WASHINGTON — A Republican-hating gunman who had spewed rage upon Donald Trump and his party opened fire on a group of U.S. lawmakers Wednesday, causing a range of injuries in what appeared to be a politically motivated shooting.
A senior Republican lawmaker was in critical condition. Steve Scalise is the third-ranking House Republican and the hospital treating him tweeted that his status was more precarious than described earlier by colleagues: “(Representative) Scalise was critically injured and remains in critical condition.”
The scene of terror unfolded on a suburban baseball field.
Standing along the third-base line, shooter James Hodgkinson sprayed gunfire at a group of congressional Republicans who were practising for their annual baseball game against Democrats.
The multi-minute mayhem ended with five injured and one dead: the shooter. A more severe bloodbath was averted because Capitol Hill police were there to return gunfire, holding back the assailant, according to one politician there.
“Our lives were saved by the Capitol Hill police. Had they not been there it would’ve been a massacre,” Sen. Rand Paul told Fox News of the scene he witnessed.
“You are completely helpless. Having no self-defence and no way to get to somebody. The field was basically a killing field if you were to run out there while the shooter was still shooting.”
Scalise fell to the ground near second base and crawled toward the outfield in search of safety. The others injured were police and congressional staff. Colleagues tended to Scalise, who was shot in the hip and left a trail of blood as he dragged himself into the outfield.
The shooter left a string of angry messages on his Facebook page.
The Illinois man called the president a mean, disgusting man who should go to prison for treason. He compared Trump to Hitler. He also said top Republican Paul Ryan should go to prison for cutting health services. He derided the mainstream media as agents of big money and heaped scorn upon Hillary Clinton.
He was a volunteer for the Bernie Sanders campaign in last year’s election.
“I am sickened by this despicable act,” Sanders told the Senate after learning of the gunman’s role in his campaign. ”And let me be as clear as I can be: violence of any kind is unacceptable in our society. And I condemn this action in the strongest possible terms…
“Real change can only come about through non-violent action and anything else runs counter to our most deeply held American values.”
The Associated Press reported that Hodgkinson had a string of legal troubles starting in the 1990s, with arrests for resisting police and drunken driving. The news agency said his most serious problems came in 2006, when he was arrested on a battery charge.
Until recently, he ran a home-inspection business out of his home in Belleville, Ill., across the Mississippi River from St. Louis.
Wednesday’s chaos drew about 100 police officers from different departments within minutes, according to witnesses, and helicopters swooped in to airlift the injured from the baseball field in suburban Alexandria, Va., outside Washington.
The gunman’s death was announced by Trump. The president delivered a call for unity in a politically polarized country: “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 our country….
“Everyone on that field is a public servant.”
Plaudits were heaped on police, in particular. Sen. Paul told another interviewer that everyone there faced a life-and-death, split-second dilemma: Stay where they were, or scurry for safety in the outfield or the dugout and risk becoming easy targets in an open field.
Another Republican described how people huddled in terror in the dugout, not knowing whether the gunman might move in their direction and pin them down in an enclosed area.
“We didn’t know if there were other shooters that had us surrounded and would come into the dugout,” Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake told reporters on the scene.
“We didn’t know whether to run.”
Congressman Mo Brooks said he was on deck, preparing to bat, when the shooting started. He saw a rifle near third base. Then he said he suddenly saw Scalise bleeding, crawling into the outfield.
He said there were easily 50 shots fired.
Political rivals expressed their own horror at what unfolded. Democrats preparing at their own baseball practice prayed for their Republican colleagues when news broke. California congressman Pete Aguilar tweeted: “My heart is heavy right now. We just said a prayer for our colleagues.”
The incident instantly brought to mind another American political shooting.
The victim of that shooting, Gabrielle Giffords, is no longer in Congress and has waged a years-long struggle to recover. The Arizona Democrat responded to the news on Twitter: “My heart is with my former colleagues, their families (and) staff.”
She called the Capitol police public servants and heroes.
Canada’s prime minister offered a word of condolence from Ottawa: “Obviously our hearts go out to everyone affected — the families, the community,” Justin Trudeau said. ”Obviously, everyone in Washington, D.C., is no doubt rattled by this. Our thoughts go to the congressman.”
Some American politicians offered more than thoughts and prayers.
One was still in his baseball uniform, back on Capitol Hill, conducting television interviews where he called for America to tamp down the anger of its politics. In an emotional interview on Fox News, Illinois Republican Rodney Davis demanded change.
He didn’t specifically blame Democrats or progressives, but said the whole country needs to learn from this.
“I never thought I’d go to baseball practice for charity and have to dodge bullets. This has got to stop, and it’s got to stop today,” he said.
“This is the result of political rhetorical terrorism. That has to stop… This has got to be the message of Republicans like me and Democrats alike. We have to have unity in this country.”
Davis shared a secret known to many people in political life, and perhaps not as many partisans: political opponents who debate on the legislative floor often manage to be friends.
“That’s the misperception about Congress and about Washington that leads to this political rhetoric that is not true,” he said.
“You wouldn’t believe it from the news reports. But some of my best friends are on the other side of the aisle here in this institution. … We have to bind together as Americans. Not as Republicans and Democrats.”
Yet some political partisans responded to the day’s events in the usual manner: by spilling bile onto their social-media pages.