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Thou shalt not kill; but I may kill you

WHAT makes a person enter a movement dedicated to the sanctity of life and find fulfilment within it as a killer? It seems such an odd trajectory. We know there are people for whom the ambition to kill is powerful, and it is not surprising to find them reading gun magazines and mercenary journals, enlisting in adventurous, masculine, high-risk occupations and - some of them - actually making their way to war zones in search of a slice of the action. From diver to oil-rig worker to helicopter pilot to treasure-hunter to soldier of fortune - there is nothing odd in the psychological profile. But from anti-abortionist to murderer - that takes some explaining.

Many people in Britain live in apprehension because their scientific work makes them possible targets for the extreme wing of the animal rights movement. They are afraid to speak up in defence of their work because they do not want to be identified and singled out for special treatment. But this targeting of individuals has proved unpopular with the public, and has apparently been dropped by mainstream campaigners in favour of broader targets such as institutions. After all, the animal rights movement needs public opinion on its side.

But singling out has its own vicious charm. If I say to you: 'Here is a photograph of Dr X. He tortures animals. This is his address and here is his telephone number', I am enlisting you in one kind of activity. It sounds like persecution already, doesn't it? Whereas if I say: 'There are 50,000 people with licences to experiment on animals. We must do something to stop them, to alert the public, etc', it sounds like a very different kind of call to action.

The two distinct approaches will attract, no doubt, different kinds of recruit. Operation Rescue, in the United States, runs 'boot camps' that aim to train the 'shock troops of the anti-abortion movement'. They give instruction in the tracing of car licence numbers of clinic employees and patients, in electronic surveillance, jamming of phone lines and similar skills. 'These,' their director told the New York Times last week, 'are the field exercises for what is to come.' So they are aiming for the commando mentality, and will no doubt arouse interest among rejected commandos and fantasising would-be sleuths.

A somewhat different mentality was exhibited by Michael Griffin, who is charged with shooting David Gunn, the abortionist, in Pensacola, Florida. On the Sunday before the murder he reportedly led a prayer at a fundamentalist church that Dr Gunn should 'give his life to Christ'. So in a way he seems to have turned his victim into a sacrificial object before feeling entitled to dispatch him.

The reaction to this killing among the anti-abortionists of Operation Rescue was to agonise as follows. They all expressed the belief that, being an established abortionist, Dr Gunn was a mass murderer. On the other hand, they agreed that it had been wrong to kill him - no one at Operation Rescue would, they said, murder an abortionist. On the other hand, again, a few people thought that the killing was morally justified. And then someone asked: 'If it is morally justified, why aren't we all out killing abortionists?' Whereupon, there was a long silence.

One way to describe the mentality in question without resort to such terms as fanaticism or madness is to see that it is wholly engaged with a single issue. This differs from the quality we admire and call singlemindedness, which is really a description of singleness of purpose or will. The singleminded might be variously resourceful, brilliantly devious, wildly creative in their thinking. But the single-issue mind has lost, if it ever possessed, the capacity for ethical thought: there is only one issue and there is only one solution.

In the past two decades philosophers have increasingly been turning their attention to the kind of issues raised by abortion, animal experimentation, euthanasia and the subjects known under the heading applied, or practical, ethics. One of the leading figures in this area is Peter Singer, a man who stubbed his toe most spectacularly against a practical problem in philosophy: it became impossible for him, in practice, to argue for his philosophy anywhere in the German-speaking world. He had been 'singled out', tagged with having written in favour of active euthanasia under specific circumstances.

The campaign against him was not confined to the universities. It spread through the press. It became an issue for militant disabled groups. He was deemed to be a supporter of Nazi practices. In vain did he argue that, as the child of Austrian-Jewish refugees, he was hardly likely to be a Nazi. He was told he did not understand what Germany had been through. In vain did he explain that, having lost three grandparents in the concentration camps, he did know a bit about what his critics were referring to.

The campaign continued through 1989-90. In 1991, he was asked to Zurich to speak on animal rights, but he never managed to deliver the lecture. First there was a protest by the disabled, who said that, while they did not care about his views on animals, they were appalled that Zurich should have invited someone with his views on euthanasia. After this protest seemed over and Singer rose to speak, a part of the audience began to change 'Singer raus, Singer raus'. As he heard this, he wrote later (New York Review of Books, 15 August, 1991) that he 'had an overwhelming feeling that this is what it must have been like to attempt to reason against the rising tide of Nazism in the declining days of the Weimar Republic. The difference was that the chant would have been, not 'Singer raus,' but 'Juden raus'. An overhead projector was still functioning, and I began to write on it, to point out this parallel that I was feeling so strongly. At that point one of the protesters came up behind me and tore my glasses from my face, throwing them on the floor and breaking them.'

If we may freeze-frame this protester for a moment, he is the man with the single-issue mind. He is barracking the Nazi, the man who is killing all these babies, the man who must be stopped at all costs. And then, oh no, this Nazi picks up a pen and begins to turn into a Jew. This must not be allowed to happen] The Nazi must not be allowed to escape]

Tear the glasses off the Nazi, shoot him in the back (as Michael Griffin allegedly shot Dr Gunn, three times) - this is the way to make him 'give his life to Christ'. This is the lethal opportunist coming out of the crowd, doing the thing for which he has secretly prepared for so long, in the bootcamp of his single-issue mind.