One can only guess that 66-year-old James T. Hodgkinson of Belleville, Illinois, had decided that he needed to be a hero and single-handedly rescue his country from the malevolent forces that had taken control. Instead, history will remember him as a pathetic man whose final act was the work not of a hero, but of a murderous coward. Yes, a coward, as is anyone who turns to a firearm to express his rage. And fear.
This is not another discussion about our passionate attachment to guns in this nation. That battle for sanity has been lost, which means that any person who is consumed by personal demons easily can obtain a weapon of mass destruction and wreak brutal havoc.
James Hodgkinson’s personal demon was politics. Politics in the United States is supposed to be the alternative to violence. But we are becoming less and less united, more and more violent. Our system of politics — with all the increasingly hateful rhetoric — is in a downward spiral. It occasionally has been an inspiration for savagery. In Hodgkinson’s case, he was an intense Bernie Sanders follower, who was consumed by hard feelings about the financial power structure that Sanders constantly attacked.
After Hodgkinson’s shooting spree aimed at Republican members of the House and Senate practicing on a nearby field for the congressional baseball game, Sanders took to the floor to declare: “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 nonviolent action, and anything else runs against our most deeply held American values.”
Unfortunately, the civilized political debate that is supposed to be an American value is becoming more and more violent. Both sides have escalated their arguments to irresponsible levels certainly since the campaign that led to the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States. The meanness of Trump is matched by the nastiness from his opponents, fragmenting us and motivating a few of the deranged in our midst to attempt the unspeakable.
So when President Trump reacts to the shooting by insisting, “We are strongest when we are unified and work together for the common good,” we take his words with a grain of salt. He and his enemies — yes, enemies — along with the partisans on both sides, have left us anything but unified. Instead we are bitterly divided and weakened because of it.
This did not erupt suddenly. The garbage in our system has taken generations to accumulate, piled up through decades of political manipulation. We are left with a set of rules that is largely unjust, protecting mainly the wealthy. Too many of our elected officials obviously are bought and paid for. The result has been a deep cynicism about the unfairness of our government and laws.
The bitterness of millions is amplified by social media. Now everybody has a forum with an audience of potentially millions more. Everyone chooses sides, and each displays increasing contempt for the other. Anything goes, uninhibited by context, facts or truth. Lies have become acceptable and spread like a plague. Sometimes, as we’ve seen, the effect can be violent. Everybody can shout at each other, but the ever-increasing volume of vitriol can push someone who was teetering over the edge.
What inevitably follows from all sides is the lip-service call for unity. Unfortunately, it comes from people who normally try to destroy each other. In that environment, healing has become a fantasy. The wounds are too raw, and very soon, someone pours new acid on them. Unity is forgotten by the time the next atrocity occurs, whether the violence comes from internationally inspired terrorists or those whose lives at home cause them to snap and become domestic terrorists.
In their hallucinations they are justified, because they are righting some wrong. The scenario is familiar to us all. We almost certainly will witness it tragically unfolding again, when reason will once again be overtaken by insanity.
Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.