June 10, 2009

Debating the murder of George Tiller

In a blog from last week, I expressed my skepticism over the speed at which the pro-life movement has collectively asserted that George Tiller was a mass murderer and, simultaneously, condemned his assassination and assured everyone that no pro-lifer would consider killing an abortion doctor. My point was not to justify Tiller?s murder; nor was it to claim that all pro-lifers are hypocrites and cowards for not doing the deed themselves. It was instead to emphasize that if the movement wants its words to be taken seriously, then it should discuss whether George Tiller deserved to die (and move beyond claiming that anyone who suggests pro-lifers should support the killing of Tiller is a cynical liberal just trying to harm Christians.) 

Scott Richert takes up my challenge, but, unfortunately, his response is a bit disappointing.

Says Richert, ?Spencer falls into [a] trap, invoking just war in his discussion of Tiller’s murder. It is ? entirely irrelevant to this discussion.?

I really don?t understand what Richert is talking about here. I ?evoke? just-war theory in passing, and only as evidence that Christianity does not entail universal pacifism. Nowhere do I attempt to justify the Tiller murder in terms of just war. (This, it would seem, should be obvious to anyone who reads my piece carefully.)

But Richert continues his critique as if just war were the crux of my argument: 

Just-war theory is concerned with determining whether a civil authority is morally justified in making war against an external enemy (and, secondarily, with determining whether the way in which a just war is waged is itself just). George Tiller was not an external enemy; his murderer was not the civil authority charged with protection of those who were being killed.


Does the government’s neglect of its duty justify Tiller’s murderer taking the government’s responsibilities into his own hands?

Of course not. On this point, we get into a third, much more rarified area in which killing has been justified by Christian theologians: that of regicide. Literally, regicide is the killing of a king, but we can use the term more broadly to speak of the deposing of the duly constituted civil authority. Late medieval and early modern Catholic theologians, including St. Thomas Aquinas, believed that, under very strict and rare circumstances, regicide could be justified.

Essentially, those civil authorities that not only refuse to carry out the duties of their office but act in opposition to those duties lose their legitimacy. Spencer mentions the case of Adolf Hitler and points out that some pro-life advocates praise the Catholic aristocrats who attempted to assassinate Hitler.

This would be an apt comparison?if Spencer were discussing regicide. He isn’t; George Tiller and Adolf Hitler may have shared certain moral sensibilities, but Tiller was not the ruler of a country.

Well, I guess Tiller gets off on a technicality. Were he, however, performing abortions while holding the title of Baron of Wichita, then his murder would be just. Ditto if he were a soldier in an invading army performing abortions. Though I?m not sure where this leaves the status of Kathleen Sebelius and Barack Obama, two sovereigns who in their respective territories use the power of the state to engage in something Richert considers murder. Furthermore, would Richert like to argue that Bonhoeffer and Stauffenberg were justified because they attacked Hitler while he was head of state, but then would have sinned greatly if they, say, shot down a man who was operating a concentration camp? 


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