Wenstrup: Baseball aside, we’re all playing for the same team
(CNN)I never expected a baseball field in America to feel like being back in a combat zone, but Wednesday morning it did.
For months, a group of my colleagues and I have been heading to Alexandria early in the morning before work to practice for the charity baseball game that Democrats and Republicans have participated in since 1909.
I was pulling on my batting gloves and heading to the batting cages along the first base line when I heard the crack of a rifle shot. I turned — only to hear my Mississippi colleague and fellow Iraq War veteran Trent Kelly yell, “shooter!”
Everyone started dashing for cover. I saw House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, at second base, drop. The minutes ticked by as we watched the gunman, who started out near the third base line, move steadily around the diamond. Shot after shot ripped through the air. It felt like being back in Iraq, only without my weapon or any infantry.
What happened could have been far worse, had it not been for the courage of the Capitol Police who ultimately took down the shooter. Steve may have taken the bullet, but his presence — he’s one of the few lawmakers in Congress with a security detail — saved all of us. Without his security detail, we would have been completely defenseless. Special Agents Crystal Griner and David Bailey are the true heroes of the hour.
As soon as the shooter was down, I ran alongside Jeff Flake and Mo Brooks, and others, to provide emergency medical attention to Steve and stanch the bleeding until the medics could arrive. In the following hours, reporters kept asking me: “What were you thinking out there? Were you afraid you were going to die?” But in the flash of the moment you don’t think. Instincts kick in. I simply did what I had been trained to do. Only after it was over and I was back at the Capitol hugging my wife and 3-year-old son did I really think about how blessed I was to have made it out alive.
Later, as we learned more about the individual behind the shooting, it became clear the act was politically motivated, fueled by hatred of our President, Republicans, and anyone with a political ideology that differed from his own. It is a single event, but it provides a piercing commentary on today’s political climate — both in Washington and across the country.
Blame it on social media’s anonymity, the 24-hour news cycle, the vitriol of the campaign trail, or a dozen other factors, but it is undeniable that there is a chilling undercurrent to political discourse in our country today. It is not simply the presence of anger or frustration, which are often well-deserved when it comes to our bloated government and the arrogance of Washington-knows-best-policies. Beyond that, though, our political dialogue has become tainted with a stunning lack of civility that points to an even deeper problem: a lack of humanity.
It might be politically effective to demonize and dehumanize our opponents — it is certainly easier than taking time to empathize, listen closely, research the facts, and understand the other side’s arguments. But what is easy isn’t always what is right. We have tremendous freedom in this country to speak and act as we wish, but that liberty requires responsibility. As Pope John Paul II said, “Freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.” As we passionately debate policy and argue our ideas, we need to hold on to our humanity. We need to rediscover the lost art of civil disagreement, the ability to hold opposing viewpoints without resorting to hate.
Perhaps most sobering is the fact that by demonizing one another, we have effectively forgotten who our true enemies are. While we are bogged down in partisanship, our adversaries across the globe are not so easily distracted. Whether it is Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, or radical Islamic terrorists — there are actors around the world who are actively working to undermine, diminish, and ultimately destroy the security and democracy of the United States of America. As long as our strength is segmented into factions and our political process consumed by partisan theatrics, we are playing directly into their hands.
Ultimately, the attacker in Alexandria was an example of the worst in this country, but the response afterwards represents what is best about this country. That same morning, the House floor was packed as members of Congress stood shoulder to shoulder, hands over hearts, pledging allegiance to our flag. One nation, under God. Democrats huddled in prayer for their colleagues across the aisle. It was an important reminder that our unity is our strength. We’ve seen it before — let’s not forget it. Despite all the disagreements and differences, at the end of the day, we’re all Americans. It’s this communal bond and American spirit that spurs us to greatness. It’s what sets us apart from the others. It’s what will move us forward.
Because, baseball games aside, we’re all playing for the same team.