When Florida executed an abortion doctor's killer the other day, the news left me oddly unsettled. The lethal injection administered to the former Presbyterian minister-turned radical anti-abortionist for the calculated murders of two human beings should have evoked at least a passing satisfaction that justice was delivered. It did, but there was more.
Paul Jennings Hill was a murderous psychopath on a moral mission. For him the end justified the means. He had to kill lives to save them. Somewhere something snapped in the 49-year-old husband, father, and ex-preacher to bring him to the point of leveling a shotgun at a clinic doctor and his bodyguard in Pensacola. He was cool, committed, and without remorse - to the end.
He even laid the groundwork for his murders years earlier with compelling appearances on national television shows like Nightline and Donahue, where Hill calmly made his case for “justifiable homicide.” He'd been inspired by another anti-abortion zealot who gunned down another abortion doctor at another Pensacola clinic.
After bagging his own abortion provider and security escort, Hill passively put down his shotgun so he wouldn't be killed by police, who arrested him within minutes. A year later in a New York Times interview, Hill admitted feeling a bit nervous as he waited to take out his prey but didn't dare entertain second thoughts. “It was an act of will not to begin to think why I shouldn't be doing what I was doing,” he said, “but ... the thing that kept me going through it was that I knew that if that man got into that abortion clinic, he would kill 25 to 30 people. And I'd determined that he had done that for the last time. He wasn't going to make it in.”
And 69-year-old Dr. John Bayard Britton never did, nor did James Barrett, a 74-year-old retired Air Force lieutenant who had driven the doctor to his clinic. They died of bullets to the head, upper body, and arm. Mr. Barrett's wife was injured in the melee. As officers took Hill into custody in the clinic parking lot, the former church minister said, “I know one thing, no innocent babies are going to be killed in that clinic today.” In the name of the sanctity of life, Hill destroyed two lives.
Maybe he fancied himself a sort of modern-day John Brown, boldly setting forth to fight and maybe die for the cause that consumed him. But there was nothing heroic about Hill. Heroes have names like King and Gandhi. They moved mountains with peaceful resistance.
The minister operated under the same delusion as suicide bombers who kill themselves and others in the name of God. But what kind of benevolent Being advocates violence as a precursor to peaceful, life-affirming change? Violence begets violence, not consensus that can lead to change. Consensus takes time, dialogue, and the willingness to build on areas of agreement instead of erecting barriers to harden hearts.
Paul Hill went to his death considering himself a martyr to his cause, saying he was honored to die for what he did. As he lay strapped to the gurney in the execution chamber, the last words of the unrepentant killer were a rallying cry to save the lives of the unborn by whatever means necessary. “If you believe abortion is a lethal force, you should oppose the force and do what you have to do to stop it,” said the first person put to death in the United States for anti-abortion violence.
What a setback Hill's violent deed has been to the mainstream anti-abortion movement, which denounces calls for violence by fringe elements. The pro-choice side may try to paint all right-to-lifers as crazy extremists or raging fundamentalists out to save the world or die trying. But I am neither and there are plenty like me who entertain serious qualms about abortion, especially in light of advancing medical science that not only saves tiny humans at the very age they're being aborted but also documents those early stages of development in remarkable three-dimensional ultra-sound photos.
People who condone abortion clinic violence and those who proclaim Paul Hill a martyr to his violent cause are the antithesis of right-to-life. Their version of right to life is selective, which doesn't work in a civilized society where pre-meditated murder - for whatever reason - is still a capital crime. And should be.