Robert Dear is alleged to have murdered three people and wounded nine others at a Planned Parenthood clinic on November 29, 2015. This incident is, unfortunately, part of two recurring themes. One is that of mass shootings in the United States. The other is domestic terrorism on the part of right-wing individuals and groups including self-proclaimed Christian anti-abortionists. While a discussion of these matters could take place in many contexts, I will use a framework provided by Fox News host Andrea Tantaros.
Tantaros began her discussion of the matter by criticizing the left for “indicting an entire religion” of “Christian white Republicans” and then noted that “the same people who hesitate using the phrase Islamic terrorism were very quick to use the term ‘Christian’.”
Tantaros is correct to criticize those who indict an entire religion on the basis of the actions of the worst elements of that faith. While the alleged shooter Robert Dear has identified himself as a Christian and seems to have been motivated by his religious beliefs, it would be an error to infer that what is true of Dear is true of all Christians. Such a leap would be a classic hasty generalization—a fallacy in which an inference is made about a group on the basis of a sample that is too small to justify the inference. This inference would also be an error because it is well known that the vast majority of Christians, like the vast majority of people of other faiths, are not inclined to murder. As such, the claim that Dear represents all Christians contradicts the known facts and his alleged acts of violence should not be labeled as “Christian terrorism”, despite the fact that there have been more acts of domestic terrorism committed against abortion clinics by self-proclaimed Christians than there have been acts of domestic terrorism inflicted by self-proclaimed Muslims since September 11, 2001.
While there are some arguments in favor of labeling terrorism by the religions claimed by the terrorists, there are excellent reasons to avoid such labeling. One is that it unfairly connects all the members of a faith to the terrorists. Another is that it unfairly implies that such acts of terror are endorsed or encouraged by the faith. To label Dear as a “Christian terrorist” is to connect him to the millions of Christians who would not slaughter other people and to imply that the acts of terror are in accord with the values of Christianity.
It could, of course, be objected that such terrorists are connected to other members of the faith, despite the differences and that such terrorists are acting in accord with the values of the faith as they see it. It could even be objected, as people often do in the case of both Islam and Christianity, that all members of the faith are potential terrorists and that acts of terror are perfectly in accord with the faith. Naturally, some people of one faith insist that it is not true of them, even when they are insisting that it is true of the other faith.
The discussion on Fox then turned to claims that Republican politicians had incited the violence with their rhetoric about “selling baby parts” on the grounds that Dear is alleged to have said “no more baby parts.” Fox’s Charles Payne made the point that Republicans should not be blamed because they were asserting that public funds should not pay for abortions. Perhaps without realizing what he was doing, he immediately said “particularly when they’re talking about selling baby parts”, thus bringing up the sort of rhetoric that has been condemned as inflammatory.
Continuing the thread, Tantaros blamed the left for exploiting the shooting for political purposes, including trying to “muzzle” Republicans for talking about “the illegal harvesting of baby parts on the off chance that some lunatic out there might hear that rhetoric and decide to go shoot up a clinic.”
Before moving to the main issues, it is important to note that there is no evidence, despite numerous investigations, that Planned Parenthood has ever been involved in “the illegal harvesting of baby parts.” It is certainly ironic that as part of their denial of the influence of such rhetoric, the folks at Fox would bring up exactly that rhetoric. But, now to the issues.
One issue that is a matter of psychology and causation is whether or not such rhetoric was a causal factor in the actions of the alleged shooter. As others have argued, given that there has only been one such attack since the rhetoric heated up, its causal influence must be incredibly small. There is also the very reasonable point that even if the alleged shooter were motived by the rhetoric, this would be but one factor among many others. As such, to place moral blame for the shootings upon the Republican rhetoric would be an error.
The second issue is one of free speech. Legally, the Republican rhetoric is protected by the 1st Amendment and rightfully so. As long as they do not cross the line and start telling people to commit crimes, they have every legal right to engage in such heated rhetoric. Lying of the sort that is used in rhetoric is also not against the law. However, there is also the moral issue: should the Republicans use such rhetoric?
One answer is linked to the psychological issue—as long as the Republicans are not knowingly causing people to engage in acts of violence, the moral right to free speech would entail that their actions are morally tolerable. The mere fact that the rhetoric is extreme and offensive to some is not grounds for regarding it as morally wrong. However, being merely morally tolerable is not a very exalted status. I have a preference for civil discourse that avoids needlessly heated rhetoric, but perhaps this is but a personal preference.
Another answer is linked to the untruths that have been used in the rhetoric. While truth seems to matter little in politics, it still matters in ethics. As such, intentionally making untrue claims about Planned Parenthood would seem to be wrong, at least on the assumption that lying is wrong. It could, of course, be argued that such untruths can be justified on utilitarian grounds—which is a standard way to justify lying.
Since the killings at the clinic constituted a mass shooting, the conversation would not be complete without the raising of a stock talking point about good guys with guns. The honor fell to Payne to say “And also, what if more people had guns there, guys?”
The issue of whether or not the presence of armed civilians would prevent or mitigate a mass shooting is certainly one of considerable controversy. But it is essentially an empirical matter that can, in theory, be settled by examining the data. Those who support the claim that a solution to gun violence is being armed point to cases in which armed civilians use their guns to prevent or at least mitigate crimes. Those who disagree with this claim point to cases in which things did not work out so well and present arguments against the deterrence value and effectiveness of armed civilians.
One problem with reaching a rational conclusion about the effectiveness of armed civilians in preventing or mitigating crime is that there is a lack of good data on gun violence. Pointing to some examples in which the good guy with a gun saved the day is relevant, but is still essentially anecdotal evidence. Likewise, pointing to examples in which it did not work out is also relevant, yet still anecdotal. As such, my view is that claims about the value of guns in this regard are largely unsupported—as are claims about their lack of value. However, it is certainly possible to speculate based on the available information and that seems to indicate that the crime fighting value of armed civilians is a rather mixed bag.