The murder of a physician who performs abortions has become a bewildering ritual of individual desperation, occurring four times since 1993. It also has become a ritual test of journalists' abilities to report the news calmly and fairly.
The murder of George Tiller, who performed late-term abortions in Wichita for most of his career, is the first such killing to occur during a worship service at a church. The location of Tiller's death is the most haunting detail of this grim story, and in time that detail will be explored in fuller detail.
Meanwhile, there is no shortage of columns such as this one by Mike Hendricks of The Kansas City Star. The headline on Hendricks' column -- "With Tiller slaying, abortion opponents lose their moral standing" -- is the least hyperbolic moment.
The Wichita Eagle provides a useful roundup of statements on both sides of the abortion debate.
Both The New York Times and The Washington Post follow a pattern of setting up a pro-lifer's statement with scare quotes. From the Times:
Troy Newman, the president of Operation Rescue, an anti-abortion group based in Wichita, said he had always sought out "nonviolent" measures to challenge Dr. Tiller, including efforts in recent years to have him prosecuted for crimes or investigated by state health authorities.
"Operation Rescue has worked tirelessly on peaceful, nonviolent measures to bring him to justice through the legal system, the legislative system," Mr. Newman said, adding, "We are pro-life, and this act was antithetical to what we believe."
By late Sunday, Mr. Newman said, some were already suggesting that there were links between the suspect and Operation Rescue. Someone named Scott Roeder had made posts to the group's blog in the past, Mr. Newman said, but "he is not a friend, not a contributor, not a volunteer."
Operation Rescue President Troy Newman, whose group is based in Wichita and whose Web site carries a "Tiller Watch" feature, said he was "shocked" by the killing.
"Operation Rescue has worked for years through peaceful, legal means, and through the proper channels to see him brought to justice," Newman said in a statement. "We denounce vigilantism and the cowardly act that took place this morning."
Some of the most interesting journalistic digging so far has come from Judy L. Thomas of The Kansas City Star, who provides illuminating background on the accused killer, Scott P. Roeder of Miriam, Kansas:
Roeder also was a subscriber to Prayer and Action News, a magazine that advocated the justifiable homicide position, said publisher Dave Leach, an anti-abortion activist from Des Moines, Iowa.
"I met him once, and he wrote to me a few times," Leach said. "I remember that he was sympathetic to our cause, but I don't remember any details."
Leach said he met Roeder in Topeka when he went there to visit Shelley Shannon, who was in prison for the 1993 shooting of Tiller.
"He told me about a lot of conspiracy stuff and showed me how to take the magnetic strip out of a five-dollar bill," Leach said. "He said it was to keep the government from tracking your money."
Roeder, who in the 1990s was a manufacturing assemblyman, also was involved in the "Freemen" movement.
"Freemen" was a term adopted by those who claimed sovereignty from government jurisdiction and operated under their own legal system, which they called common-law courts. Adherents declared themselves exempt from laws, regulations and taxes and often filed liens against judges, prosecutors and others, claiming that money was owed to them as compensation.
To gain a sense of the mainstream pro-life movement, compare such thinking with that of law professor Robert George of Princeton University, writing for National Review Online:
Whoever murdered George Tiller has done a gravely wicked thing. The evil of this action is in no way diminished by the blood George Tiller had on his own hands. No private individual had the right to execute judgment against him. We are a nation of laws. Lawless violence breeds only more lawless violence.