Friday, June 5, 2009

Is Bill O'Reilly Spawning Killers?

Is Bill O'Reilly Spawning Killers?

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The killing of Dr. George Tiller is, of course, the second recent politically-motivated church shooting. The first occurred in the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on July 27th of last year. And although one was targeted at a doctor, and the other at liberals in general, both share a common element: Bill O'Reilly. O'Reilly had targeted Tiller repeatedly on his show, claiming he ran a "death mill" and quoting a description of him as "Tiller the Baby Killer." And as for the Unitarian killing, the shooter infamously had a copy of O'Reilly's book in his home, and wrote a vitriolic screed about his hatred for liberals.

Of course, the factors motivating each killing cannot be boiled down simply to the influence of Mr. O'Reilly. However, Mr. O'Reilly bears a unique responsibility for this kind of violence, not only because his show and opinions reach millions of viewers, but also because he is a figure who not only disagrees with but dehumanizes his opponents. Using words like "evil" and "villain" to describe his targets, O'Reilly turns political spats into sweeping moral crusades.

A large part of The O'Reilly Factor's success can be attributed to this righteous anger and the creation of villains for the audience to despise. Bill O'Reilly has a spectacular ability to create caricatures out of cherry-picked details and heavily edited interviews, and to portray himself as a noble warrior against the forces of injustice. Whether it's a small-town mayor or a circuit judge, whoever O'Reilly feels has committed a sin is professionally and personally demonized. Of course, anyone who has ever spent a minute watching the show knows this, and it can usually be written off as a sensationalistic ratings-grabbing act. But when events like today's happen, it is important to examine the damage that this relentless pursuit of viewers can create.

As someone who worked at Planned Parenthood for a large part of the last year, I have driven past screaming protesters on my way into work numerous times. And the main problem with these activists has not been their mere presence, or the fact that they disagree with me, but their clear view of me as less than human. These groups often see doctors who perform abortions not only as wrong, but as seething, forceps-wielding, murderous Harold Shipmans or Josef Menegles. Barack Obama was prescient at Notre Dame when he claimed that the greatest obstacle to progress on abortion was the tendency to ignore the humanity of opponents.

And so, when crimes like the shooting of Dr. Tiller occur, Mr. O'Reilly bears a strong responsibility. He has used his great influence to create a climate of hatred in the parts of the American right, a hatred which is naturally likely to bubble over into extreme violence now and then. The Tiller and Tennessee shootings are the logical consequences of buying into O'Reilly's dehumanizing rhetoric. If those that disagree with us politically become monsters and murderers, shooting them can seem an act of great heroism. And it is O'Reilly, more than any other conservative host, who crafts the images of liberals and "abortionists" as monsters.

I am not suggesting that Bill O'Reilly should be brought up on charges. In my home country of Great Britain, leaders of the far right are occasionally arrested and convicted of attempting to incite violence, a measure which is deplorable and despotic. Freedom for the speech we hate is essential. But I am astounded that Mr. O'Reilly can sleep at night knowing the terror and hostility his words create. Until he softens his tone, and convinces his followers to demonstrate respect for those they disagree with, murders like George Tiller's are likely to continue.

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