Sunday, June 19, 2011

Good Reads: THE WICHITA DIVIDE by Stephen Singular

Stephen Singular, author of FLDS expose When Men Become Gods and Talked to Death: The Life and Murder of Alan Berg, analyzes the 2009 murder of Wichita abortion provider George Tiller in The Wichita Divide: The Murder of Dr. George Tiller and the Battle Over Abortion. On May 31st, 2009, Dr. Tiller was shot to death while serving as an usher at Reformation Lutheran Church in Wichita. The gunman, Scott Roeder, was convicted of first-degree murder in early 2010, and was interviewed by Stephen Singular from behind bars for the book. With the flowing language of a storyteller and the insight of an investigative reporter, Singular educates readers about the lives of both men and the cultural context of the murder.

The Wichita Divide delves into personal stories of Singular's subjects, including the work of Dr. Tiller and the work that transformed him into a passionate abortion provider and advocate. Readers learn of the violence directed against Tiller and his clinic, Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly's demonization of Tiller, and the role of former Kansas attorney general Phil Kline's in investigations of Tiller's clinic. The book delves into Tiller's 2009 trial for alleged financial affiliation with Kristen Neuhaus -- a violation of Kansas law -- for which Tiller was found not guilty. Singular clearly respects the late Dr. Tiller, depicting him as a man of conviction and principle who continued to provide late-term abortions despite enormous pressure from anti-abortion forces.

Likewise, Singular depicts Scott Roeder in human terms, shedding light on the gunman's motives while still emphasizing the gravity of his acts. A schizophrenic with an obsessive interest in extreme right-wing ideology, Roeder alienated his ex-wife and son as his rhetoric grew more disturbing. As his religious fanaticism and extremism grew more intense, Roeder resolved to take violent action action the abortion provider he despised.

A key theme of The Wichita Divide is that Roeder's violence did not occur in a cultural vacuum. Singular devotes ample attention the rhetoric and networking of the anti-abortion movement, as well as its overlap with forces among the Christian Right. The murder of Dr. Tiller may have been the act of one unstable man, but Roeder's ideology was shaped by the anti-abortion messages he absorbed from his cultural milieu. In an April 24th interview with Amanda Marcotte at RH Reality Check, Singular emphasized the role of anti-abortion commentators in fueling Roeder's rage. While discussing his book with Marcotte, Singular had this to say at the 12:35 mark.
"A lot of the peple who do these kind of actions are not very stable mentally, and I think is this a very, very important point. Because when the mainstream starts targeting people individually and demonizing those people over and over again, and saying they're murderers and killers and comparing them to Hitler and all of that, that stuff filters down. That just doesn't stop when somebody says it into a microphone, and it filters down into people who are not only a lot less fortunate economically than the people who tend to make those comments, if you're at the top of the media heap, but it also filters down into people who are not very stable mentally or emotionally to begin with, and I don't think there's any awareness of this at all or any responsibility around it. If you're hitting an  at-risk population witht that message -- here's your target, here's somebody who's a killer, here's somebody who's life really doesn't make any difference, or somebody we would all be better off if that person were not here -- that's a very strong message."
In the prologue of The Wichita Divide, Singular likens the battle over abortion to a second American civil war, splitting Americans and injecting hatred into American political culture. We would do well to remember Singular's words, as abortion remains a heated issue and anti-abortion extremists show no signs of softening. As Dr. Tiller's murder reminds us, rhetoric has real-life consequences, making it necessary for citizens to be mindful of the ideas circulating in their society.


  1. off topic.... but a friend sent me this

    ...her and her husband go to "Burning Man" annually and thought some of the rhetoric on the post was really over the top.... I am still laughing about it

  2. Okjimm -- Thanks! Isn't Christwire a parody site? Sadly, some Religious Right rhetoric is so over the top that it's hard to tell parodies from the real thing (thus Poe's Law).

  3. Excellent review, Ahab. I will definitely check Singular's book out.

    This reminds me of McCain's recent unsubstantiated statement that the wildfires burning out of control in the west were started by illegal immigrants. The prejudice against those people is escalating beyond all reason. A vigilante in Orem Utah just chased down a BYU student from Brazil -- claimed he rolled through a stop sign at a 4-way. Vigilante man pulls over student on the pretext of the alleged traffic violation and interrogates him about his citizenship. Police were called and vigilante ended up pleading guilty to a misdemeanor for impersonating a police officer. The headline for the article in the local paper focused on the fact that vigilante has no regrets, believes he's being patriotic, and intends to continue with similar acts.

    The problem is only getting worse. These not-very-informed types (I'm being kind) are getting angrier and angrier and need very little to set them off. Two local women recently entered pleas for disclosing "The List" -- comprised of personal information belonging to Hispanics the women suspected of being illegal. The women worked for the state of Utah and violated privacy laws, yet they are being heralded by some local groups as heroes and patriots.

    In this environment of intolerance, irresponsible statements like McCain's have the effect of putting a flame to dynamite.

  4. Can't say why after all these years abortion still remains controversial. But my husband, Mark, has been saying over and over -- if this issue was about men, it wouldn't be an issue.

  5. Cognitive Dissenter -- That's horrible! I look askance at those who are fanning the flames of that kind of extremism. Sadly, I only see it getting worse.

    Donna -- Mark's probably right. I think control of women's reproduction is one of the driving forces behind anti-abortion extremism.

  6. oh shit,,,, I didn't go to the site
    !!!!!! Someone just emailed me the article...Duh! oh, well, I thought it was real! good thing I can laugh at myself, too! funny!


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