If one of the Members of Congress on the GOP team weren’t one of the top ranking House members with a security detail always covering him, what happened Wednesday on a pastoral, serene, community ball field would easily have turned into a real life rendition of a horror film. Many congressmen and staffers would have been mowed down by an assailant with a deadly weapon and many rounds to reload, if he had made it through the gate, and armed guards weren’t nearby.
It was the closest of calls on a baseball field.
And a “dark day in DC”, a district that has seen historic numbers of them and especially in recent history.
Nebraska Congressman Jeff Fortenberry said it left him “shocked and numb” on the day it happened. The next day, Thursday, he was my guest on radio, and said Members of Congress in both parties have met and talked a lot to get their minds around what happened in this attack on their colleagues on a ball field, and more generally at their town hall gatherings in home districts, which are growing increasingly hostile, angry, and dangerous.
He told me “we’re losing the narrative of virtue, with no formative institutions left except in residual form,” starting with the basic family foundation, extending to schools, churches, community organizations where people are formed with fundamental principles and values of public service, duty, responsibility, virtue. “We need a recommitment to being a source of wisdom” he said, which means acquiring the wisdom in the first place to give others who share goals and ideals, and those who don’t. To be wise enough to speak and listen, and challenge others to solve problems together.
Congressman Fortenberry was shaken by the reality that his close friend, House Majority Whip Steve Scalise – as one of the top congressional leaders – was wounded badly in the shooting but that “it would have been a massacre” on that ballfield had Scalise not been there with the Capitol Police officers assigned to guard top leaders. Without his security detail present, probably no one else would have had weapons to stop the assassin who came to the Republicans’ practice site “to assassinate my colleagues”, he continued. That assassin would likely have mowed them down in a bloodbath and we would have had a human catastrophe in our nations’ leadership. In one party in one branch of our federal government.
Threats have been piling on in emails, phone calls, yard signs and shouting matches at townhall meetings for members of both parties over the past several months.
“We’re not any more special than anybody else, but we are targets,” (Republican Rep. Barry) Loudermilk told reporters in the Capitol. “This is exactly why there is a lot of fear of even doing town halls at this point. Some of the things this guy is posting on Facebook — we get the same things, and even worse.”
(Democratic Rep. James) Clyburn, for his part, wants lawmakers to have more access to security measures.
“For us to have a rule … that you can’t have security cameras in your offices unless you pay for them with your campaign — I just found that out this morning — or you can’t have security stuff in your homes?” Clyburn said. “I can’t tell you how many threats I’ve had against my home. In fact, I’ve had state police staying at home with my family.”
Rep. Tony Cárdenas (D-Calif.) said he urged Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) to fast-track new security measures for lawmakers.
“Many of us receive threats. And it’s not that we get used to it. You’ve just got to hope and pray that people don’t follow up on those threats, but at any given moment they could, like we saw this morning,” Cárdenas said. “I personally stressed to the Speaker if we could put that on hyper drive and get those results and those decisions as quickly as possible.”
The threats they have been receiving, and the vitriol on social media, emails, letters and in verbal assaults at public appearances is a jolting alert to the rest of us that our fellow Americans are not settling in finally to give the new administration a chance, like or strongly dislike the president as people do in any new administration.
It’s an alarm, as veteran political analyst, data wonk and electoral analyst Michael Barone notes. Resistance to President Trump now fuels the sense of entitlement for opponents to take recourse to violence.
House Speaker Paul Ryan opened the very next session of Congress just hours after the shooting of Cong. Steve Scalise and several others on the practice field near DC, with a strong call to unity and civility. “We are united”, he boldly declared. “We are united in our shock, and in our anger. An attack on one of us is an attack on all of us.” There was rousing applause, and determined standing ovation, emotions obviously raw and Representatives in the House obviously shaken. Staunch, even polarized, political opponents suddenly became unified Americans and they declared with more humility than has been evident lately that angry, hostile rhetoric has to stop, now.
Hope springs eternal, so although the unprecedented terror attack on 9/11 brought Congress and most Americans together in a newly and deeply unified sense of purpose to stay strong together, didn’t last long, and the call for a new era of civility after the shooting of Cong. Gabby Giffords didn’t last more than a couple of days at most, this is a new chance.
As Congressman Fortenberry and many, many others have asked, people of faith and goodwill can pray for the recovery of Cong. Scalise and others shot by the assassin on the baseball field this week in Virginia. And do something, proactively, to build foundations and bridges and the infrastructure of a civil society in our homes, families and communities, starting (again) now.