June 15, 2017
TSC IntelBrief: An Attack on a U.S. Congressman
A day after being shot with a semi-automatic rifle during the GOP congressional baseball team practice in Northern Virginia, Congressman Steve Scalise—the third ranking Republican in the U.S. House of Representatives—remains in critical condition. Three other people were wounded in the attack—including a U.S. Capitol Police officer—which left the attacker dead. Though the specific motive for the shooting is not yet clear, the gunman was reportedly vocally opposed to President Trump. If authorities determine the attacker intended to effect political policies or sentiments through his violence—a likely conclusion—it would be a clear case of domestic terrorism. As it stands, the attack is a tragic reminder of how deep and widespread the divisiveness in U.S. politics has become, and the level of demonization of those with differing political or social views.
Though the injuries sustained by those wounded in the attack were serious, the attack could have been far worse. Rep. Scalise had a protective detail due to his position as the House majority whip. Outside of a small group of ranking members and those with specified threats against them, most members of Congress do not have a protective detail. The U.S. Capitol Police provide security for protected members of Congress wherever they travel, as well as security at the U.S. Capitol, and Senate and House office buildings in Washington, D.C. As such, the two officers on Rep. Scalise’s protective detail were able to immediately engage the shooter in an effort to end the attack—though they were severely outgunned by the gunman, who reportedly carried a semi-automatic rifle in addition to a handgun. Even well-trained officers are at a severe disadvantage when forced to confront an attacker with a rifle with only their service pistols. The accuracy, power and range of a rifle far outmatches that of a pistol.
The attack was the first such attack on a member of Congress since a January 2011 shooting that left Rep. Gabby Giffords critically wounded and six people dead, including a federal judge. The attacker in that case was charged with killing a federal employee as well as attempted assassination. Police determined the shooter had no terror connections or intent; he had apparent mental issues, as do many such attackers. In the June 14 shooting, there are reports that the gunman had previous run-ins with law enforcement, to include possible domestic violence. Previous violent behavior—particularly violence against women—is an exceedingly common characteristic amongst perpetrators of attacks such as the June 14 shooting, and is one of the strongest predictors of future violence.
Regardless of the attacker’s motives, the shooting highlights how deep the divisiveness in current U.S. political discourse has become. The demonization of those with differing views has become a tolerated tactic on both sides of the aisle, whether by citizens posting on social media or sitting politicians talking about political opponents. Such rhetoric is not unprecedented in U.S. history, nor is political violence a new occurrence. Still, actual instances of violence against politicians are relatively rare when compared to the overall rates of violence in the U.S.; though two recent candidates for office withdrew after receiving multiple death threats. Yet the combination of relentless political cable television shows, social media echo chambers, and a marked uptick in violent political rhetoric has created a dangerous baseline of behavior and sentiment, in which people with different policy views are not merely wrong or different, but evil or traitorous. The continued corrosive and extreme divisiveness in the U.S. has long-term negative consequences for the country, even without actual instances of violence like the attack on June 14.
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