This is the America that another shooter ripped into on Wednesday: an emerald baseball diamond, a YMCA, a leafy suburb busy with families getting their kids to school. Police risking their lives to protect others. On the field, men old and young practicing to play a game with the people they spend their workdays battling.
And this is also the America that suffered yet another violent shock on a sticky summer morning: a shooter who spent countless hours watching TV commentators trash their opponents. Politicians who offered prayers and sympathies but then turned around and bashed one another for going right back to their usual bickering.
The shootings on Simpson Field in Alexandria on Wednesday morning cut down a congressman, an aide, a lobbyist and two police officers, but the attack on the House Republican baseball team as it practiced for a charity game also tore at the nation’s civic soul — and perhaps even opened a pathway toward healing.
“It’s my breaking point,” said Rep. Rodney Davis, an Illinois Republican and the catcher on the team. “The way we talk to each other has to change. The political hate has to end.”
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) spoke of the shock and the anguish that the shootings had instantly produced and of the unity and resolve that followed. “An attack on one of us is an attack on all of us,” he said before the full House — Republicans and Democrats alike — rose as one.
But if this was a breaking point, it was, sadly and darkly, one in a very long line. It was one of dozens of mass shootings , including one later on Wednesday at a UPS facility in San Francisco, where five people were shot.
So many shootings in recent years have also been declared the pivot, the last straw, the one beyond which none could be tolerated. Precious children in Newtown, Conn.; partying young people in Orlando; office workers in San Bernardino, Calif., and at the Washington Navy Yard; churchgoers in Charleston, S.C.; military service members at Fort Hood, Tex.; moviegoers in Aurora, Colo.; college kids at Virginia Tech.
Each is a breaking point — immediately for the entire nation, forever for those who knew the victims.
Despite the regularity of the incidents, the shock is new and real every time, because each time it happens, another group of people learns a fresh and frightening vulnerability.
“The world changed a little bit for us as members,” said Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.) “My colleagues were targeted today.”
There’s nothing parochial about experiencing the shooting closest to you as something that has never happened before, because it really has never happened before to you.
And when the home the shooting hits is the people’s House, the impact is especially shattering. The baseball team practiced on an open field, on grass they shared with Little League kids and dog-walkers. Anyone could wander by and chat up the congressmen. In this “free and open society,” the House chaplain, Patrick J. Conroy, a Catholic priest, reminded Congress later on Wednesday, “once again, we are reminded that there is a vulnerability that comes with that openness.”
The images of the day were horrific but also soothing: a congressman standing in Statuary Hall giving TV interviews while still wearing his baseball cap and jersey, emblazoned with a big red “R” designating his team. Tough-talking House members having to pause and swallow before they could continue talking about their love for their teammates and even their opponents.
After an ugly and sometimes violent campaign season, in the early months of a divisive and rhetorically aggressive presidency, there seemed to be a yearning to use the shootings as an opportunity for a reset.
“We live in challenging times, and the political rhetoric has been turned up to an alarming level,” said Rep. Mike Bost (R-Ill.), who represents the shooter’s district. “This should serve as a wake-up call for all of us to step back from the battle lines and come together.”
Rep. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.), who represents the district where former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D) was shot in 2011, said Wednesday’s shootings were “a wake-up call . . . a time to unite and put our differences aside. To be able to have discussions and debates about issues, but we’re together as Americans.”
These are the things people say in their grief and sorrow. President Trump, who won election in part by promising to “drain the swamp” of Washington politicians, bureaucrats and lobbyists, said in a brief address to the nation, “We may have our differences, but we do well in times like this to remember that everyone who serves in our nation’s capital is here because, above all, they love our country.”
The change of tone may seem cynical and fleeting, but “when something tragic happens, we want civility because we recognize that incivility has led us to this moment,” said Emily Sydnor, a political psychologist at Southwestern University in Texas who has studied the impact of rough language on people’s political attitudes.
In her experiments, Sydnor showed Americans video clips of uncivil political speech and measured how they then talked about what they’d seen. What she found was a marked uptick in uncivil language and attitudes.
“When you have people coming on these news shows and shouting at each other, it changes the way people talk about politics,” she said. “It’s a question of modeling. When politicians say nasty things, that affects how people judge government and politicians.”
The shooter at the baseball practice, James Hodgkinson, 66, of Belleville, Ill., was a big fan and habitual watcher of MSNBC’s political coverage, and his social- media presence, as well as letters he wrote to his local newspaper, included attacks on Trump.
The incivility of the past year — from crowds chanting “Lock her up!” to Trump encouraging security officers to manhandle protesters at his rallies, from candidates discussing their genitalia at debates to comedian Kathy Griffin posing with a bloodied head of the president — is hardly limited to politics.
“There’s a lot of evidence that in this Internet-connected world, it’s become a lot easier to express ourselves without thinking,” Sydnor said.
Time seems to stand still in the aftermath of trauma, and there is suddenly plenty of space to think — too much, sometimes. That’s when people tend to promise that terrifying events will change them forever, that things cannot go on as they have.
But long-standing divisions do not close up instantly. Less than five hours after the shootings, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) turned a statement of concern for the victims into a push for enhanced gun control: “This is not what today is about, but there are too many guns on the street,” he said, adding that 93 Americans die from gun violence every day.
The chairman of Virginia’s Republican Party, John Whitbeck, quickly fired back. “Disgusting,” he tweeted. “Not a day for politics.”
On Thursday evening, members of the congressional baseball teams, Republicans and Democrats, will take the field at Nationals Park. The annual charity game will proceed as scheduled, a usual event taking place most unusually, a faceoff of opponents and a gathering of colleagues, at once a battle for victory and a moment for healing.
Laura Vozzella in Richmond contributed to this report.