Charleston Gazette-Mail | Ray Smock: Let this shooting return us to political civility

When President Ronald Reagan was shot by a deranged young man thinking he would impress actress Jody Foster by his act of violence, it was my boss, House Speaker Tip O’Neill, who was among the first to go to Walter Reed Army Medical Center to pray at the president’s bedside for his recovery.

This was not about partisan politics. It was about human decency and concern for the president’s well-being.

Reagan was a Republican and Tip was as Democratic as they come. They fought like cats and dogs over issues and they were political rivals, but they were not enemies. Reagan supposedly joked with the surgeons who would save his life as he went into surgery. He quipped that he hoped the surgeons were all good Republicans.

The truth that Ronald Reagan knew then was that he did not care one bit about the politics of the surgeons. He hoped they were good at their jobs.

This is a time we should all take a step or two back from such an event as the shooting in Alexandria that wounded Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., two Capitol Police officers and a Capitol Hill aide. We need to put aside the kind of political cannibalism and “gotcha” politics that such events usually engender.

The event is less than 12 hours old as I write this and, already, the political posturing has begun.

We should not interject partisan politics into this tragic incident, because it rubs salt in our serious national wounds. The wounds of those who were shot will heal, but the country does not seem to be able to heal itself from virulent partisanship that often spills over into hatred.

Republicans and Democrats can be political rivals, as they should be, but we cannot allow our political differences to lead to thinking members of the opposite party are actual enemies, people we should hate. When politicians act this way, it should not be surprising that voters act the same way, and vote out of hate, instead of political issues and policy.

Political hate might have been part of the motivation of the Alexandria shooter. He might have been deranged and he might have believed that, like terrorists who blow themselves up in violent acts of suicide, that death and violence, enough of it, will change things. It never does. It always makes things worse.

I am sure the debate over assault weapons and their lack of regulation will ring anew, as it does after each of these tragedies. I am sure the National Rifle Association already has a crisis-management plan in place to focus the matter on the deranged man, rather than his weapon.

This is the game we have come to play in America, and everyone knows their role and what to say at a time like this. Both sides have their knee-jerk responses, honed to a sharp edge because we have had so many shootings.

What I would like to see is some effort to raise our sights a little higher than the specifics of this event and have us start asking how we can disenthrall ourselves of the hardened, narrow, partisan sides to this debate.

We need to ask, instead: How can we heal our political divide that has become so corrosive that some people will try to kill elected officials and any ordinary American citizen in their proximity? And what kind of madness is there in our society that would motivate someone to go to a school or a church to kill innocent children and adults?

I wish a full and speedy recovery to Scalise and the others wounded in Alexandria. I honor the Capitol Police for their bravery, and I thank the first responders, who did their jobs so well.

Can we learn to do our political jobs as well as the first responders and the police did their jobs? Did anyone ask the police officers or the first responders what their political beliefs were or what party they belonged to, or how they felt about Obamacare? Can elected officials tone down the rhetoric and act out of human decency, instead of political rancor? Can citizens seek redress of grievances without resorting to violence? Can we respect one another while having honest disagreements about issues and policy?

These are age-old questions. I just ask them again because we need to ask such questions until we start to find the answers.

Smock is director of the Robert C. Byrd Center for Congressional History and Education at Shepherd University, Shepherdstown.