On August 1, 2011, I stood in the gallery and watched Congresswoman Gabby Giffords walk onto the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives for the first time since being shot by a mentally unstable man. The floor erupted in a standing ovation that expressed unified support for Gabby and everything her return represented. Even as it occurred, I felt the privilege of being witness to that special moment.
Yesterday’s headlines greeted many of us with the news that a politically frustrated man shot Congressman Steve Scales and three other individuals during a practice for the annual Congressional Baseball Game. Reports indicate that the quick response of the Capitol Hill Police present at the practice spared many lives from the man’s ill intentions. And in a moment I can only imagine as similar to Giffords’ return, later that day the members of the U.S. House stood in unity on the House floor to condemn the attack, express their solidarity with the attack’s victims, and express their gratefulness for the brave actions of the Capitol Hill Police.
These sorts of attacks are contrary to the political principles of our country. In contrast with so much of human history, Americans have sought to develop a culture that acknowledges the ballot box as the means by which Americans resolve their political differences. The use of violent force to achieve political ends devalues that culture. It devalues the principles outlined in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. And it ultimately represents someone placing their desires and outcomes above the rights of others and is a repudiation of “We the people” as expressed through our institutions and elected representatives.
While political firestorms may become red hot, Americans must hold an unswerving conviction that political disagreements must be handled within the contexts of our system and in no other manner. Admittedly, dark moments in American history have run contrary to this principle, but Americans have always returned to the ideal of resolving political matters peacefully. Without this commitment, our experiment in self-government stands on shaky ground.
As President Reagan found himself going into surgery to remove the assassin’s bullet that missed his heart only by a few centimeters, he jokingly quibbled, “I hope you are all Republicans.” The politically liberal doctor quickly responded, “Today, Mr. President, we are all Republicans.” While this story undoubtedly brings a smile to many of us, it represents a deeper truth. A moment like this could only exist in a political culture like ours.
Violent shootings like yesterday remind us that we Americans must remain steadfast in our commitment to resolve our differences through the political process. Political differences aside, we are all Americans who are committed to our founding principles and committed to resolving our differences through our political institutions. For a self-governing nation like ours, an internal deterioration of our values can prove far more damaging than most external dangers we face.