The murder of Dr. George Tiller is evidence of the re-emergence of violent rightwing extremism, which many observers expected in the wake of Bush & Cheney's exit from the White House. Indeed, a report released in April, Rightwing Extremism: Current. Economic and Political Climate Fueling. Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment (pdf), was subject to rightwing backlash, precisely because it accurately focused attention on the potential for increased rightwing terrorism at this time. While it didn't focus specifically on anti-abortion activists, it has been ten years since the last abortion provider was murdered. While the numbers of violent rightwing activists can be measured in the thousands, they are representative of a much larger segment of the population, measuring in the millions. However, this still represents only a relatively small political fringe in the total electorate, as can be seen by this chart, showing that total opposition to all abortions encompasses roughly one in 11 Americans, and one in seven Republicans:
(Source: General Social Survey. Interactively generated by author, May 31, 2009, Sun 03:04 PM PDT. Filtered for years 2000-2008.)
Abthreat is a combined scale, measuring attitudes toward abortion in case of rape, threat to the health of the mother, or significant birth defect.
Obviously, there are many people who oppose abortion in all three cases who are equally horrified at the murder of Dr. Tiller. Yet, it seems safe to say that virtually no one supports or feels sympathy for his murderer who supports abortion in such cases. Thus, containing, and preventing the spread of such violence crucially depends on leadership from within this relatively small demographic--particularly the Republican base.
Given the record of extremist rhetoric used in talking about abortion--epitomized by the open hostility expressed toward President Obama surrounding his commencement speech at Notre Dame--the prospects for such responsible leadership are not good. On the other hand, the support expressed for President Obama in the face of such hostility--up to and including support shown while he was giving his speech--suggests that there is a powerful moderating influence among the general population, waiting to be tapped and mobilized.
How that can potential influence can be brought to bear to curb the threat of anti-abortion violence is far from clear, particularly in the immediate aftermath of Dr. Tiller's murder. But the numbers above strongly suggest that anti-abortion terrorism can be marginalized and curbed if there is a genuine political will for standing together as one people. This is how the actions of a violent extreme relate back to the dominant discourse of a still powerful minority who refuse to recognize, and constructively work with those who have been chosen to lead our country at the ballot box.
In short, it really is up to the GOP leadership--to step up, and show some leadership as Americans. If they do not, we may well see our country enter a period of escalating political violence, and there will be no doubt whatsoever who is politically responsible.