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Slate.com
updated 9/3/2003 8:51:28 AM ET 2003-09-03T12:51:28

At 6 p.m. ET, Florida executed anti-abortion murderer Paul Hill. This wasn’t the first killing in the story of Hill’s demise, and if fanatics who support him make good on their threats, it won’t be the last. It’s just the latest in a chain of deaths with no logical end.

InsertArt(2001316)A DECADE AGO, a doctor named John Britton performed abortions in north Florida. Anti-abortion activists called that murder. So, in 1994, Hill ended the murder. He shot Britton and Britton’s driver to death. Hill called it “justifiable homicide.” On Tuesday, Hill repeated his argument: “I say to the pro-life community that if you believe abortion is lethal force, you should uphold the force needed to stop it.” He expressed hope that God would “use my actions to save innocent children.”

Other folks in Florida don’t like murderers any more than Hill did. But they weren’t sure Britton deserved that label. The murderer they were sure about was Hill. So, a jury convicted him of murder, a judge sentenced him to death, and Gov. Jeb Bush signed the death warrant. “I believe in the protecting of innocent life,” Bush said Tuesday. “I also believe it is not inconsistent to suggest that when a person in a premeditated fashion, convicted by a jury of his peers, murders two people and [is sentenced] to death, that carrying out that sentence is appropriate.” Bush’s brother, the president of the United States, has long defended the death penalty as a deterrent to the taking of other innocent lives.

JUSTIFIABLE HOMICIDE?

Joe Scheidler, a well-known anti-abortion activist, complained that Hill had been denied a fair trial because Hill hadn’t been allowed to argue that the killings were justified to save lives. “I am not morally opposed to the death penalty,” said Scheidler, but “Hill did something wrong that he thought was right. … It was not malicious in the sense that he was just trying to kill a doctor. He was doing it to save lives.”

Now fanatics are threatening the lives of the officials who issued and administered Hill’s death sentence. Bush, the judge, and two other Florida officials have received ominous letters, each containing a bullet. The message is obvious: Kill Hill, and we’ll kill you.

So, here’s where things stand: People are threatening to kill officials in Florida for killing Paul Hill for killing John Britton for killing unborn babies. And if they fulfill those threats, you can be sure that they’ll be killed, too.

GUILT AND INNOCENCE

I’ve long defended the death penalty in principle, if not always in practice, on the grounds that some people do things so awful that they simply deserve it. Their guilt voids their right to life. But this chain of killing gives me pause. The word “innocent” keeps popping up in the Hill saga, each time as a basis for saying that it’s OK for us to kill them but not for them to kill us.

Babies are innocent, but Britton is guilty, so it’s OK to kill him. Britton was innocent, but Hill is guilty, so it’s OK to kill Hill. Only once in this story has a jury determined guilt, and that verdict does merit particular respect. But the longer the chain of killing gets, the harder it is to spin complex theories about why one party is guilty and the other is innocent, instead of just saying it’s wrong to kill.

William Saletan is Slate’s chief political correspondent.

© 2013 Slate.com

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