In Francis Ford Coppola’s 1980 allegory of the Vietnam War, “Apocalypse Now,” Marlon Brando plays renegade U.S. Army Special Forces Colonel Walter E. Kurtz, a highly-decorated soldier who had “split” from the Army by taking his band of Montagnard warriors into Cambodia to fight their own bloody war against the communist Viet Cong.
As the story unfolds, the Army, having charged Kurtz with murder, dispatches Capt. Willard, a Special Forces officer with experience in the Phoenix Program which involved assassination of Viet Cong operatives, to terminate Kurtz’s command, “to terminate with extreme prejudice.”
While traveling up the Mekong into Cambodia, Capt. Willard observes that “charging a man with murder in this place was like handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500.” When, at last inside a compound drenched in the blood of enemy bodies, Willard confronts Kurtz, the renegade colonel explains himself by telling how he came to his epiphany on the war. In South Vietnam’s central highlands, after Kurtz’s Special Forces unit had inoculated the children of a village against small pox a Viet Cong band entered the village the following night and hacked off every inoculated arm.
“There they were in a pile, a pile of little arms…I wept…I wanted to tear my teeth out…and I never wanted to forget….Then I realized like I was shot with a diamond, a diamond bullet through my forehead…they were stronger than we…If I had ten divisions of those men then our troubles here would be over very quickly.” Kurtz further advised Willard, “Horror has a face and you must make a friend of horror. Horror and moral terror are your friends.”
At the end of the movie, having executed the rogue colonel with a machete, Capt. Willard calls in a B-52 strike to eliminate the remnants of Kurtz’s band of Montangards. The screen fills with explosions, Apocalypse Now, fade to black…Kurtz’s last words echo in the background, “the horror, the horror, the horror.”
Shortly after 6 p.m. on Sept. 3, the State of Florida executed former Presbyterian minister Paul Hill for murdering an abortion doctor and his assistant. Hill’s act, the reason for it and his execution, parallel the morality underlying Coppola’s 1980 allegory. Like Colonel Kurtz, Hill believed in fighting horror with horror. He made a friend of terror.
When Hill committed his murders in 1994, more than 20 years had passed since Roe v. Wade legalized abortion in 1973 and about 20,000,000 abortions had taken place in the United States. Today that figure has almost doubled. The Rev. Hill, then a minister in the conservative Presbyterian Church in America, took as his departure point Exodus 20:13, “You shall not murder.” From Hill’s perspective, killing to prevent the ongoing murder (defined as the taking of innocent life) of unborn children was as justified as killing an enemy in war.
The fear among pro-choice advocates is that Hill will become a martyr; that his death will inspire others to similar acts of violence. In his last words, Hill implicitly challenged anyone who opposed abortion to backup their beliefs with action. Indeed, pro-choice advocates fear that a few dozen Paul Hills would make the abortion issue moot very quickly. The logic of Paul Hill, like that of Colonel Kurtz, while brutal is also compelling.
Murder, the taking of innocent life, is unacceptable, as the State of Florida attests. Nevertheless, Hill’s actions reflected his determination to affect a higher good, albeit by using unacceptable methods. Believing one is right does not make one right, but martyrdom may await anyone willing to act on their convictions. John Brown, too, was executed for murder and inciting insurrection. The necessary ingredient for martyrdom is that ultimately the martyr must “take the bus to Memphis”, be nailed to a cross…or strapped to a gurney, as the case may be.
In the end what’s left is the horror. Like a scene from Kurtz’s compound, the dead are everywhere in a culture where death pervades. Some forty million children killed in their mothers’ wombs (or murdered, depending on one’s perspective), two slain abortionists, and one dead preacher, fade to black, “the horror…the horror…the horror.”