Day after day, it seems, reasonable people are called upon to respond to unreasonable actions, the most recent example being the shooting Wednesday at a recreational gathering of congressional Republicans in Alexandria, Va.
What’s more, the pace at which information now flows adds pressure for these responses to be formed and shared immediately.
Under such conditions, and despite the mixed environment of social media, I surmise that most of us do pretty well in recognizing complexity — knowing that initial reactions to events are often emotional; that a full accounting of facts takes time, even though certain aspects may be quickly clear; and that the ultimate understanding of any situation necessarily follows an arc.
On Wednesday morning, congressional Republicans and others were at a park preparing for a charity baseball game when a gunman began spraying bullets from outside the ball field. House Majority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana and four others — including a congressional aide, a lobbyist and Capitol Police officers who returned fire — were wounded. The gunman died as a result of the battle.
Here are some initial conclusions that reasonable people might reach, given the information known in the hours that followed:
• That those who were injured — though public servants — are no more or no less victims than the many others who are harmed by violence in the U.S. each year.
• That the suspected gunman (identified by law enforcement officials as James T. Hodgkinson III, 66, from Illinois) may have been beset by ideas of righteousness, which, when paired with revenge, is among the most vile of human emotions. According to various reports, Hodgkinson had campaigned for U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders during Sanders’ presidential bid and was incensed with the way things have been going in Washington under President Donald Trump and Republican leadership of Congress.
• That real change can be achieved only “through nonviolent action, and anything else runs against our most deeply held American values,” as Sanders said in response to the shooting.
• That Wednesday’s shooting, in the sense that it seemed intent on silencing ideological opponents through the ripple effect of fear, is in effect an act of terrorism.
I’m guessing that most Americans would agree with everything written here. However, one thing to know about the arc of understanding is that the most dangerous reactions tend to come in the days and weeks to follow, as incriminations mount and views harden. In addition, with an event like this about which many things will be said, there’s a risk that some comments that ought to be nothing more than distractions will be latched onto, because that can be easier than addressing the more complicated concerns.
Here’s what reasonable people would not take away from Wednesday’s shooting:
• That the vocal atmosphere of opposition to the current administration and leadership in Washington — referred to in some cases as “derangement” — is to blame. This works, and has worked, both ways. No political movement is free from overt and sometimes over-the-top passion in pursuit of its objectives. But, to be clear, spraying a ball field with bullets is deranged. Seeking accountability is not.
• That incidents like this are a reason to encourage the voluntary suppression of art and speech. In recent weeks there have been a few examples of controversial expression that some are attempting to capitalize upon further following Wednesday’s shooting. Kathy Griffin is one — she held up the bloody mock head of Trump in a photo shoot. Snoop Dogg is another — he was shown in a music video shooting a clown dressed to resemble Trump. Both are celebrities historically operating in the category of “trite.” Why would we pay undue attention?
More to the point is the “Shakespeare in the Park” production of “Julius Caesar” in New York starring a Trump look-alike in the title role. As is always the case, Caesar is assassinated. The theater group lost funding from corporate sponsors such as Delta Air Lines and Bank of America as a result of its choice. But the play is frequently adapted to modern times — including with a Caesar resembling President Barack Obama at the Guthrie Theater in 2012 — and, as others have pointed out, it’s not usually interpreted as advocating assassination but as warning of its implications.
Meanwhile, in Minnesota, we’ve been awaiting the outcome of another highly charged event — the verdict in the trial of police officer Jeronimo Yanez in connection with the shooting death last year of Philando Castile during a traffic stop. Whatever the jury decides, it is likely to be unsatisfying to a large segment of the population, and it will have implications for public policy. But it will have followed an established judicial process, in the manner sought by activists who were concerned about the grand jury process used in similar cases. The arc of understanding must prevail.
Even within the norms of decency, democracy is messy. But what Trump said Wednesday following the shooting in Virginia is universal:
“We may have our differences, but we do well, in times like these, to remember that everyone who serves in our nation’s capital is here because, above all, they love their country. We are strongest when we are unified and work together for the common good.”
David Banks is at David.Banks@startribune.com.