Rockford doesn’t often make the national news, but when it does, you can be certain it’s not because of any good that’s happening here. Our latest brush with fame came on the last day of September, when a 32-year-old Catholic priest from a parish just south of Rockford rammed his car into the local abortuary. Fr. John Earl then took an ax and made kindling of two heavy wooden doors in “Fort Turner,” which used to be a public school. While the house of death was closed for business, the owner, Wayne Webster, lives in the building, and he confronted Father Earl with a shotgun, firing two shells before the priest laid down his axe.

The reaction was predictable: Before anyone knew any details, some local pro-lifers proclaimed Father Earl a modern day hero, while others unequivocally condemned him. The local Gannett paper, of course, used the attack as an opportunity to condemn excessive zeal on the part of the pro-life movement and to praise the FDA’s decision to approve the human pesticide RU-486. A local radio talk-show host marveled at coincidence: Wasn’t it “ironic” that he’d had Richard Ragsdale, the abortionist, on his show the day before the attack to discuss how RU- 486 will change the nature of the abortion debate?

The true irony is that neither the talkshow host nor the local pro-lifers who sponsored the annual Life Chain the day after the attack seem to have considered the role that their actions may have played in motivating Father Earl. Activists on both sides of the question know that the graphic public discussion of abortion (or, in the case of the Life Chain, the pornographic depiction of aborted children on posters) cannot help but arouse emotions. Father Earl, of course, is ultimately responsible for his own actions, and—contrary to some letters to the editor comparing him to Christ throwing the moneychangers out of the temple—what he did was, at best, a violation of property rights. (The temple, as Christ pointed out, was His Father’s house; this hellhole belongs to Wayne Webster.) But the unceasing refrain of “America’s ongoing holocaust” will ultimately lead some to conclude that the time has come to quit talking and start saving babies —and desperate men will employ desperate measures.

In national opinion polls, a majority of Americans claim to support outlawing abortion except in cases of rape, incest, and saving the life of the mother, and pro-life sentiment here in Rockford runs even higher. But pro-lifers have taken the extreme stand of demanding a human- life amendment to the Constitution, and that has allowed them to make the compromises that keep “Doctor” Ragsdale in business. The truth is, local pro-lifers could shut down Fort Turner through zoning laws, by making abortion the major issue in Rockford’s mayoral and aldermanic campaigns. But as we approach another local election in April, local pro-lifers are crisscrossing the city, putting up Bush-Cheney signs in the vain hope that the Republican candidate who recently betrayed them on abortion will do more to protect unborn children than the Democratic candidate who sold them out ten years ago.

Russell Kirk was fond of quoting Edmund Burke’s admonition that we shouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. By setting the impossible as our goal, we excuse ourselves from doing what can be done. Abortion will not be stopped by axe-wielding Catholic priests or Republican presidents, and Roe v. Wade will probably never be overturned. The best we can hope to do is shut down our local abortuary and pray that others follow our lead. Until we can muster the moral and political will to act locally, the rivers of blood will continue to flow.