USA Politics

After ballpark shooting, a call for civility, courage

Spirit of humanity

The announcement that the congressional charity baseball game would go on as planned Thursday brought a standing ovation.

Rep. Joe Barton (R), manager of the Republican Congressional Baseball team, addresses the media on Capitol Hill in Washington about the shooting in Alexandria, Va., as his young son Jack listens.
Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters
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Rep. Ryan Costello, shortstop on the Republican congressional baseball team, was two minutes late this morning, and so he missed his ride to a practice that turned into a shoot-out as a gunman wounded five people before he was shot and later died.

The congressman from Pennsylvania, his eyes welling with tears, said what he cared about most was the well-being of the people who were hurt. And then, answering a reporter’s question about what healing message Americans might take from this, he said simply:

“We’re all good people” in Congress – Democrats and Republicans trying to help the country in their own way. In today’s political climate, though, elected officials aren’t given the benefit of the doubt, he said. “It’s almost as if we’re not living, human beings. It’s like we’re bad creatures.”

That plea for a recognition of everyone’s humanity was a sentiment that echoed throughout the Capitol building and down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House on Wednesday. It was voiced by members of both parties as a way to talk constructively with each other rather than spiral down into violence. Although the motives of gunman James T. Hodgkinson III, from Belleville, Ill., are unknown, he was a virulent anti-Trumper.

Party labels were shattered as lawmakers united around their common humanity and American-ness, and celebrated individual qualities – such as the heroism of two Capitol Police who helped bring down the shooter and were themselves injured. They denounced violence and appealed to each other and the public for more listening and less yelling.

“It’s a wake-up call to Americans, to all of us – those of us in leadership, those of us in our communities. We can have sincerely held different beliefs. Let’s have conversations about those,” said Rep. Martha McSally (R) of Arizona, who has received death threats for her views. She holds the seat of former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, a Democrat who was severely wounded by a gunman in 2011.

Members of Congress were unnerved, emotional, and even trembling as they talked with reporters on Wednesday, and some still wore their baseball jerseys and cleats. House votes were cancelled. And yet they responded as one, with both Republicans and Democrats holding hands in prayer in a private meeting of House members on Capitol Hill. The announcement that the congressional charity baseball game would go on as planned Thursday brought a standing ovation.

“An attack on one of us is an attack on all of us,” said Speaker Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin, after he gaveled the full House into session, concluding that “it is humanity that will win the day.” His Democratic counterpart, minority leader Nancy Pelosi of California, similarly described the attack as “an injury in the family” that she prayed would “take us closer to e pluribus unum.

Republican or Democrat?

Before gunman Mr. Hodgkinson opened fire on a team of Republicans practicing for Thursday’s scheduled congressional baseball game in Alexandria, Va., a man who fit his description asked two congressmen leaving the scene about the label of the players – Republican or Democrat? The answer – Republican – was apparently his cue.

Witnesses said the gunfire lasted about 10 minutes. Rep. Steve Scalise (R) of Louisiana, the House majority whip and third-ranking Republican, was wounded, along with a congressional staffer, a former congressional staffer, and the two members of the Capitol Police. Scalise is reported to be in critical condition.

Mr. Hodgkinson, shot by two members of Capitol Police serving as Rep. Scalise's security detail, was transported to the hospital but died of his injuries. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) of Vermont posted a statement saying that Hodgkinson, a one-time home inspector, had apparently served as a volunteer on his presidential campaign.

“I am sickened by this despicable act,” Senator Sanders said. “Real change can only come about through nonviolent action, and anything else runs against our most deeply held American values.”

From the White House, President Trump decried the shooting and called for all Americans to come together and pray for the victims.

“We may have our differences but we do well in times like these … everyone who serves in our nation’s capital is here because above all they love their country,” said Trump.

'What is going on out there?'

Members such as Mr. Costello and Ms. McSally have grave concerns about the ratcheting up of political tensions in America. Costello cited the types and velocity of calls and angry town halls over the last few months, and says he approaches public events with “an extra set of eyes.”

He’ll plan to go to an event, but not commit to it publicly and instead just pop in. He asks not to be put on certain invitations. The lanky lawmaker, who holds a swing district outside of Philadelphia, has his staff “look out in front of me” before he walks into certain situations.

He has held a town hall – with registered attendees and law enforcement present – while passing up a “fake town hall,” where he was invited to a hostile situation (and then chastised for not showing up), he said.

McSally has faced death threats. About a month ago, the FBI arrested the suspect, who will be arraigned later this week.

“Somehow you ... think it’s OK to leave multiple messages and say you want to put a bullet between my eyes? What is … going on out there, that people can take sincerely held different beliefs about things going on in the country, or policy or whatever, and somehow turn it into such vitriol?”

The concern is not just among Republicans. Rep. Joe Crowley (D) of New York says he’s worried about his staff.

“We have a district office. I dunno if security is up to par. Is it ever up to par? Can you really prepare for everything? The answer is ‘no.’ ”

In Congress’s history, 7 killed

Wednesday’s shooting is already sparking a discussion about improving protection for members, most of whom don't have security details.

Since the founding of Congress in 1789, only seven of the 12,000 people who have served as a federal senator or representative have been killed in attacks, according to figures compiled by the Congressional Research Service.

Dueling in the antebellum period caused at least three of the fatalities. In perhaps the most famous such incident, California Senator David Broderick was shot and killed by California Chief Justice David Terry in 1859. Slavery was behind the men’s dispute – Terry favored it, and Broderick did not. Public reaction against the shooting virtually ended gun duels in the US.

The most recent serious attack on a sitting lawmaker before today was the wounding of Rep. Gabby Giffords (D) of Arizona on Jan. 8, 2011. A gunman opened fire at a congressional event in Tucson, killing a congressional staff member and six others. Rep. Giffords and 11 others were wounded.

Baseball as metaphor

Several lawmakers spoke of the unifying nature of Wednesday morning’s activity – baseball – as a kind of metaphor for what America can be. It’s the “national pastime” and when members of Congress play for charity there’s a lot of backslapping and good will between the opposing Democrat and Republican teams.

Rep. Joe Barton of Texas, the manager of the Republican team, spoke for many when he faced a bank of television cameras in the Capitol complex, still wearing his uniform and cap, his young son at his side – also wearing a baseball uniform.

“The heroes are the police officers who” – his voice cracked and he paused to collect himself – “who attacked the shooter, and in doing so, quite probably saved many, many lives,” he said.

Visibly shaken, he went on to add, “This is a charity baseball game. We’ve played it for almost 100 years. It’s for a very good cause…. It’s what, in some ways, what democracy is all about.”

(Editor's note: This story was updated to correct the political affiliation of former Rep. Giffords.)