THE murder of a doctor in Pensacola, Fla., tells us the essential truth about most anti-abortion activists. They are religious fanatics, who want to impose their version of God's word on the rest of us. For them the end justifies any means, including violence.
Dr. David Gunn was shot in the back three times during an anti-abortion demonstration at Pensacola Women's Medical Services. The leader of the protest, John Burt, said the man charged with the killing, Michael Griffin, had been in church last Sunday:
"He asked that the congregation pray, and asked that we would agree with him that Dr. Gunn would give his life to Jesus Christ. He wanted him to stop doing things the Bible says is wrong, and start doing what the Bible says is right."
The Pensacola demonstration was run by a group called Rescue America, whose headquarters is in Houston. Its national director, Don Treshman, said: "While Gunn's death is unfortunate, it's also true that quite a number of babies' lives will be saved." Matt Trewhella of Missionaries to the Unborn said he "would not condemn someone who killed Hitler's doctors who committed atrocities against human beings, and neither will I condemn Michael Griffin."
In this country we have a constitutional bargain about religion. Individuals are guaranteed the right to choose their faith, but they may not compel others to accept their views -- that the Bible as they interpret it is law, for example, or that barely formed fetuses are human beings.
The bargain is essential to our form of democracy, which requires compromise and does not work when there are ideological certainties. The anti-abortion activists are outside the bargain. They have all the certainty -- the cold-blooded certainty -- of an Ayatollah Khomeini.
The attitude is not limited to Rescue America or Missionaries to the Unborn. Indeed, the murder of Dr. Gunn was the logical next step in the campaigns of terrorism run by various anti-abortion groups in recent years.
Operation Rescue, the national organization founded by Randall Terry, has blockaded clinics where abortions are performed. It has terrorized doctors, nurses and patients.
"We've found the weak link is the doctor," Mr. Terry said at a rally in Melbourne, Fla., last weekend. "We're going to expose them. We're going to humiliate them."
Right now Operation Rescue chapters are running "No Place to Hide" campaigns against doctors who do abortions. Pictures of doctors are put on Wanted posters. One with a picture of Dr. Gunn -- and his home telephone number -- was displayed at an Operation Rescue rally in Montgomery, Ala., last summer.
Doctors get telephoned death threats and are followed to and from work. Clinics are fire-bombed -- one in Corpus Christi, Texas, last month, with $1 million in damage.
An Operation Rescue spokesman said after Dr. Gunn's murder that the blame lay with authorities who stopped its mass protests. Suppressing "normal dissent," Joseph Foreman said, "turns the field over to the rock-throwers, the bombers and the assassins."
Only fanatics would regard wanted posters for doctors and the terrorizing of patients as "normal dissent." We have come to the point of murder because Operation Rescue and like groups worked so hard to legitimize terrorism.
It has to be added that Presidents George Bush and Ronald Reagan bear responsibility, too. In their political embrace of the anti-abortion movement -- in at least Mr. Bush's case the wholly cynical embrace -- they nourished extremism. And their Justice Department never took seriously enough the menace of anti-abortion violence.
Anthony Lewis is a columnist for the New York Times.