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Congressmen point to shared responsibility for violent political climate

Capitol Hill Police officers stand watch outside the House of Representatives on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, June 15, 2017, a day after a gunman opened fire on a lawmakers playing baseball and wounded House Majority Whip Steve Scalise of La. at a baseball practice in Alexandria, Va. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

The apparent political motivation of the shooter who opened fire on a Republican baseball practice on Wednesday morning has put a spotlight on the breakdown in the civil discourse that members of Congress believe both parties are responsible for remedying.

While the FBI has not yet determined a motive, the man who shot and injured House Majority Whip Steve Scalise and three others was known as a hardcore Democrat and anti-Trump activist. Before setting up his semi-automatic rifle on the outskirts of the baseball diamond, the shooter approached two congressmen to confirm that it was the Republican team that was practicing.

Members of the Republican team indicated in the immediate aftermath of the incident that the violence was a direct outgrowth of the increasingly intolerant and combative political environment in Washington and around the country.

"What that rhetoric and that hatefulness has led to is members of Congress, I believe, having to dodge bullets," Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.) told reporters on Wednesday. He called the attack "a sad testament of what I now consider political rhetorical terrorism."

Davis was at the practice field and was up to bat when the shooter opened fire. Asked by Sinclair Broadcast group whether the shooting represented a breaking point in political civility, he replied, "It's my breaking point. This has to stop."

Leaders of both parties denounced the violent act and applauded the heroism of the Capitol Police officers who brought down the assailant. They held bipartisan prayer sessions for the injured. President Donald Trump sent a hopeful message to the American people that "we are strongest when we are unified."

But within hours the partisan ceasefire was broken.

Overnight, political pundits and even some members of Congress began pointing fingers. Commentators spoke about the rise of political terrorism on the left and the right, congressmen blamed social media and the 24-hour news cycle for fueling violent passions, others pointed to the unresolved bitterness of the 2016 presidential campaign.

In a Thursday press briefing, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi was asked to respond to claims by some Republicans that the assailant was motivated by the political rhetoric on the left. She called the argument "outrageous" and rejected the idea that political violence afflicts the left and right equally.

"For them to all of a sudden be sanctimonious as if they had never seen such a thing before--and I don't even want to go into the President of the United States in terms of some of the language he's used," she said before taking a step back and insisting the conversation was best left for another day.

Like many other members of Congress, Pelosi has received numerous death threats. In recent months, Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) chairman Cedric Richmond (D-La.) has raised the issue of improving security in the wake of a series of disturbing threats against some members of the CBC.

The responsibility for changing the hostile climate ultimately comes down to individual conduct, he said quoting Michael Jackson, "If you wanna make a change, start with the man in the mirror." But the responsibility also rests at the highest levels of political leadership. "It starts with the President of the United States," he noted.

"We don't need to point fingers, but it starts at the top then it comes to Congress and everybody could do a better job of watching what they say, including me," Richmond told reporters. "I think that both parties have a responsibility, I don't think you can blame it on either one. But you cant just say its time for unity, and expect unity. You have to do it with some action."

Richmond is the star pitcher for the Democratic baseball team and made special note of his friendship with fellow Louisiana congressman Steve Scalise both on and off the field.

At every level of civil discourse from the presidency to town hall meetings, passions are high. On any number of issues from healthcare and immigration to gun-control and abortion, individuals on all sides of the debate believe the issue is a matter of life or death, and they discuss it in those terms. The opposing party is the "enemy" and they have "blood on their hands."

Rep. Mike Bost is the congressman for Illinois' 12th congressional district and the shooter, James T. Hodgkinson, was his constituent. Bost In the past year, Hodgkinson contacted Bost's office ten times.

"I don't think any of us are the enemy," he told Sinclair Broadcast Group. "Unfortunately we do have extremists on both sides."

He went on to discuss his personal feelings about the shooting, knowing that the assailant had reached out to his office on numerous occasions.

"It's sad. The reality is, he never made a threatening word in any of his communications with us," Bost explained. "So we didn't have a that red flag that said, 'Oh, we have a problem.'"

The issues at stake in politics today are deeply personal, he acknowledged, and there will always be conflict. "But to what level do we let that peak? And then how do we react around those people who disagree with us, not only here but back in our districts?"

Rep. Roger Williams (R-Texas) was on the baseball field during the shooting. His staffer was shot and injured. For Williams, the entire incident underscores the need for everyone to "dial back our rhetoric," whether it's in the Congress or at the city and county level.

As for the assailant, Williams is not sure he truly falls into any political category. "I'm not so sure this guy yesterday was a Republican or Democrat. I think he was just sick," he told reporters. "I don't know if you can blame this on one wing or another wing. I think it's just a man that had a lot of problems and a lot of anger."

According to his Facebook page, the shooter was staunch supporter of Bernie Sanders and volunteered for his presidential campaign, which called for a political revolution. He was also active in the 99 percent protests in 2012 that drew attention to income inequality.

Immediately after learning about the shooter's affiliation, Sen. Sanders (I-Vt.) denounced the act in the strongest terms emphasizing that "real change can only come about through nonviolent action."

The mood in the Senate on Wednesday had shifted back to the task at hand, healthcare reform and passing a new sanctions bill on Russia and Iran. Some members refrained from commenting on the political implications of the shooting so soon after the incident, others focused on the heroic actions of the Capitol Police who were on site.

Republican Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma said it was a mistake to draw a conclusion about the broader political climate based on the actions of one sick individual.

"It just shows that there are mentally deranged people out there and their targets could be for the media, or for me or somebody else," he noted. "It's a tragedy that there are people out there like that."

Sen. Chris Coon (D-Del.) also hesitated to draw a political conclusion from yesterday's attack, especially so early in the FBI's investigation of the shooter.

"The initial reports suggest that he was someone who was motivated in part by not just strongly held political views, but genuine anger that then turned into violence against specific legislators," he said.

"At the highest level, its important for us to recognize that over decades our political climate has gradually gotten more and more personal and more and more poisonous," the senator continued. "And we all have a responsibility to step that back."

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