News & Politics

The Threat Is Real: Why Right-Wing Rage at Townhall Meetings Could Quickly Turn Deadly

The insurance industry has agitated the far right to prevent health reform, but they don't know whom they're messing with.

From the Internet to Sarah Palin this strange claim is being made: President Barack Obama wants to kill the elderly and the infirm with his health care plan. Palin even said her Down syndrome child would be a target.

The claim is being repeated, or rather screamed, by angry groups invading town hall meetings that congresspeople have organized to discuss health care reform. How on earth can the outright lie that health-care reform will lead to the euthanasia of the elderly be accepted by anyone, even by those on the far anti-Obama right?

I happen to have the answer to this question.

Over 30 years ago, my family helped start the myth leading to the present bizarre turn of events. From the mid-1970s to mid1980s, I was an activist on the far right, an evangelical and a Republican. I quit the movement by the late 1980s. (Disclosure: I'm now a supporter of President Obama and health care reform.)

To understand what is happening today in town hall meetings invaded by angry mobs convinced that their representatives are part of a conspiracy to force the elderly to forgo care, you have to understand what we, the founders of the pro-life movement, set in motion.

In the mid-1970s, Dr. C. Everett Koop (who became Ronald Reagan's surgeon general), my late evangelical theologian father, Dr. Francis Schaeffer, and I helped launch what became the evangelical-led wing of the pro-life movement.

Instrumental in the formation of our anti-choice movement was a book written by my father and Koop. I then translated it into a episodic documentary film series called Whatever Happened To The Human Race? Stressing the importance of "the sanctity of all human life," the book and film series claimed that abortion is murder and the legalization of abortion in Roe v. Wade would inevitably lead to legalized infanticide and euthanasia.

As a warning to our audience, we talked about what happened in Germany in the 1930s and fascist theories about the mentally ill, physically deficient, etc., led to "mercy killings." We drew comparisons with the Supreme Court ruling and said the door was now open, with "the loss of the sanctity of life, in the United States" to the same fate as awaited Germany.

Then my dad took it to the next step and wrote a book called A Christian Manifesto. He discussed the possibility of Christians using force to change the United States government if all else failed to reverse Roe. He made the comparison of America to Hitler's Germany.

We successfully (and as it turned out completely mistakenly) linked legalized abortion to a "slippery slope" that would inexorably lead to the equivalent of an American holocaust against the elderly and infirm.

The anti-abortion argument thus became two arguments: not only about abortion itself, but also what abortion would lead to. We attacked pro-choice ideas on both grounds. This then became part of the indelible fabric of the pro-life cause. Decades later, this was why the Terri Schiavo case became what it did: "proof" that we'd been right all along and that we were proceeding down "the slope."

It is in this context that the cynical cleverness of the lobbying groups, the insurance industry and the far-right wing of the Republican Party can be understood.

They have borrowed our arguments to frame their anti-health-care reform tirade. They have tapped into a ready-made conviction that has been sustained for over 30 years and has not wavered in the face of the reality that legal abortion did not lead to legal infanticide, let alone to government-mandated euthanasia. (Even in Oregon, the assisted-suicide laws relate to doctor-patient relations in end-of-life decisions of the terminally ill, not to the "mercy killing" for the convenience of the government that we predicted.)

The people behind the wholly manufactured "grassroots" protests that are being organized to intimidate health-care reform advocates at town-hall-type meetings are using the anti-abortion arguments to advance corporate interests.

And something else is going on too: the quest for retroactive we-were-right-all-along vindication. Two linchpins remain from the original pro-life movement that Koop, my father and I helped start. First, our the tactics that we used to intimidate abortion providers -- screaming at doctors, following patients, blocking access to clinics; and second, our slippery-slope argument.

The "what-this-will-lead-to" myth we helped perpetrate also helps to explain why on the fringe of the pro-life community you have people who from time to time take the next "logical" step and kill.

In their minds they aren't just stopping abortion, they're stopping our "slide" to state-mandated euthanasia and infanticide. Dr. George Tiller wasn't shot only because he provided abortions. He was killed because of years of pro-life leaders and their right-wing media sympathizers linking him (and all abortion providers and pro-choice supporters) to the myth of where legal abortion will lead "next."

Tiller was routinely linked to the Holocaust, Hitler and the Nazis. By portraying him as a steppingstone to worse yet to come, the act of killing him was condoned by some extreme pro-lifers not just as a good thing -- he couldn't do more abortions -- but as a preventative act against a despotic future.

That is why I take the rhetoric linking President Obama to Hitler that's rife in the far-right anti-health-reform networks of e-mail, blogging and even on talk radio and TV as a real threat.

To the uninitiated, this linkage sounds unhinged. To me it sounds an alarm bell. I know that it taps into 30 years of slippery-slope rhetoric resulting in four abortion doctors being shot and countless acts of violence against clinics. We too began by yelling at people in our marches. In the end, our words opened a door to violent actions.

I'm not sure if the insurance-industry leaders using lobbyists to stir the pot know what they've just hooked into. Do they know that the comparisons of Obama to Hitler, and the call to break up a wholly imaginary "conspiracy" against the elderly may lead the fringe of the fringe to the next step? Is this fear of mine farfetched? I don't think so. To most Americans the killing of Tiller was murder. To many in the pro-life movement it was a courageous act by a patriot.

Whatever one's opinion about abortion, the fact remains that the abortion debate introduced a political polarization that has never been healed and that has turned violent before.

The fact that otherwise-sane people now believe that United States government is in a conspiracy with the Obama administration to kill our elderly makes sense only when seen in the context of the hysterical, Armageddonlike expectations of the religious right/pro-life movement.

When you understand the link between the hatemongers, the lobbying groups carrying water for the insurance industry and the ideology that came out of the pro-life movement, then you can you understand what is happening today in town hall meetings that are being disrupted by screaming people. More importantly you can then also see where this might lead.