Paul Hill is no O.J. Simpson. His path to media stardom was not athletic greatness and a pleasing public persona. Hill became a media celebrity his own way: by advocating murder.
America was shocked when Simpson became a murder suspect, but it wasn't too surprising when Hill went to jail for killing a doctor and his escort outside a Pensacola, Florida, abortion clinic on July 29. After all, the ex-pastor had been advocating such action on national TV for over a year.
On television, Hill's belief that a holy book commands the murder of physicians who perform abortions was uttered with the same religious zeal one might expect from those who advocate car- bombings against satanic Westerners.
Except proponents of car-bombing don't get the media forums Hill did.
The point here is not that fanatics like Hill should be banned from the airwaves — but that their extremism ought to be exposed when they do speak on the air.
Appearing as a guest on CNN's "Sonya Live" program on March 8, Hill hailed the man who had murdered abortion provider Dr. David Gunn as a hero "willing to lay down" his life to fulfill "the commandment of Christ."
Host Sonya Friedman responded by seeming to question Hill's commitment to action: "But Mr. Hill, indeed, you personally are not laying down your life. One might suggest that you are offering that message to others and they may be laying down their lives."
Less than five months later, police say, Hill chose action over words, murdering Dr. Gunn's successor at the Pensacola abortion clinic.
Extremism went almost unscathed when Hill appeared on Ted Koppel's Nightline last Dec. 8. Koppel opened the show by comparing legal abortions with violent incidents against abortion clinics — "the latest casualty count" from the abortion "battlefront" — a numerical comparison often made by those who attack clinics: "Thirty million aborted fetuses over the past 30 years [sic] since Roe v. Wade was handed down by the Supreme Court. On the other side of the ledger, 7,709 incidents of violence and disruption targeting doctors and abortion clinics since 1977...[including] one attempted murder and one successful murder."
Missing from the numbers were pregnant women — including the estimated 200,000 women who die each year across the globe from illegal abortions.
The Nightline discussion — which involved only Koppel, Hill and Helen Alvare of Catholics for Life — was a remarkably polite dialogue on an insane topic: whether killing physicians who perform abortions is justifiable.
While Hill advocated violence to stop abortion, and Alvare didn't, Koppel treated the topic as a legitimate one for serious discussion — allowing Hill to expound at length on his belief that since one can kill to defend a day-old child, it's justifiable to kill an abortion provider.
"God has given us this responsibility," proclaimed Hill, "and if we stand by with our hands in our pockets and watch, say, our wives kill our unborn children, we are actually culpable of not trying to prevent murder... Sometimes you have to use force to stop people from killing innocent children."
Rather than challenge the violence (or misogyny) inherent in Hill's remarks, Koppel asserted that Hill had raised an important moral issue: "When we come back, Ms. Alvare, I wonder if you would pick up that very, very difficult moral question, the difference between a child that is one day old and a child that is one day away from birth."
After a commercial break, Koppel acknowledged that abortions are rarely performed in the last months of pregnancy. But he — like his two anti-abortion guests — continued to blur any distinction between a child and a fetus: "If a parent would be justified in using violence, even deadly force, to protect a one- day-old infant," Koppel asked, "why is that same parent not justified in using the same kind of force to prevent the abortion of, let's say, a five-month-old child?"
Had an abortion-rights advocate taken part in the discussion, he or she might have mentioned that 99 percent of U.S. abortions occur before the fetus reaches five months — and might have challenged Hill's constant equation of terminating a pregnancy with "killing a child." Koppel never did.
When we refer to the morality of doctor-murder as an "insane" topic for TV news forums, we do not mean to imply that Paul Hill is a lone nut.
Hill is hardly alone. Violence against physicians and family planning clinics has been escalating. Faced with defeats in the political arena and the courts, a growing number of anti-abortion crusaders have turned to terror, organizing a nationwide movement to promote it. Hill's petition defending "lethal force" against doctors had been signed by several dozen priests, ministers and religious activists from around the country.
And while more mainstream "pro-life" leaders were quick to distance themselves from Hill after he was charged with murder, he had been invited into their midst for a national strategy meeting in Chicago three months earlier. The line between advocates and opponents of violence seemed thin; a major discussion item on the meeting's agenda was "Violence and Nonviolence: How to Work With Disagreement".
The gathering was dominated by debates over the morality of killing doctors. "I was surprised at how much support there was for Paul Hill," remarked the director of the Pro-Life Action League. An Operation Rescue leader who said he argued against murder, told the New York Times: "I think I was in the minority."
News media today should be exposing those who turn to violence when they can't win over their fellow citizens through democratic debate. A movement that rationalizes murder as "pro- life" deserves at least as much news coverage as an individual athlete accused of murder.
A floodlight needs to be focused on these extremists. Not merely another spotlight.