types gibbered and drooled were history’s good guys. The same view is evident in the wretched and mendacious movie Mississippi Burning, where Southern racists murder three “civil rights workers” and are finally brought to justice by FBI agents who literally threaten to torture, castrate, and burn to death citizens who had nothing to do with the killings. The assault on the Southern social order by organized armies of “civil rights workers” is never considered an act of violence, even though at the time almost all such activists saw themselves as the agents of an openly revolutionary and socially destructive mission.
For Christians, of course, the legitimation of violence for political purposes is quite a bit more challenging a problem, and that is the formal reason so many pro-life activists leaped to condemn Mr. Hill’s actions. Nevertheless, the Christian apologetic for attacking or even killing those who practice abortion does have a foundation in logic. As Donald Spitz of Operation Rescue Chesapeake says, “If there was a sniper in the schoolyard sniping off children one by one and the only way you could stop him was by stopping that sniper . . . you would stop that sniper.”
To that argument, mainstream prolifers voice several different responses, namely: a) Christians may not kill or use violence (but Christians do endorse violence in the form of self-defense, capital punishment, and just war); b) using violence against abortionists and their clinics is counterproductive, at least as long as lawful and nonviolent political and legal action is possible (though when liberals used the “counterproductive” argument against the New Left in the 1960’s, they were laughed to scorn by outraged conservatives who demanded a stronger response and a more fundamental objection to political violence); and c) perhaps the most compelling argument, expressed to me by Christian activist John Lofton, that if the model of Christian activism is that of the early Church, it ought to be clear that neither Jesus nor the Apostles nor any of the Church Fathers ever advocated violence against the pagan Roman state, nor did any Christian ever engage in violence; the point back then was not to stop abortion, prevent the worship of pagan gods, or improve the sexual morals of the Romans but to convert the Empire, and once that conversion was accomplished, these Christian theological and ethical goals fell into place. In this view, snuffing abortionists is simply a distraction from the main business of Christians, which is to work for the Christianization of mankind.
Of course, the irony of political violence nowadays is precisely that it is self-professed Christians in the pro-life movement who commit it—not neo-Nazis, Klansmen, tax resisters, gun nuts, or defenders of smokers’ rights who, in the paranoid mythology of the left, might be expected to resort to guns more quickly. Aside from various “hate crimes,” most of which, even when real, appear to be largely spontaneous outbursts rather than acts of principled and premeditated terrorism, none of the more desperate factions of the right seems to be much of a threat to anyone. Only twice in this country since World War II has any part of what might be considered the “right” shown any inclination to resort to tossing brickbats: during the civil rights war in the South—when a handful of people were shot or killed by the Klan and a few years later when antibusing activists actually set fire to some school buses and on one occasion chased Teddy Kennedy—and during the early 1980’s, when a gang of neo-Nazis killed a Jewish talk-show host in Colorado, held up an armored car, and committed divers and sundry acts of useless mayhem. Except for occasional organized nuts and justly outraged parents of bused children, the right in the United States has mainly been a harmless bunch. Given what the right’s enemies have done to the country over the years, this really does not speak well of the right.
The peacefulness of the American right is no less ironic than the readiness of some pro-life Christians to take up arms, and it ought to be the other way around, especially since the right’s professed heroes and models include such trigger-happy warriors as the Minutemen of the War for Independence and the Confederates of the Second War for Independence. Yet even the “right-wing terrorist” group of the 1960’s that called itself the “Minutemen” never did very much except stash arms against der Tag and issue “communiques” about how the commies they believed were running the Federal Reserve System had just better watch out. Even the Ku Kluxers mainly restricted themselves to holding big barbecues beneath the fiery cross and listening to uplifting lectures on race relations that were probably more interesting than the revivalist sermons they more commonly attended.
Of course, there are all sorts of reasons for the general harmlessness of the American right, and the ineffectuality of its supposedly violent wing merely reflects the same characteristic of its more mainstream political side. The main reason, I believe, for the absence of any serious rightist violence in this country is quite simply that there is no legitimizing myth of violence for the right here. The dominant myths are those of the left—of the consent of the governed, of natural rights, of progress. Any movement that invokes these myths to justify a course of violence is, virtually by definition, part of the left, and any movement that takes up arms to challenge or violate these normative American myths soon finds that it can’t think of any good reasons to justify itself. It cannot justify itself because its leaders and members have been raised and educated only in the myths of the left, and the myths of the left can never serve to justify a movement that seeks to challenge what the left demands.
Thus, when the above-mentioned right-wing terrorists of the “Silent Brotherhood” were brought to trial for their murder of talk-show host Alan Berg in 1984, their defense was that they simply didn’t do it, and it never occurred to the defendants or their supporters to try to justify the killing, as genuine terrorists always do. In order to mount a case that killing Mr. Berg was justified, the killers would have had to reach for ideas, values, and concepts that simply are not on the American intellectual shelf and were probably beyond the mental grasp of most Silent Brothers anyway. Such concepts are readily available in Russia, certain countries of Europe, and Latin America, but here they just don’t exist, and you’d be better off warning about invasions from the moons of Saturn than trying to explain those ideas in public, let alone using them to justify murder.
But of course the situation in this country today is such, or is quickly becoming such, that those ideas—drawn from Georges Sorel, Friedrich Nietzsche, Charles Maurras, among others—might soon find a more receptive audience. If the ineffectuality of the mainstream political right has accomplished anything, it has shown that Republicans cannot and will not do what they say they will do if elected. One reason for the emergence of anti-abortion violence in the last couple of years is precisely that after more than a decade of two right-leaning and professedly pro-life Republican Presidents, each of whom appointed new Justices to the Supreme Court, the pro-life cause was no closer to victory than before and perhaps even farther from it, and even several of the Justices appointed by Reagan and Bush voted against overturning Roe v. Wade when they had the chance. If you believe, as pro-lifers do, that the fetus is a human being and that destroying it is an act of murder, then it is clear that the peaceful and lawful political and legal process has failed, and the logic of resorting to the killing of those who professionally commit such murders becomes more and more compelling.
But that logic is no more compelling than when it is applied to many of the other commitments the Republican right has regurgitated repeatedly in the past 20 years—to lower taxes, to reduce the size and power of the state, to enforce laws against dangerous criminals, to protect Americans against foreign enemies, to resist the orchestrated destruction of American civilization by publicly funded schools and cultural authorities, to protect the country against the invasion of immigration, to abolish or radically reform and reduce the welfare state, to redress the injustice of the civil rights laws, and on and on. Not one of these commitments has been kept, and today it is hard to find a Republican politician or a conservative pundit who even understands them, though what they promised action against amounts to an onslaught on the American way of life at least as serious and lethal as any invasion by foreign armies.
Violence as a political instrument is a desperate measure, but it is not so desperate that it is unprecedented or unjustifiable. The (original) Minutemen and the Confederates who took up arms against what they perceived as tyranny understood that it is force, and not discussion or votes or laws, that ultimately determines the courses in which political power runs, and the risk they assumed when they took up arms was no larger than what they would have faced had they remained peaceful.
What we face today is far more repressive, far more dangerous, and far more entrenched than the oppressors of the late 18th and mid-19th centuries, and we have far more reason to take up arms against the oppressor and its agents than they did. There can be little question today about the ethical legitimacy of using violence in defense of a way of life that the rulers of the nation do nothing to protect and much to destroy and about which they no longer care or can be made to care through the normal processes of politics and law. It is probably counterproductive now to start shooting federal judges, bureaucrats, and politicians who lie their way from one election to another, but it’s certainly not too early to start making a little list and letting them know who’s on it.