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Mary Mapes Headshot

No Mercy

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I felt just sick today when I saw the bulletin about the murder of Dr. George Tiller.

Sicker still when I saw the "sympathy" letter issued by officials at Operation Rescue, the virulent anti-abortion organization that dogged this poor man for the past two decades. The statement said, "We pray for Mr. Tiller's family."

They had better say a few prayers for their own souls. They had better pray for forgiveness for relentlessly working to make this man a target.

Operation Rescue's Web site said the organization was "shocked" by the murder.

Well, I'm not.

This has been a long time coming, and no one has played a greater part in the run-up to the doctor's death than Operation Rescue. Their leaders -- and all of the group's enablers -- should be cowering in shame today.

I was in Wichita, Kansas in 1991 covering Operation Rescue's cruelly misnamed "Summer of Mercy," a six-week ordeal when thousands of anti-abortion protesters descended on Dr. George Tiller.

These "rescuers" -- sweaty mobs of zombie-like true believers -- swarmed across the street in front of the clinic like angry ants. They crawled over the hot asphalt toward his office on their hands and knees. They collapsed onto the stairs, chained themselves to the fence, shrieked prayers and threats and bellowed the Biblical equivalent of evil spells at anyone who approached the place. They fell lifelessly to the ground, some of them swooning and crashing spectacularly to earth.

When I went to Wichita to cover this, I thought I would be assigned there for a day or two. But this became more than a single protest. It turned out to be the birthplace of heartland civil disobedience against abortion and it went on and on and on.

Like the protesters, news people at the siege had a regular daily schedule.

Every day we rose early and raced to the clinic, set up our cameras in the hot Midwestern sun and waited for the anti-abortion performance art to begin.

Like clockwork, Operation Rescue's fleet of air-conditioned buses would pull up an hour before the office opened. Out would pour hundreds and hundreds of protesters eager to lay their lives and their bodies on the line for the "babies."

Wichita police were overpowered and overworked. The protesters were over-excited and overweight.

Day after day, weary local cops had to pick up and drag away protesters by the ton, literally. By the end, all the officers were wearing wide leather lifting belts in an attempt to protect their backs as they struggled to hoist and carry off so much dead weight. Police complained to us bitterly about colleagues who had seriously damaged their backs.

I remember one cop telling me he was praying the protests would stop before he ruined his back and his career.

Every night in the hotel that Operation Rescue designated as its home base, the organization sponsored a "worship service" that featured singing, prayer, sermonizing and a whole lotta snake oil.

Operation Rescue leader Randall Terry, an egotistical, self-aggrandizing super-nerd, commanded the room like a rock star. Women fainted and lay trembling on the ground when he entered to thundering applause and the screams of people who love Jesus so much they act like they're crazy.

The chemistry in the room was unlike anything I've been around, before or since.

In just a few weeks in Wichita, Operation Rescue forged an unholy alliance of sexually repressed super Christians, men who hate women and women who hate themselves and turned them into a supercharged army of bullies for Jesus.

And they were bullies.

In 1991 and until his murder, Dr. Tiller was one of the few doctors in this country who performed late-term abortions. Despite what Operation Rescue claimed, none of his clients were ending pregnancies on a whim. None of them wanted to be there.

Each case was a tragedy -- a much anticipated child discovered to have only a partially formed head, a baby that was dying in the womb and had to be delivered, a child with medical problems so profound as to be unimaginable, a diagnosis that meant a child's life outside its mother's body would be both brief and brutal.

Tiller's clients often included couples who had been hoping to become parents but had their hearts broken late in pregnancy when they received horrifying medical news about their much-wanted babies.

These people got no mercy from Operation Rescue.

They were hounded and harassed, shoved and shouted at on the most heart-breaking day of their lives. In order for patients to make it to their appointments, clinic supporters had to coordinate each woman's arrival with walkie-talkies. They shielded the patient by forming a flying wedge of bodies that rushed through the crowd to escort her into the building.

I watched one woman sobbing as she and her husband were helped into the clinic. Her tears went unnoticed by the hundreds of protestors surrounding her who shrieked and wailed and tried to trip the people escorting her to the door.

It was horrible.

And now, finally, after all the heavy breathing about heaven and God, evil and innocence, Operation Rescue by all appearances has goaded someone into killing George Tiller.

He was shot to death as he worked as an usher at his longtime church. His wife was close by in her regular place in the choir. The circumstances of his murder highlight precisely how hypocritical and grotesque this brand of "morality" is.

The zealots are already feigning shock that something like this could happen. Their partners in crime will soon be doing the same.

I can already envision the backpedaling and rationalizing that we'll hear from longtime Tiller critic Bill O'Reilly. Dr. James Dobson, who hosted the triumphant closing "Summer of Mercy" event that summer in Wichita, will undoubtedly declare himself deeply saddened.

I keep going back to Operation Rescue's catchy slogan for the "Summer of Mercy." They yelled it at everyone within earshot.

"If you believe abortion is murder, act like it's murder."

Maybe they have a point.

After this country's seemingly endless assaults and murders of clinic doctors and staff, the explosions and fire bombings, the vandalism and harassment, it's clear that this violent behavior is not a natural outgrowth of religious belief or moral concerns.

This is not part of a disagreement over when life begins.

This is terrorism.

And if we believe this is terrorism, we need to act like it's terrorism.

No mercy.