Revolution #181, November 1, 2009
The Second Assassination of Dr. George Tiller
[Spoiler warning: The following letter reveals crucial plot points about the October 23, 2009 episode of Law & Order.]
I don’t regularly watch the TV show Law & Order, but when I saw that it was planning a show modeled on the killing last May of Dr. George Tiller by an anti-abortion lunatic, I thought I’d tune in. The article announcing this made the point that very few shows that directly deal with this topic actually get onto TV.
Perhaps foolishly, I hoped for something that might have shed even a little light on what had happened to Dr. George Tiller and why. It is true, of course, that—with very few exceptions—progressive and even radical artists stay away from this topic. But a drama showing something about why Tiller had chosen this high-risk life... or one bringing to life the toll exacted on him by the constant threats and actual armed assaults... or a program shedding light on the milieu that spawns and encourages the anti-abortion lunatics to murder doctors, including the ways in which people like Bill O’Reilly have in fact been given the platform of national television to carry out lynch-mob style agitation against him—any of these would have been powerful "ways in" for a TV drama. After all, TV movies like If These Walls Could Talk, or the thought-provoking recent article in Esquire magazine on Colorado doctor Warren Hern ("The Last Abortion Doctor," by John H. Richardson, August 5, 2009) had shown that moving, insightful art or journalism could be created on what has become, unfortunately, a subject full of real-life drama about moral choice and standing for principle in the face of murder. Plus, I had heard from reliable friends that a recent Law & Order episode had fairly honestly rendered the controversy surrounding John Yoo and his complicity in torture.
Unfortunately, the Law & Order show modeled on the killing of George Tiller merely demonstrates that it is possible to assassinate a person twice—first in physical fact and then in terms of his reputation. It sheds light only on the fact that it is possible to twist this murder into an argument against the right to abortion, and to frame this in oh-so-liberal terms.
It would take pages of this paper to unravel and dissect the ways in which this episode crudely distorts reality and manipulates the emotions of its viewers. To begin with, only two minor characters are allowed to put forward anything even approximating a position defending abortion. First, there is the intake nurse at the clinic of the murdered doctor—though this very brief defense takes place very early in the show and even this nurse grounds her argument in the assertion that "most of the women who come here want to be mothers" but face disastrous pregnancies and that the rest are victims of child-rape. The other minor character who unambiguously defends the right to abortion is a doctor called to the witness stand. He says that he would continue to provide abortions to women who needed them "even if fools and hypocrites" succeed in making it illegal. The character played by the actor Sam Waterston—who seems, to this very occasional viewer, to be the "moral center" of the show who cues the viewers as to how they are supposed to think and feel about what they see—then immediately remarks that this principled and actually courageous statement shows that "there are extremists on both sides."
Almost all the major characters, by contrast, continue to mouth lines throughout the whole show either about how at one point they were pro-choice but things have become much more complex and now they are not sure, or they are portrayed as having been anti-abortion but willing to go ahead and prosecute the killer of the doctor. Typical and outrageous anti-abortion arguments are put into the mouths of sympathetic characters and are refuted only half-heartedly, if at all.
But the crudest distortion—an invention that is outright slanderous—comes with the major plot turn of the episode. Midway through, we are introduced to a nurse formerly employed by the murdered doctor who claims that she quit his clinic because she witnessed him kill an actual baby. Let’s leave aside for a minute that a) this nurse’s claim—for which no physical evidence of any kind is ever even hinted at—is never challenged (and any halfway competent lawyer would immediately try to figure out if indeed she was telling the truth), and b) even if this claim were true there are no grounds on which any halfway competent judge would allow her to be put on the stand to introduce this totally unsubstantiated and utterly irrelevant claim into evidence. To my understanding, no one—not even a certified professional liar like O’Reilly—has ever alleged that Dr. George Tiller ever did anything like this! But now millions of people are going to walk away from this show—whose social function does seem to be at least in part to give its audience a certain context or framework through which to understand high-profile current events—"knowing" that abortion providers (and Dr. Tiller in particular) also kill live children!! And if you think I’m underestimating the ability of the so-called American public to distinguish TV fantasy from truth, I’m sorry, but there are still millions and millions of people who remain convinced that Saddam Hussein did have weapons of mass destruction.
This, I am told by a friend who watches more TV than I do, is nothing unusual for today’s shows. In show after show, the value of women is reduced to their ability to bear children... and their worthiness as a human being to their acceptance of that as their principal role in life. Indeed, the pivotal plot turn in this Law & Order episode only comes to light because of what we are supposed to view as the "ethical choice" by the female assistant DA (a former believer in the right of women to abortion now wracked by doubt) to track down this nurse and reveal her assertion to the defense—in total violation of doctor-patient confidentiality.
It is true that by the end of the show, the viewer is supposed to think that the murderer of the doctor was wrong—and he is found guilty of first-degree murder. But this is only because the DA makes as his trump card argument the idea that violence can only legitimately be carried out by the state or else there would be "chaos"—and that, after all, is the highest moral standard of the ruling class.
This is one small but hardly insignificant example of how the morality of a society is massaged and twisted to accept the murder of doctors... and the outlawing of abortion and subjugation of women. It should fire everyone who understands the centrality of the right to abortion to women’s emancipation (a concept never even broached in this show!)—and who thinks that what another friend of mine calls "the very new and fragile idea that women are actually human beings" is true—to find the ways to challenge and change the terms of this debate.
— Toby O’Ryan
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