What I Learned From Speaking with Scott Roeder

In May, a man named Scott Roeder from Kansas City drove up to Wichita and killed Dr. George Tiller while he was serving as an usher in his church. (I interviewed Scott Roeder extensively for a story published in the February issue of GQ.) Tiller was the most famous man in Wichita. And he'd become famous because he ran one of only three or four clinics in the country that provided late-term abortions; because he operated deep in enemy (culturally speaking) territory; and because he marketed himself robustly and fearlessly. For most of the last thirty years of his life he was the single greatest point of focus for all the affiliated parties of the pro-life movement.

He was shot in 1993 in both arms. His clinic was bombed. His clinic workers were tailed and photographed and harassed. He lived under US Marshall protection for a while, and drove an armored car. He was the object of an exhaustive investigation - many called it a vendetta -- by a man named Phill Kline, who ran for and won the office of Kansas Attorney General in part on a platform of putting George Tiller out of business. The trial that resulted from that investigation - he was ultimately acquitted of reduced, misdemeanor charges -- ended only a couple months before he was shot and killed.

After Dr. Tiller's death, those who weren't praising what Scott Roeder had done (and yes, as you might imagine, there were a number of factions who seemed pretty happy about the murder) were arguing over whether Scott Roeder was simply crazy, or if one particular sliver of the pro-life spectrum was ultimately culpable. Many on the left pointed their fingers at Bill O'Reilly. O'Reilly made George Tiller a household name to people outside the movement, began attacking him publicly in 1995 and liked to refer to him on his talk show as "Tiller the baby killer."

Is the fact that George Tiller was killed in cold blood in his church last spring Bill O'Reilly's fault? Keith Olbermann, of course, says yes. Various pro-choice organizations agree. One of the people I found most honest and forthright in my interviews - a horse veterinarian and member of George Tiller's church who performed CPR on him after he was shot -- told me that in his opinion Bill O'Reilly is at least partly to blame. I'd like to share that opinion. He's a fun man to hate - and it's hard not to want to piss him off so that he might zero in on you with his eye-lasers and nostril-fire. But if it's true that Bill O'Reilly is in some way responsible for Tiller's death, it's not in the way many people might think.

The murder trial of Scott Roeder ended today - it took a Wichita jury 37 minutes to find him guilty. Over the course of the trial, each courtroom session had become a microcosm of the explosive socio-political drama that played out in Wichita for so many years. You could see Tiller's family, grief-stricken and angry and steadfast, enduring the testimony (and the experience of being in the same room with Roeder) through gritted teeth. You could see the movement pro-lifers, the regular protestors (or "sidewalk counselors"), the telegenic Troy Newman, who came to Wichita earlier in the decade with good hair and a large following and promised to stay until he shut down George Tiller's clinic. And then you have the outer edges of that world - guys like David Leach and Regina Dinwiddie, folks affiliated with the so-called Army of God, the small element that has been advocating violence since abortion doctors first started getting murdered more than twenty years ago. And I'd argue that these folks have a more direct connection to the information rattling around inside Scott Roeder's head than Bill O'Reilly ever did.

I spoke to Scott Roeder at least a dozen times over the course of reporting. He told me he listened to Bill O'Reilly sometimes on the radio. (Scott wasn't a guy who had cable - he worked at marginal jobs and moved apartments an awful lot.) And he liked Bill O'Reilly. But Scott had a keen interest in and hunger for learning about terrible conspiracies that lay, as he believed, just beneath the fabric of society. He went to meetings where people discussed how the Illuminati were controlling the country and the world and feeding innocent women into a satanic sex cult. He believed the fluoride in drinking water was there to render the masses more docile, which is why he wouldn't drink from a tap. He believed federal tax laws weren't laws at all - and so they needn't be followed. And he believed in the information about George Tiller fed to him through websites and literature and conversation by the most violent fringe of the pro life movement. He believed Dr. Tiller intentionally tortured babies. He believed that once, when a fetus had been delivered still breathing during one of Dr Tiller's procedures, Dr. Tiller killed it with his bare hands.

Talking about the sick things Dr. Tiller supposedly did was one of Scott's favorite topics during our conversations. After all, if you are going to murder someone, it's not enough simply to say you have a philosophical difference with him. And he presented all this to me as if it had been printed in the New York Times. He presented this information to me as if it were unimpeachable. As if he were educating me about some material that I hadn't done enough research to know about.

Bill O'Reilly is not the person who created for Scott Roeder the specific narrative that he used to create in his mind a picture of a person whom he could murder proudly. But he did help to create an environment in which Dr. George Tiller was thought of as a criminal and a murderer (whatever you think about what he was doing, it was legal). He provided a kind of moral cover and cable-sanctified legitimacy.

It's a problem that's bigger than extremist pro-life elements or Bill O'Reilly. The problem is the thriving culture of manufacturing dehumanizing lies about people you disagree with, whether they are about Dr. George Tiller, or George W. Bush. It's dangerous. It's dangerous whether you say George Bush wanted to murder Iraqi children or Barack Obama is a secret terrorist who wants to use two married gay men to kill your grandmother. And it's incredibly dangerous for people in positions of authority or power to ratify insane, dehumanizing narratives about people. That's a relatively new phenomenon. The militia movement didn't have a cable channel. Scott Roeder did.