Politics & Policy

How to Think about the Alexandria Attack

Police and investigators at the scene of the shooting in Alexandria, Va. (Reuters photo: Joshua Roberts)

The attempted murder of several Republican members of Congress on Wednesday morning in Alexandria, Va., is nothing short of horrifying. At around 7 a.m., James Hodgkinson, 66, of Belleville, Ill., opened fire on Republicans practicing for Thursday evening’s annual congressional baseball game, striking majority whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana, two congressional aides, and two Capitol Police officers.

It is an extraordinary mercy that no one was killed. (As of this writing, Scalise remains in critical condition.) The gunman, who had several magazines, managed to unload several dozen rifle rounds into the ballfield over the course of about ten minutes. His apprehension was thanks entirely to the heroics of the Capitol Police officers who were present, one of whom continued to return fire even after being hit.

Hodgkinson, who died of his wounds, is a familiar sort. He had a history of arrests for violent offenses, among them domestic battery, battery, and aggravated assault. In 2006, he was detained for allegedly shooting at a man during a confrontation; the man, who was not hit, claimed that Hodgkinson had assaulted his girlfriend (a friend of Hodgkinson’s foster daughter, whom he reportedly abused). According to news reports, Hodgkinson abandoned his wife last month and moved to Alexandria, Va., where he had been living for two months, possibly out of a local gym.

Among profiles of mass shooters, “isolated” and “had a history of violence” are hardly rare qualities. Of course, Hodginkson was also politically outspoken. He campaigned for Bernie Sanders during the 2016 Democratic primary, and posted frequently about politics on his social-media accounts. He was also a member of a Facebook group that aimed to “terminate the Republican party,” and in March he wrote that Donald Trump was a “traitor” and that it was “time to destroy Trump & Co.” There appears, too, to have been a political element to the attack. According to multiple Republican congressmen who left the ballfield just before the shooting occurred, Hodgkinson approached them and asked them whether it was Democrats or Republicans in the field. A few minutes later, he opened fire.

By our lights, the person singly responsible for Wednesday’s horrors is the man who pulled the trigger. Nonetheless, a pattern of violence is difficult to ignore. Hodginkson’s would-be massacre comes on the heels an attempt last month to run GOP congressman David Kustoff (Tenn.) off the road for supporting the House’s Obamacare-replacement bill, of credible threats of violence against Oregon’s Multnomah County Republican party in April (serious enough that local officials canceled an annual parade, where party members were slated to appear), of a series of violent attacks by “anti-fascists,” and of the firebombing of a GOP headquarters in North Carolina during the election cycle. Recent weeks have seen a glut of wishful thinking about a Trump assassination, most obviously the macabre hijinks of Kathy Griffin. A few on the left have encouraged these episodes; most have been silent.

The contrast to the reaction to the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords in 2011 is, needless to say, striking. Left-wing activists, politicians, and journalists leapt to blame Sarah Palin for the shooting that killed six people and injured 13 others, citing maps she distributed that showed bulls-eyes atop “targeted” swing districts. Paul Krugman penned a column entitled “Climate of Hate,” blaming the shooting on the “toxic rhetoric . . . coming, overwhelmingly, from the right.” The New York Times editorial board declared it “legitimate to hold Republicans and particularly their most virulent supporters in the media responsible” for the violence. Bernie Sanders, who denounced today’s shooting in categorical terms, used Giffords’s shooting to fundraise, sending out an e-mail to supporters that blamed the shooting on “right-wing reactionaries.” “Nobody can honestly express surprise that such a tragedy finally occurred,” he wrote.

The atmosphere of our politics has without question become more heated of late. Elements of both left and right are to blame for that, up to and including the president, who was not above encouraging his supporters to rough up political opponents and the members of the media at his campaign rallies. But anything that has occurred on the right has been seen and raised on the left, and, even worse, supplied with sophisticated (and sophistical) defenses.

James Hodgkinson was a man with violent tendencies who seems increasingly to have been living less in the real world than in his own head. That he was influenced by intemperate rhetoric is almost certainly the case. The deranged find excuses. Nonetheless, “The Resistance” is no more responsible for him than the pro-life movement is responsible for Robert Dear.

In this particular case, our friends on the other side of the aisle seem to agree with that sentiment: that political speech is not violence, and violence is not political speech. Would that it were always so.

Editor’s Note: This editorial originally identified James Hodgkinson’s hometown as Belvedere, Ill. He was from Belleville.


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