By Gabe Tugendstein
Robert Lewis Dear was, by most measures, an odd guy. Divorced, he lived alone, splitting his time between a trailer in Colorado and a remarkably small and primitive shanty in North Carolina. He had been implicated in the types of petty crimes you might expect from a backwoods hermit— unruly dogs, animal cruelty, voyeurism—all without conviction, and his exwife had accused him of domestic abuse but never filed charges. He wasn’t like a cartoon villain or a character out of “Deliverance” or something, but I definitely wouldn’t, say, ask him his opinion on recent movie releases, or go out with him on Friday night. In fact, no one seemed to hang out with Dear. Beyond those few arrests scattered between 1997 and 2003, no one really knows what Dear has been up to for the last few decades. His trailer had no Internet; his North Carolina cottage didn’t even have running water and his neighbors claimed the only time they’d interacted with him is when he distributed anti-Obama pamphlets around election time. That is, no one really knew what he’d been doing until the morning of Nov. 27 when he opened fire inside a Planned Parenthood building in Colorado Springs, killing three.
There have been three major political discussions which these killings have re-sparked: the debate over whether the U.S. should increase gun control, the debate over the role of Planned Parenthood and the debate over whether Dear is a terrorist or not. First, supporters of increased gun control once again are stating that more restrictions on gun ownership would prevent massacres of this kind, and that it is unreasonable to have a man like Dear in possession of a military-style assault rifle. Second, the battle over Planned Parenthood’s actions in birth control and release of fetal organs for research purposes seems to have escalated to vigilance and violence, with tempestuousness increasing on both sides of the argument. Finally, as was the case with Charleston church shooting suspect Dylann Roof, there is much dispute over whether Dear should be regarded as mentally ill, a terrorist or something in between. This final debate has been partially shaped by this past month’s events in Paris, which added new electricity to the term “terrorist.”
The discussion I’m interested in, however, is much less likely to come up in any presidential debate or candidate speech. What I’m wondering is: Will politicians be able to use this experience to realize that comments made while on the campaign trail can carry just as much weight as comments made while in office? That jousting for better position in the polls doesn’t give you freedom to make baseless or poorly-evidenced claims for the sake of provocation, and that doing so can lead to real-world consequences? Politically-aware citizens recognize the charade that campaigning is, but most American citizens aren’t politically-aware. And for those like Robert Lewis Dear, the ramifications may be incredibly destructive.
I bring this up based on Dear’s actions while he was being arrested at the crime scene, when he reportedly exclaimed “no more baby parts!” Attacking a Planned Parenthood could be seen as a protest against any number of things: government-funded operations, women’s health, birth control, more specifically abortions. However, that statement by Dear makes it clear that his attack was fueled principally by one thing: the distribution of fetal tissue by Planned Parenthood for research purposes.
Distribution of fetal tissue sounds shocking, and it was a bit shocking to me, especially considering the way by which I, like many others, discovered it: via a video released earlier this year which seemed to show something akin to a drug transaction in a Scorsese movie, except with fetal organs instead of cocaine. Damn, I thought, the whole Planned Parenthood hate always arose from the fact that they were performing abortions, but what if the organization itself is slimy, even criminal?
Inevitably, like any issue which should be sternly and legitimately assessed, it was cartoonishly politicized in the following presidential debates. As is the case when there are over 15 competitors battling for one nomination, the Republican candidates needed to separate themselves from the bunch, so middle-of-the-pack contenders like Carly Fiorina and Ted Cruz hit the Planned Parenthood angle the hardest. Fiorina referenced the released videos again and again, as confidently as you or I would cite the dictionary or the Bible, stating, “I dare Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, to watch these tapes. Watch a fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking, while someone says we have to keep it alive to harvest its brain.” Cruz said, “I would encourage every American to watch these videos.”
Their claims were effective, and they were damn good politics as well, as both candidates gained in the polls. But they were also a bit hasty and factually dubious. Cruz and Fiorina, among others, were so concerned with being labeled “the anti-Planned Parenthood candidate” that they didn’t have time to wait for the real information.
The real information—not politicized, not editorialized—is this: Fetal tissue has been used for research for decades, reaping real rewards. In 2014, universities like Harvard, Stanford and Yale were involved in the approximately $76 million worth of research funded by the government involving fetal tissue. Numerous researchers have cited fetal tissue as the single most vital piece involved in research on stem cells and degenerative disorders like muscular dystrophy. Not a vital piece, the most vital piece. As it pertains to the sting video, the climactic scene referenced by Fiorina and others involving the two parties discussing how to best harvest a fetus’s organs while the twitching subject lies on a table, turns out to have been recorded elsewhere and edited in. We don’t know where elsewhere, but it at the very least wasn’t involving the Planned Parenthood branch the video’s leakers claimed it was. And the unedited video which does feature some discussion of a tissuefor-cash transaction clearly shows that the only money Planned Parenthood receives will be for covering costs of the deal. Further, through investigations by Congress and others into Planned Parenthood’s finances, there has been no official findings of any sort of illegal profit from distributed fetal organs, and the Congressional investigation has pivoted away from illegal transactions and back to the age-old debate over the U.S. Government’s funding of birth control used by Planned Parenthood.
So, the candidates didn’t wait for the dust to settle on this topic before diving in head-on. In fairness, politicians rarely have the time to say “give us a few months before we make any statements on the matter,” especially during election season. Had Fiorina and Cruz not led the charge, others would have grabbed that spotlight from them quickly. And this isn’t any sort of right-vs-left screed. The main reasons Fiorina and Cruz are those most guilty of this example of dubious politicking is because they had the most to gain from slamming Planned Parenthood. Had their party’s electorate been filled with pro-choicers, I guarantee they would have been just as hasty and careless defending Planned Parenthood, and the Democrats would be making provokingly vicious attacks on the supposed infant organ black market. Additionally, as previously mentioned, the emotionally-charged statements did boost both candidates in the polls, including helping Fiorina become a favored dark horse for a time. So, by a presidential candidate’s measure, the comments worked. The allegations were reckless and ultimately mostly false, but they were politically expedient. That isn’t a crime, that’s campaigning.
And typically these sorts of things are just that: campaigning. Sure, they’re made by (usually) elected officials hoping to occupy the most important office in the free world, but we expect a certain amount of… er… let’s call it “loosely-defined truth” from those on the debate stage. Indirectly and on a large scale, this type of campaigning is somewhat cancerous to our nation’s political system, but rarely do these statements directly lead to anything too horrible, so we let them slide. Most people don’t fact-check our politicians, and those few who do will do nothing more than not vote for the liars (or vote for the one who lies the least). So it becomes ingrained into our system.
But this time it did lead to something horrible. I know Robert Lewis Dear was bizarre and lonely and probably a bit “off,” but in terms of politics, he was your average uninformed voter. He had an agenda, and when politicians decided to pander hard to his agenda to the point of fiction, he had the fuel to go over the edge.
The candidates won’t talk about this during the election season. They’ll use this shooting to talk more about guns, abortions and terrorism, probably making use of more baseless assertions to support their view. In the current American political system, achieving an end is more important than the accurate or inaccurate nature of the support behind that end. It’s time to use evidence to lead to political objectives, instead of using political objectives to fabricate the evidence. You can shake all the hands and kiss all the babies you want, but I’m sorry, ignoring facts is not part of campaigning, and it’s not a victimless act.