In the charged environment of 2017, it took only a few hours for a baseball diamond to be transformed from a peaceful practice field to a horrific crime scene and then to a vivid symbol of the tensions between the angry politics of our time and the better angels of the American people.
From President Trump to congressional leaders of both parties to ordinary citizens came calls for prayers for the victims of the shootings in Alexandria, Va., that left House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) and four others wounded, praise for the Capitol Police officers who prevented an even worse tragedy and, above all, words of reconciliation and unity.
But barely on the edges of those remarks was another round of recriminations and a renewed debate about what has brought the country to a point of such division, what is to blame for what happened on that baseball field shortly after 7 a.m. Wednesday and what, if anything, can be done to lower temperatures for more than a few minutes.
The country has been in this place before, perhaps too many times after violence that has left Americans feeling shaken and insecure. At those times, elected officials have reached across the aisle, embracing one another in friendship and unity. Ordinary citizens have rallied behind those leaders as one nation, vowing to put aside partisanship and recalling what it means to be an American.
After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Republican and Democratic lawmakers assembled at the East Front of the Capitol and sang “God Bless America” in a display of national unity and resolve. On Wednesday morning, as the news of what happened on the Republican practice field spread, Democrats preparing for Thursday’s Congressional Baseball Game elsewhere stopped their practice to huddle in prayer for their Republican colleagues.
Trump spoke as other presidents have done in times of tragedy or terrorism, saying, “We are strongest when we are unified and when we work for the common good.” House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) called on his colleagues to set an example. “Show the world we are one House, the people’s House, united in our humanity,” he said. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) implored her colleagues to make the Congressional Baseball Game an occasion “that will bring us together and not separate us further.”
But with past as prologue, other voices and other emotions threatened to drown out the words of the nation’s leaders. Six years ago, after the shootings that left then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) badly wounded and six others dead, it was the political right that was on the defensive. Those on the left charged that the incendiary rhetoric aimed at then-President Barack Obama and his supporters during his early years in office gave rise to a climate that made violence possible.
On Wednesday, it was the political left that became a target from some on the right. The gunman, James T. Hodgkinson III, who was pronounced dead at a hospital after the shootout, was a longtime critic of the Republicans and a particularly harsh critic of the president. His Facebook page included angry and vulgar words aimed at Trump. Some Republicans viewed the shootings as evidence that the president’s critics have crossed the line of decency in their opposition and fostered a climate that could produce what happened on Wednesday morning.
Former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), speaking at midday on Fox News Channel, decried what he called “an increasing hostility on the left,” whether from comedians, from artists, from politicians or from ordinary citizens posting their views on social media. “You’ve had a series of things that send signals that tell people it’s okay to hate Trump,” he said. “And now we’re supposed to rise above it?” He added, “Maybe this is a moment when everybody takes a step back, but there is no evidence of it.”
Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), whose many past statements have inflamed the debate about illegal immigration, was near the Capitol when the shootings took place. He went to the baseball field to pray, he said, but while he was there he delivered a political statement in addition to his prayers.
Without referring to the shooter, he said critics of the president have created a climate of hate that threatens the country. He pointed to the massive demonstrations in Washington and elsewhere the day after Trump was inaugurated, and protests that have continued since. “America has been divided, and the center of America is disappearing and the violence is appearing in the streets and it’s coming from the left,” he said.
No one condoned what happened Wednesday, regardless of whether the shootings were motivated by political views or the actions of a deranged person. Recently, comedian Kathy Griffin found no sympathizers even among Trump critics when she posed with a mask of a bloody, severed head in the likeness of the president. On Wednesday, when it was revealed that Hodgkinson had volunteered for the 2016 Democratic presidential campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.), the senator rushed to rebuke him. “Violence of any kind is unacceptable in our society and I condemn this action in the strongest possible terms,” he said on the Senate floor.
Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.), whose district cuts across central Illinois to the Mississippi River just above Hodgkinson’s home town of Belleville, was on the baseball field when the shootings took place. Still wearing his baseball gear, he returned to the Capitol to use the platform that proximity to Wednesday’s shootings provided him.
Davis condemned what he called “political, rhetorical terrorism” practiced by both sides. He appealed passionately for everyone to step back and find a better way to hash out and then resolve their differences. “Is this America’s breaking point?” he asked on CNN. “It’s my breaking point. We’ve got to end this.”
That’s the question that many will ask, as they have asked it before: Is this a true breaking point? After 9/11, there was a period of genuine unity across the political spectrum. But within a year, the nation had snapped back to its more partisan divisions and there has been no turning back.
The campaign of 2016, fought on the raw turf of race and national identity, pushed things even further. The America of 2017 is more passionately, and some would say angrily, divided. The political debates operate with an all-or-nothing mind-set, with no real grounds for compromise. And all politics has become more personal.
Wednesday’s shootings can act as a temporary circuit breaker to some of the hostilities, and Thursday’s Congressional Baseball Game can become an emotional and poignant coming together. But will that be enough to prevent a swift return to the kind of debilitating political conflict that has become so accepted as the norm? History shows how difficult that could be.