My Encounter with Randall Terry

“It was as though in those last minutes he (Eichmann) was summing up the lessons that this long course in human wickedness had taught us the lesson of the fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil” -Hannah Arendt

The banality of evil. When Hannah Arendt wrote of Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem she painted him as entirely average, not particularly hateful, and committed wholly to the notion that he was following orders. Randall Terry is not analogous to Adolf Eichmann for a number of reasons, but Arendt’s famous (and, frankly, now over-used) phrase was one of the first things that occurred to me this morning after I attended (and protested) his press conference in Topeka proposing a filibuster of Sotomayor.

Terry’s banality comes in his manner. He does not (or did not today) come off as a lunatic or an idiot. He is not on the corner of the street warning of the apocalypse with an overgrown beard and loincloth. He’s personable, has a sense of humor, and is well spoken. He is smart, too. But make no mistake, he is extreme, he is fanatical, even most anti-choice people don’t want anything to do with him, and his rhetoric is dangerous. I suppose that what follows is not an outright iteration of why I think this is true, I think most people who read this blog already hold the position that abortion ought to be legal, that it is classless and dangerous to call health care providers “mass murderers” and compare abortion to the Holocaust, not to mention his thoughts on homosexuality and Islam. Rather, I want to sort of describe and comment on my experience.

As I drove downtown I was a little nervous, I didn’t know if anyone would show up, I wasn’t sure exactly where Sen. Brownback’s office was, or how many people on the other side would be there. As I drove down 6th Street, I saw the Phelps clan on the corner of 6th and Kansas and was actually a little relieved. I assumed that must be the place and that, if all else failed, I could protest them! I parked my car and walked tentatively up to their corner.

There were roughly 15 of them. I recognized Shirley Phelps-Roper and a daughter who is my age (and with whom I went to college). Most of the others were small children. One thing that sort of seemed funny to me was that several of them had iPhones and they were generally just standing there chatting while holding a bizarre and random array of signs. A few abortion signs, some generic “God hates the USA” stuff, and so on…

As I stood there I noticed that when people walked by they would just look down, at their cell phones, papers (downtown Topeka is, after all, largely a place where people work for state government, Banks, or non-profits), pretty much anything to avoid them. A couple people noticed that I was not with them and smiled at me or made comments. It was luck, perhaps, on my part that some of my signs applied to the Phelps as well (“Kansans against hate” with a sunflower and a heart was my favorite sign).

After standing there for about 15 minutes I realized that, as fun as this was, I was not in the right place and moved down the street about half a block where I found some press gathering for Terry’s speech. Immediately a reporter with the Topeka Capital Journal got my name and a quotation about why I was there. For a bit I looked around and tried to see if any of “my” people were around. Terry came out and the press conference began. I got up onto a bench so that I knew he could see my signs and stood there. He didn’t say anything new or provocative that he hasn’t already said on his website or for the press. Midway through his talk, the Phelpses came through singing a song, got into a van a drove off! I’m still trying to figure that one out. After a few minutes I felt a tap on my shoulder and saw that my friend Stevo had shown up and he took some signs from me.

The press asked some questions, most of which I couldn’t hear, and the conference was over. But that was only the beginning of the experience! Steve rolled a cigarette and we stayed around to chat a bit. A few of Terry’s supporters were there, about 4, and a couple of them thanked us for coming. After a bit, Terry came over and struck up a conversation by thanking us for being there. What followed felt like players for opposing teams talking shop after a game or actors after a play. We lamented that most young people today don’t get involved in anything, that they don’t understand the implications of this issue, and so on. Of course, we have competing visions of those implications.

We went back and forth with what I hesitate to call light-hearted comments about the issue, but they truly were all civil and we didn’t dwell on any particular line of argument during the conversation. He asked us about religion, we talked about viability, the impact of Christianity on the world, the search for truth, the super-majority in the Senate, and lots of other things. All this time he was eating a wrap (it was around lunch) and it looked like it had no meat in it, so I asked if he was vegetarian. He said he was just trying to eat healthier and I suggested he give vegetarianism a try, being Pro-Life and all. We had a chuckle and he asked if I ate eggs. I do, and I joked that my worldview remained consistent.

All in all we spent about 15 minutes talking to him. He suggested we come back to the church, to read the scriptures, to search our hearts for the truth several times. But in a manner I would call “in passing” almost. It was clear from the beginning that we weren’t going to convince him and he wasn’t going to convince us, maybe that accounts for the niceties. We parted ways with a handshake and I told him to drive safe (which is, perhaps, a Kansas thing since people almost always have a drive ahead of them if they’re leaving since everything is so far apart).

