Mike Littwin: Have we reached a breaking point or just agreed to call a brief truce? | AspenTimes.com

Back to: Opinion

Mike Littwin: Have we reached a breaking point or just agreed to call a brief truce?

In the aftermath of the horror that played out on a Virginia baseball field, we can — and should — step back for a day, maybe a few days, and remember amid all the hateful talk that we are, as the president rightfully reminded us, one nation and one people.

But even as we do so, even as a nation prays for those who were shot and wounded, we'll know we're not fooling anyone, least of all ourselves. This is the sad, heartbreaking truth.

We are, of course, united in horror at the direct attack not only against real people with real lives, but against our democratic system, an attack that David Frum called in The Atlantic an attempted "veto by murder."

That someone would attack Republican lawmakers, presumably because they're Republican, on a baseball diamond, as if to reinforce the idea that this is an attack on American values, is nearly beyond imagination. That Rep. Steve Scalise, the Republican whip, should lie critically wounded on the field is almost too much to take in. And yet there it was: Capitol police engaged in a firefight during early-morning practice for a charity game between Democrats and Republicans.

And the fact is that the first thing we wanted to know, the very first thing, was whether the shooter was a Democrat. And when we learned that the shooter, James T. Hodgkinson III, was a Bernie Sanders volunteer who loudly opposed Donald Trump and came to Washington from his home outside St. Louis to register his unhappiness by unleashing a mass shooting, it shouldn't have been beyond our imagination at all.

We have, of course, a long history of assassination in this country. And we have only to go back six years to the attack on Democratic congresswoman Gabby Giffords, to the murderous attack that left dead a federal judge, a 9-year-old and four others. Following that attack, we asked ourselves whether the political rhetoric had grown too hot, whether a crazed gunman like Jared Loughner was pushed, whether we needed to take a hard look at ourselves and decide whether this is who we are.

Well, we looked. And apparently it was. And the rhetoric, meanwhile, has grown worse, and you can argue whether Hodgkinson's decision to bring guns to a baseball field should be blamed on anti-Trump rhetoric or on one man's confusion that turns normal political opposition into abnormal rage or the fact that a man once arrested for domestic abuse still had access to those powerful guns.

What you can't argue is that we're worse for the political anger that is bred on talk radio, cable news and social media and wherever else you look. You can't argue, either, that we elected a president whose lock-her-up campaign was based on promoting fear and who, not two weeks ago, unaccountably involved himself in a Twitter war with the Muslim London mayor even as his city was mourning its dead.

We have become hardened, somehow. And even with fine speeches from Paul Ryan, who asked the House "to show the country, to show the world that we are one house, the people's house, united in our humanity," and from Nancy Pelosi and from Donald Trump, there was already finger-pointing and blame-making.

Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.), whose district lies just north of Hodgkinson's home in Belleville, was on the field when the shootings took place. Still in his baseball uniform, he took to CNN to call out "political, rhetorical terrorism" and then asked what for Davis was no longer a rhetorical question: "Is this America's breaking point? It's my breaking point. We've got to end this."

But are moving speeches and heartfelt pleas for comity and an agreement to go ahead with the charity baseball game enough? In San Francisco on the same day, a man shot and killed three co-workers and himself at a UPS facility. In Washington on the same day, a hearing had been scheduled in the House on making it easier to buy silencers for firearms.

According to the Gun Violence Archive, which sadly keeps track of these things, there have been 1,399 mass shootings since the Sandy Hook massacre in 2013. A mass shooting, by this definition, requires four people other than the shooter to have been hit. In those shootings, at least 1,564 people were killed and more than 5,500 wounded. The latest Washington shooting is just one more.

But no one was talking gun control in the aftermath of the shooting. Gun control, in and of itself, isn't really the issue. Gun-violence control is the issue. But here we go back to the rhetoric and to warnings of gun grabbing and of the need for the Second Amendment to protect ourselves against the government or to the president tweeting after the London knife and car attack that, you see, it's not about guns at all.

There's no one who can rationally argue that gun violence isn't among the greatest problems in the country. Watch the baseball-field video. It looks like a war zone. Check out the Chicago murder statistics. They might as well have come from a war zone. But it's a non-starter in Congress even after Congress becomes a direct target. So, what does it mean to ask whether we've reached a breaking point? It is a question we do need to ask ourselves, but there isn't much point asking until we're actually ready to find an answer.

Mike Littwin runs Sundays in The Aspen Times. A former columnist for the Rocky Mountain News and Denver Post, he currently writes for ColoradoIndependent.com.