KEVIN LEININGER: Now that ‘harassment’ is an equal-opportunity offender, maybe both sides can rediscover civility

Protests were a common site outside the Planned Parenthood office in Fort Wayne. (News-Sentinel.com file photo)
Cathie Humbarger
Christie Gillespie
Kevin Leininger

Last month, not long after White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders was banished from a Virginia restaurant and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen was harassed at a Washington, D.C., Mexican restaurant, congresswoman Maxine Waters justified and encouraged still more intimidation of Trump officials.

“If you see anybody from that Cabinet in a restaurant, in a department store, at a gasoline station, you get out there and you create a crowd, and you push back at them, and you tell them they’re not welcome anymore, anywhere,” implored Waters, D-Calif. “God is on our side.”

This week in Fort Wayne, meanwhile, officials with Planned Parenthood of Indiana and Kentucky announced the closure of the organization’s office in the Parkwest shopping center due to the “intimidation and harassment of patients, providers and supporters led by Allen County Right to Life.”

So far as I know, no one has suggested Planned Parenthood’s aversion to harassment and intimidation is simply a manifestation of its “position of privilege,” as Comedy Central’s Trevor Noah did in response to those demanding civility even for Trump administration officials. But even hypocrites can be right, and Planned Parenthood’s accusations now give people on both sides of America’s growing political, social and moral chasm reason to reassess their tactics if not their objectives.

Right to Life Executive Director Cathie Humbarger insists her organization does not practice or condone intimidation. Any claim to the contrary, she said in a statement, “smacks of an attempt by Planned Parenthood to turn its business woes into a fundraiser . . . over the last 10 years total patient visits are down 67 percent.” But as I first reported last August, Humbarger acknowledged actively working to thwart Planned Parenthood’s search for a new location after its Parkwest lease was converted to a month-to-month arrangement so leasing agent the Bradley Co. could seek a more “ideal” retail tenant.

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The pro-life rallies that had become common outside the Planned Parenthood office were consistent with the American tradition of peaceful political protest, and although I expressed discomfort at the notion of pressuring would-be landlords to deny space to Planned Parenthood, even even that could be defended as within the scope of many other campaigns to link politics and economics. But according to Indiana Planned Parenthood Executive Director Christie Gillespie, the campaign against the nation’s largest abortion provider (none had been performed in Fort Wayne) went far beyond that.

“Our patients, providers and supporters have been harassed and attacked in the community where they should feel safe,” she said.

I have no reason not to take both Humbarger and Gillespie at their word, meaning the personal intimidation Gillespie cites was either organized by others or of the independent variety. That doesn’t make it any less threatening — or wrong.

With God on their side, it’s easy for Trump opponents to justify bad behavior. As film director Rob Reiner explained this week, “A vote for a Republican is a vote for institutional racism, sexism and to enable the destruction of democracy.” Others would argue God is no fan of an organization whose officials have been secretly filmed discussing the sale of aborted-baby parts over a glass of wine.

And isn’t that precisely the point? When people become convinced the nobility of their cause justifies even ignoble means, conflict and bitterness are inevitable — and the dialogue and tolerance that make co-existence and persuasion possible evaporate.

As I wrote last August, “Abortion rates have been declining not because the Supreme Court has overturned Roe vs. Wade but because Humbarger’s side is winning the moral and medical argument. But persuasion requires interaction. It’s one thing to suggest Planned Parenthood be denied public dollars; a bit more problematic to ask the private economy to deny a legal business an address. Wouldn’t conservatives feel differently if their favorite groups were being targeted? Isn’t that sort of thing a big part of our problem?”

Recent events show liberals and conservatives alike do care — when they’re on the receiving end. It’s far harder, but no less important, to grant opponents the civility we expect for ourselves. I shed no tears for Planned Parenthood, but I’ve been around long enough to appreciate how quickly political fortunes can shift. As Gillespie vowed: “I am putting Allen County Right to Life and all anti-women’s groups on notice: You have intimidated and harassed us for the last time in this community. We will be back, stronger than ever before.”

They apparently also will be angry. These days, who isn’t? Do we love the fight too much to change?

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.

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