Too often we want our opponents to be wild caricatures of themselves, raving and irrational. But this is rarely the case. I am reminded of the stories about how much Saddam Hussein enjoyed cookies while he was in custody. But… I like cookies, too! How can this be? Another example would be Mike Huckabee, I disagree with him on tons of policy issues but gosh if he isn’t a nice guy! I’d have a beer with George W. Bush. The list goes on… I think Terry’s positions are irrational, I think that when he and Bill O’Reilly call health care providers “mass murderers” and “baby killers” that no one should be surprised when a crazy person takes them at their word. Don’t let down your guard, stay focused on the issues, not the personalities and remember that, at the end of the day, we’re all people and we ought to be able to get along. As long as the pro-choice movement keeps coexistence as one of our main principles, we’ll be on the right path.

Comments

  1. WOW! Amazing story, Annaleigh. I’m so astounded that you were able to have such a civilized conversation with the man. I don’t know that I would a) have the moxie or b) the patience. I’m super impressed. And way to represent there in Topeka. I hope the Wichita folks showed up en masse.

  2. Chris Rzeztek says:

    I have seen Mr. Randall by Notre Dame University but never spoke to him. I watched him and realized how humble he was. The only fanatics I saw there were prochoice supporters asking ignorant questions in a provacative manner and form to provoke confrontation with peacefull protestors. Usually the elderly.

  3. Ryan Greutman says:

    I met Randall Terry at Notre Dame and he is very intelligent, kind, and passionate. He gets a bad name because he is so effective at what he does. In other words, he makes lots of enemies because he makes so much sense.

  4. Annaleigh,
    Good for you and Mr. Randall being able to hold a peaceful discussion! If only that could happen more, maybe we wouldn’t have the problems we are facing. Please, don’t discount the fact that God works through people. And, even though I know you’ll say I’m wrong, the God who created us wouldn’t want us to destroy ourselves. In advancing the peace, I will pray for you Annaleigh and I ask you to do the same for me, if you would be so kind.

    To a better America where ALL people are treated with love and respect!

  5. Annaleigh says:

    Kerry – I don’t pray, but I’ll send good vibes your way.

    Ryan – I’m not sure it’s the case that “he makes lots of enemies because he makes so much sense.” I think he makes enemies through extreme rhetoric and doing things like not condemning Tiller’s death, which pretty much everyone on the anti-choice side was willing to do, including the current leadership of Op Rescue.

  6. Katie Thomas says:

    Hey Annaleigh,

    You go girl. Sometimes that’s just the way it is. I’m glad to know that you were there and that you get a second in with a reporter. Did you get quoted in the newspaper?

  7. Annaleigh says:

    Thanks Katie, I was in the paper, you can see by clicking on the hot linked “Topeka Capital Journal” above. I was also interviewed by one of the TV stations, but for some reason they didn’t put the clip on their website.

  8. Is it not an oxymoron to call someone who kills babies in the womb or after birth a “health care provider”?

  9. Annaleigh says:

    I’m guessing that under your worldview it is. I tend to think that people providing vital services that help to preserve the lives, livelihoods, and psychological well-being of women and families in a mature and well-regarded fashion describe my vision of a health care provider.

  10. Hi Annaleigh.

    It was a pleasure visiting with you. Your account of our conversation is refreshing. (You appear to be more honest than many of my fellow pro-life advocates. Lord have mercy.)

    I hope we meet again.

    Peace of Christ,

    Randall Terry

  11. Annaleigh says:

    Randall – thanks for visiting the blog!

  12. thank you Annaleigh for this truly unique glimpse into the pro-choice/anti-choice debate.

  13. Hello, I am prolife on abortion. And I believe Randall Terry is a manipulative fraud. So I wrote the following for the On Common Ground feature of RH Reality Check.

    Randall Terry: Faux Life Leader

    http://www.rhrealitycheck.org/commonground/2009/12/15/randall-terry-fauxlife-leader

  14. Can’t say I’m surprised. Most people, no matter how abhorrent the position they take on anything, will believe that they are on the side of good and will act accordingly. He wants to cultivate a narrative in which he and people like him are the ‘good guys’ so they’ll be more sympathetic. This is more than just a tactic to sway the masses, he very probably truly believes that his is doing the right thing.

    And that’s scary.

    Incidentally, I wouldn’t call deliberately inflammatory language, clinic invasion, and the intrusion into people’s personal lives friendly or polite at all. His actions betray him.

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