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Irrational Anger vs. Courage: Tiller Documentary Showed Faces of "Culture Wars"

Written by Sarah Seltzer for - News, commentary and community for reproductive health and justice.

Rachel Maddow’s documentary, "The Assassination of Dr. Tiller," was a very rare hour of prime-time coverage which was sympathetic to the pro-choice position in “the culture wars.” It accomplished this by attempting to clearly show how extremists on the anti-choice fringe choose to make those culture wars, as Maddow herself put it, into an actual war by turning their rhetoric into violence--or more perniciously by allowing more deranged members of their movement to do their violence for them.

In some ways the documentary was a letdown for an eager women’s activist community which wanted new information and new revelations. But in the end, it served a different purpose. As Jodi wrote earlier this week, “The Assassination of Dr. Tiller” wasn’t a film whose goal was to further edify us stalwarts of the pro-choice side who have immersed ourselves in this story for months, reading every news report and watching all the footage. Instead it was aimed at a broader, liberal-leaning audience, familiar with the basic structure of the horrible story of Dr. Tiller's murder but maybe not with some of its more poignant and infuriating details.

These viewers might have been struck by Scott Roeder’s “revelation” while watching the 700 Club which turned him from a layabout to a fanatic. They might have felt overwhelmed by the relentless barrage of protest aimed at Dr. Tiller’s Kansas clinic, including repeated legal challenges that never held water in court; crazed, frenzied protests outside the door of the clinic; and most alarmingly, personally targeted messages aimed at making hardworking, dedicated clinic staffers into pariahs in their community. All of this information helps illuminate the fact that Dr. Tiller wasn’t just killed by a man, but by a movementwhich instilled that man with an evil purpose.

The medium of film--as opposed to writing or even news reporting-- was most useful in vividly illustrating the anti-choice movement’s vicious modus operandi. This was quite a contrast with the fortitude and conviction and ultimately the pain of its health-care providing opponents. These two poles were seen on the faces of those interviewed by Maddow and her team, or caught on camera. Perhaps the most foreboding of these pieces of footage was the image of a distraught Roeder sitting in the back of a courtroom when Tiller was acquitted of trumped-up charges.

When told through pictures and videos, so much we already knew was illustrated again so powerfully. There was the fortitude on the faces of Dr. Tiller and his staff, who over the years looked into the cameras without apology, defending their work. Read more