Viewpoints: Another attack in divided America. We are better than this

Another act of despicable and senseless violence sends the nation reeling. Once more, we examine our very soul.

Our thoughts are with the victims of Wednesday’s shooting at a ballfield in suburban Washington, D.C., where Republican lawmakers and their aides were practicing for a bipartisan charity ballgame. The wounded included House Majority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana, who was critically injured; Zack Barth, a University of Texas graduate and an aide to U.S. Rep. Roger Williams, R-Austin; and two members of Scalise’s Capitol Police security team. The gunman died after a shootout with police.

Williams, who injured his ankle diving for cover from the hail of gunfire, credited Barth for texting for help even as he lay wounded and under siege.

RELATED: Rep. Roger Williams’ aide among those hit in shooting at Va. park.

We are grateful more harm was not done. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky, who also ran for cover when the first gunshots rang out, said that were it not for the heroic actions of the Capitol Police, there would have been a massacre.

“The field was basically a killing field,” Rand told CNN.

We join Americans across the country in condemning this heinous act of hate. The suspected gunman appeared to target Republican lawmakers, who he railed against on social media. Family members said he was incensed over President Trump’s election and had traveled to Washington to protest. It is reasonable to conclude that the attack is a commentary on how extreme American politics has become.

As law enforcement investigators uncover more about the gunman, we fear that another act of violence will be exploited — and that some will use this dark moment for political gain when instead we should grieve as a nation and ask what we can do to prevent more senseless tragedy.

The latter is apparently not what Rep. Steve King, an Iowa Republican, had in mind when he blamed “the left” for creating a culture in which attacks on elected leaders was possible. We lament that King made the comments even as he said he didn’t know a thing about the gunman.

We are better than this, America.

King is not alone among conservative lawmakers blaming liberals. But if he and anyone else want to point fingers, they can look all around. Americans of all stripes can hold up a mirror.

We are a nation divided — and headed for an unraveling if we aren’t careful. Much of what passes for political discourse in these times springs from hate and crosses a line of decency. Much of it can be found on social media, where it’s convenient to turn our backs and not call out the viciousness for what it is if it agrees with our own politics.

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We are better than this. For most of our nation’s history, the American way has been to debate in the public square without violence. We must learn again to speak to each other without contempt. We must learn again how to debate without demonizing the other.

But separating politics from hate does not mean that we stifle political expression. In the aftermath of the shooting, some members of Congress said lawmakers should cut back on hosting town hall forums with their constituents. That’s not the American way. Let Americans air their differences, so long as they are peaceful.

Democracy is not always pretty; in fact, it’s usually messy. But politics and civility can coexist — and we call on the President and Congress to lead and to teach by example. Too often, our elected leaders stay silent when the rhetoric of one in their party is extreme to the point of viciousness. We should hold elected leaders accountable and demand that they immediately call out their colleagues when they go too far.

In the aftermath of the shooting, Trump told the nation: “We can all agree that we are blessed to be Americans. That our children deserve to grow up in a nation of safety and peace. That we are strongest when we are unified and when we work together for the common good.”

That’s a good start for a reset of our political discourse — and we commend the president. But we must also remember that Trump, as well as some prominent Democrats, have used vulgarities and off-color comments to score political points in the past. The president bears some responsibility for the violence that marred some of his campaign events. He once infamously vowed to pay the legal fees for someone who would “knock the crap out of” an anti-Trump protester.

We can’t bury our heads any longer. A comic holds up a bloodied head replica of the president. A U.S. congressional candidate body-slams a reporter. Effigies of President Obama hung from nooses across the country during his presidency, while some Americans thought it was acceptable to liken the Obamas to apes. A faded rock star who threatened to kill Obama later visits with President Trump in the Oval Office. Another celebrity talks about blowing up the White House. Conspiracy theorists taunt parents who lost their children in a school massacre, calling the mass shooting a hoax in the name of gun control. We could go on.

MORE VIEWPOINTS: The Statesman’s editorial writers tackle local and national issues.

We are better than this. We must remember that violence has no place in our society, no matter how polarized we may be. Bullets like those that destroyed a peaceful morning in an idyllic Alexandria neighborhood are indiscriminate. They shatter bone and pierce blood vessels and organs with the same punishing brutality, no matter if you’re Republican or Democrat or in between.

It is ironic that the Republican lawmakers who came under attack last week were practicing for an annual charity baseball game against their congressional colleagues from across the aisle. The game went on as scheduled Thursday night, reportedly raising more than $1 million for charity. Steeped in emotion, it was more a time of coming together than a ballgame. Fans joined players in singing “God Bless America.” And lawmakers talked about changing the tone of political discourse.

That’s the better America we should see every day.

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