I have been thinking A LOT about Dr. George Tiller since his assassination on May 31, 2009. I’ve had a lot of time to think about him, too, since I’ve been marathon-painting my daughter’s bedroom until the early hours every morning, after the kids go to bed. I can’t listen to my iPod or I won’t be able to hear the kids if they need something, so I paint and think. And paint and think.
I’ve thought about what his murder says about the state of the abortion battle today; how we have yet to hear a strong statement from the current Kansas Governor denouncing this political killing; how each side will or will not attempt to use his life and death to advance their cause; how the coverage (besides Barb Shelley) in the Kansas City Star reflects the cuts in investigative reporting at that paper and others (the statements that they let go unchallenged were apalling); how I’m glad that Lenny’s book is done so that he can draw attention to some of the linkages between the extreme anti-abortion groups and militias and white nationalists.
But mostly, I have thought about courage. I have thought about how Dr. Tiller went to work every single day knowing that many, many people in this country wanted him dead for doing what he believed to be right. And I’ve wondered if I would have the courage to do the same.
I’m no stranger to harassment for my beliefs. When I was a leading advocate on behalf of immigrant rights, I received dozens of nasty emails and phone calls, and a few long-winded hand-written letters, calling me all manner of ugly names (“Communist Mexican-lover” was one of the more colorful, non-profane ones). People told me to go back to Mexico, which was a little funny. They called my office late at night, intending to leave a mean message on my machine, and hung up when I answered at 10:30PM. They called my answering machine at home and hung up, sometimes 20 or more times a day. Occasionally, they even made some vague threats, which prompted Lenny to give me instructions on how to handle threatening mail (he made me keep Zip-lock bags in my desk) and worried my police chief friends. Once I was listed on a website that was something about ‘enemies of America’, and it even gave my address, which was kind of scary.
And none of that made me even think about stopping. My husband used to laugh at the idea that having to delete a bunch of hang-ups on our answering machine would somehow make me quit (“that’s the last straw,” he’d laugh). Mostly I was annoyed, sometimes sad, only occasionally a little scared. I was never singled out, and I was never really threatened. I was always, honestly, glad to receive any of the negative attention, because I figured that it was better for me to be the target than immigrants who lacked the security and protection that I have as a citizen of this country.
But since May 31st, I’ve been wondering, what if. What if I had been threatened more directly? What if I had actually been targeted? Would I have had the strength, the courage, the moral outrage in me to be ever-emboldened by that hatred to continue my life’s work? I honestly doubt it, and that realization has been the focus of my ruminations these weeks while I paint and think.
I didn’t know Dr. Tiller. I don’t even know a lot about the procedures he performed, and this isn’t a post about abortion politics, anyway. But what is obvious is that he understood the risks, lived with them every moment, and had long ago made peace with the idea of sacrificing himself for a cause in which he very much believed. He did so consciously and very, very bravely. While I don’t believe there’s evidence that he considered himself a martyr, and I certainly don’t think he wanted to die for this cause, he was willing to do so if that’s what it took…or, maybe more accurately, he was just unwilling to let his opponents intimidate or silence him. And that’s a powerful witness. One to which I (and maybe you, too?) can only hope to aspire. And that’s a lot to think about.