HETRICK: Keep the civil in our disobedience and our discourse

June 8, 2009

Twenty years ago, a Connecticut company developed some new surgical tools. The tools helped doctors operate more effectively, helped patients heal more quickly and saved lives.

One tool was the surgical staple, used to close wounds and incisions instead of using hand-sewn stitches. The staple is now, well, the staple in many kinds of surgery.

In order to sell its new staples and staplers, the company had to help doctors learn how to use them. While physicians might start out practicing on foam rubber, that material didn't behave the same way as live tissue.

That's where things got messy.

You see, there aren't many human guinea pigs out there. Few of us are willing to let doctors try out first-time surgical techniques on our gallbladders, colons, hearts, livers, etc. (Would you want your abdominal cavity used as a beta site?)

So the doctors learned by doing surgery on animals. The animals included dogs. And some animal-rights activists didn't like that. They believed the lives of animals used in medical research and training were as sacred as those of any humans or animals who might someday be saved by some new medical technique.

As you might expect, there were angry letters, protests, legal actions and demands for government intervention.

Then things got ugly. One day, one of the animal-rights activists planted a radio-controlled pipe bomb near the company chairman's parking spot.

The apparent assassination attempt was foiled by the company's security team. No one was hurt. But the game was forever changed. Someone arguing for the sanctity of all life had tried to take one.

On May 31, George Tiller was serving as an usher during Sunday morning services at Reformation Lutheran Church in Wichita, Kan. His wife, Jeanne, was in the choir.

At the start of the service, members of the congregation heard a small pop from the foyer.

"We just thought a child had come in with a balloon and it had popped, had gone up and hit the ceiling and popped," one churchgoer said.

The pop was a gunshot. Tiller, a 67-yearold physician who performed abortions, was on the receiving end. He died.

The Associated Press reported that Tiller had been the target of other violence.

"A protester shot Tiller in both arms in 1993, and his clinic was bombed in 1985," said one story. "More recently ... Tiller had asked federal prosecutors to step up investigations of vandalism and other threats against the clinic out of fear that the incidents were increasing and that Tiller's safety was in jeopardy."

It was.

The Wichita Eagle reported that Tiller is "the eighth person and the fourth doctor killed in abortion-related attacks," although "this is the first killing of an abortion provider in more than a decade."

Once again, someone arguing for the sanctity of life had taken one.

At the University of Notre Dame a few weeks ago, anti-abortion protestors violated minor laws in the hope of changing a major one; they exercised their right to speak freely in the hope that the president of the United States would be denied his.

In April, Indianapolis anti-abortion protestors threatened violence against emcees, hotel officials, sponsors and their families because of their ties to a Planned Parenthood fund-raising event.

And decade after decade, governments in this country kill convicted killers, believing their example will deter others from killing (go figure).

If you believe passionately in some cause, if you're certain grave injustice has occurred or will continue, if you know your way is correct and all others are wrong, how far will you go to make your point? What will you sacrifice to get attention? What means will most likely convince people of your point of view?

The exemplars often hailed--be that Jesus or Gandhi or King--preached and practiced nonviolence. They used voices of reason, not shouts of anger. They spoke up, instead of telling others to shut up. They fired up their followers with insight, rather than inciting riots with firebombs. They called for change, rather than calling their opponents' names. They did not kill as a way to stop others from killing.

I sometimes read the online rants sent in response to media stories. I often watch as politicians hurl partisan sticks and stones. I've even heard Rush Limbaugh's hope that our leaders fail just so he and his ilk can be proven right.

Too often, we seem to think mere volume will change minds; that insulting the decision-maker's intellect, reasoning ability, leadership skill, stature or skin color is the best way to bring her or him around to our way of thinking; that hypocrisy--even to the point of murder--is the best means to an end.

Don't buy it. The less civil we are in our discourse and our disobedience, the less likely we'll be to change anything.

Hetrick is chairman and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears twice a month. He can be reached at bhetrick@ibj.com.

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