The year was 1190. “Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?” King Henry II is said to have asked, referring to his adversary Thomas Becket, the cleric who refused to trade his morality for political advantage even after Henry named him Archbishop of Canterbury. According to one history of the event: “Four knights, perhaps seeking to curry favour with the king, rode from Westminster to Canterbury and killed Becket in front of the main altar of the Cathedral when he refused to relent.”
Becket was killed on December 29, 1170. The lesser-known Dr. George Tiller was killed on May 31, 2009. It only took one crusading Christian to kill Tiller who, like Becket, was also at a church and who, also like Becket, refused to bend his conscience to the threatening winds of anger gusting to rage. Dr. Tiller was serving as an usher at the Reformation Lutheran Church in Wichita, Kansas. He was handing out the church bulletin as parishioners entered the foyer. That is where he was shot. That is where he died.
Bill O’Reilly and other right-wing pundits and politicians are now being held accountable for their demonizing rhetoric. On the day Dr. Tiller died, Gabrielle Winant on Salon traced O’Reilly’s relentless campaign against the murdered doctor. Winant wrote that some of O’Reilly’s characterizations of Tiller replicated
“ancient conservative, paranoid stories: a decadent, permissive and callous elite tolerates moral monstrosities that every common-sense citizen just knows to be awful. Conspiring against our folk wisdom, O’Reilly says, the sophisticates have shielded Tiller from the appropriate, legal consequences for his deeds.”
So, concludes Winant: “O’Reilly didn’t tell anyone to do anything violent, but he did put Tiller in the public eye, and help make him the focus of a movement with a history of violence against exactly these kinds of targets.”
The analysts at Media Matters for America have been forcefully arguing the case against the “Emerging Culture of Paranoia” and the role of “Right-Wing Media” in fostering a toxic climate in which violence is more likely.
Media Matters’ Eric Boehlert, who suggested after the Tiller murder that “O’Reilly and Fox News will have more right-wing vigilantism to explain,” selected some of O’Reilly’s most egregious statements demonizing Dr. Tiller:
- “In the state of Kansas, there is a doctor, George Tiller, who will execute babies for $5,000.”
- “For $5,000, ‘Tiller the Baby Killer’—as some call him—will perform a late-term abortion for just about any reason.”
- “Tiller has killed thousands, thousands, of late-term fetuses without explanation.”
- “No question, Dr. Tiller has blood on his hands.”
- “‘Tiller the Baby Killer’ out in Kansas, acquitted, acquitted today of murdering babies.”
- “This guy will kill your baby for $5,000, any reason. Any reason.”
- “If we allow Dr. George Tiller and his acolytes to continue, we can no longer pass judgment on any behavior by anybody.”
- “If we allow this, America will no longer be a noble nation.”
It is as if O’Reilly asked “Who will rid us of this troublesome Doctor?” King Henry at least accepted his share of the blame, seemed to be truly sorry for the killing of Becket, and did public penance. According to accounts: “Henry, full of remorse, did penance imposed by the Pope. He walked to Canterbury Cathedral in sack cloth and ashes and allowed himself to be flogged by the monks there.”
I like the idea of a public flogging of Bill O’Reilly; it appeals not only to my sense of justice, but also to my sense of historic symmetry and cosmic irony. So step up O’Reilly. Accept your share of the blame for the death of Tiller. Do your public penance. You are not legally culpable, yet history awaits your decision, and God awaits your soul.