Carly Fiorina speaks at a barbecue in Wilton, Iowa, on Nov. 22. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Columnist

Inflammatory rhetoric inflames. Words — extreme language and overheated representations — have consequences. The killer bears the ultimate responsibility for the carnage in Colorado Springs. But if initial reports of alleged gunman Robert Lewis Dear Jr.’s comments about “no more baby parts” prove true — and logic suggests that it was no mere coincidence the attack was at a Planned Parenthood clinic — Republican politicians who fueled the overwrought and unsupported controversy over selling baby parts bear some measure of responsibility.

That is a harsh accusation, so let me explain why I believe it is fair to lodge.

The debate over abortion rights is unavoidably emotional. For those who believe that abortion is the taking of a human life, the fact of millions of abortions performed in the United States since the decision in Roe v. Wade is inevitably going to generate alarm and horror, with Holocaust comparisons and talk of bloodbaths.

As a young reporter, I witnessed the consequence of such views, covering a string of abortion clinic bombings in the Washington area in the 1980s. Michael Bray, a local pastor who served nearly four years for the crime, explained his twisted logic to “60 Minutes” in 1999: “If we are to affirm, as I do, that the children in the womb who are killed at abortion facilities are in fact children . . . then action taken to defend them is justifiable and cannot be condemned.”

This thinking is sick; leaders in the antiabortion movement have a responsibility to condemn it, forcefully. Yet on an issue as emotionally charged as abortion, there will always be a fringe so lunatic as to believe violence is acceptable. But tarring the larger group with their criminal excesses is unwarranted.

Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz said the man accused of killing three people and wounding nine in a shooting rampage at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs is a "deranged individual." (Reuters)

The current effort to demonize Planned Parenthood feels different. This is, literally, a manufactured issue, cobbled together from doctored videotapes and overheated accusations. The organization’s activities have been so mischaracterized, and the practice of providing fetal tissue so overblown and so manipulated by lawmakers and politicians, that blame for the ensuing violence falls more heavily on them.

This argument, I concede, rests on a potentially slippery and subjective slope. Holding advocates responsible for such unintended consequences risks dampening speech. Second, conservatives have blamed Black Lives Matter protesters for inspiring the killing of police officers; what makes my critique fair and theirs not? The answer involves gradations of tone and truthfulness. Extreme rhetoric combined with falsehoods tips the balance toward greater culpability.

Some facts: Only a handful of Planned Parenthood clinics in three states provide fetal tissue for research. What money has changed hands — a practice the organization has now dropped — went to cover costs and represented a minuscule fraction of revenue. No federal funds were involved.

Not only does federal law authorize the provision of fetal remains for research purposes, but it also funds such research, with $76 million last year. If Planned Parenthood critics want to revisit the question of whether it is appropriate to use fetal tissue this way, fine. But let’s be clear: Prohibiting this practice will not stop a single abortion, though it might impede some research, on diseases such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and Down syndrome.

Not that you could tell this from the reaction to the undercover videos from Republican presidential candidates, who chose, instead, to sensationalize and demonize. Ted Cruz termed Planned Parenthood “an ongoing criminal enterprise.” Marco Rubio said the organization’s practices “created an incentive for people to be pushed into abortions.” And Carly Fiorina falsely asserted that the undercover videos depicted “a fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking, while someone says we have to keep it alive to harvest its brain.”

Contrast the candidates’ immediate outcry over the videos with their reticence on the shootings. If you denounce an organization that is then attacked by a gunman who kills three people, you might have some qualms about your language. Not this crowd.

“This is so typical of the left to immediately begin demonizing the messenger,” Fiorina said on “Fox News Sunday.” Demonizing? This criticism is awfully hard to take from the Planned Parenthood demonizer in chief.

Carly Fiorina recounted accompanying a friend to get an abortion at a Planned Parenthood clinic when she was in her early 20s. (Prestonwood Baptist Church)

Cruz denounced “vicious rhetoric on the left, blaming those who are pro-life.” This, as my colleague Dana Milbank noted , from a man proud to be endorsed by an antiabortion activist who called killing abortion doctors a “justifiable defensive action.” Talk about vicious rhetoric.

In Colorado Springs, Iraq war veteran Ke’Arre Stewart had just learned he was having a third child. Jennifer Markovsky, mother of two, was accompanying a friend. Police officer Garrett Swasey raced to the scene to do his job.

The criminal guilt for their deaths rests with the shooter. The moral responsibility, from what we know so far, is more widely shared.

Read more from Ruth Marcus’s archive, follow her on Twitter or subscribe to her updates on Facebook.