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Editorial: Nation's leaders must stay united against hatred
DC shooting is latest case of how extremism can lead to violence; will lessons be learned this time?
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The Rev. Patrick J. Conroy, chaplain of the U.S. House of Representatives, prays as both teams kneel, before the Congressional baseball game Thursday in Washington. The annual GOP-Democrats baseball game raises money for charity. - photo by Alex Brandon

Wednesday’s shooting of a U.S. congressman and others at a baseball practice in suburban Washington should serve as a reminder, if we still need one, that extremism can be found in all types of faces, backgrounds and ideas.

The shooter, who was gunned down by quick-thinking Capitol police officers, was a 66-year-old Illinois man whose social media rants were critical of President Donald Trump and Republicans, and who had been an active supporter of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential bid. Among his ties on Facebook was a group called “Terminate the Republican Party,” which he evidently attempted to do not at the ballot box but with a high-powered rifle. In the end, his violent act accomplished nothing to advance his beliefs.

Yet is it possible, this time, that from such a tragedy we can forge some degree of lasting unity to tamp down the anger poisoning American politics?

Based on the level of hatred spewed from all sides of the political spectrum, it’s not a total shock when a few crazies resort to violence. For every left-wing nut like the Alexandria shooter, there is a Klan-sympathizing supremacist like Dylann Roof, who shot nine people to death in a Charleston, S.C., church two years ago Saturday and is serving life in prison.

Ideological insanity doesn’t come only in red or blue; neither side holds a patent on altruism or fanaticism. Yet both share a bit of the blame for taking us to that brink time and again by ramping up the rhetoric beyond the limits of cordial discourse.

The climate of division felt throughout the country has bubbled up to the nation’s political leaders, then back down to those who are unhinged enough to take a giant leap toward deadly attacks. Various echo chambers of social media and broadcast outlets then stoke those flames of emotions to gain ratings and attention, putting the formula for disaster within reach.

Bad examples from those at the highest level of government and media doesn’t help quell the anger that leads to such. Take, for instance, a newly elected House member from Montana who pleaded guilty this week to pile-driving a persistent reporter to the floor on the eve of his election. It’s not the first time in recent months a disagreement over news coverage or ideology has resulted in a physical confrontation, behavior that is intolerable in any context.

The entertainment media has taken its own cheap shots too far, including the photoshopped image of a so-called comedian carrying the decapitated head of the president, a humorless sight gag that cost her a job and any remaining shred of dignity.

Though such incidents remain isolated, they indicate a further degrading of the notion of civility and decorum that used to guide public debates. With very few exceptions — such as when a House member bludgeoned a senator during an  argument over slavery in 1856 — the back-and-forth discussions in the halls of government have been peaceful, even when the words are sharp. The transfer of power to new leaders has never been met with armies or weapons, an idea that remains at the crux of civilized societies.

Politics is supposed to be people in nice suits arguing their case with words, as lawyers do in a courtroom. When weapons and violence are introduced, it becomes barbaric and unholy, taking us back to medieval forms of disagreement conducted at the point of a spear, an idea long since rejected by humanity.

This is not to say anyone should temper their ardor or ideals, just to take more care in how they are projected. Likening political tussles to combat and warfare is the first step in that direction and cheapens the true nature of both enterprises. Keep in mind a neighbor who holds different views is not your enemy but a fellow countryman whose ideas are worthy of respect. The further we inch toward using fists or weapons instead of words, the closer we come to chaos and disunity.

In the hours after Wednesday’s attack, members of both parties rallied to offer best wishes for the wounded. President Donald Trump, both a target and instigator of harsh rhetoric, asked for national unity in the face of such violence. Members of both parties came together at Thursday’s charity baseball game for which they were practicing when the shots rang out and spoke of dialing back the anger, at least for awhile.

All were appropriate responses similar to those seen after the 2001 terrorist attacks and the 2011 shooting of another House member, Rep. Gabby Giffords.

In those cases, as others, the mood of shared purpose and togetherness didn’t last and ongoing debates over policy and ideals again turned away from civility. Whether they will ride that same roller coaster is uncertain, but it’s our hope that someday we’ll all learn a lesson about how best to conduct and win arguments without resorting to anger, hatred and occasionally bloodshed as the result.

Share your thoughts on this or any other topic in a a letter to the editor; you can use this form or email to The Times editorial board includes General Manager Norman Baggs, Editor Keith Albertson and Managing Editor Shannon Casas, plus community members Susan DeCrescenzo, Cathy Drerup and Brent Hoffman.