First and foremost, the June 14th attack on Republican Congresspeople practicing for their annual charity baseball game is a human tragedy, one that left Louisiana Congressman Steve Scalise, a Congressional aide, a lobbyist, and two Capitol police officers wounded and many more participants (including the young sons of Congressman Joe Barton) traumatized. No analysis of the shooting can or should minimize those tragedies and traumas in any way.
Second, there are of course a number of contemporary and longstanding national issues to which any such analysis must connect: Guns and gun violence, including but not limited to the availability of the AR-15 assault rifle that the Alexandria shooter used and the state’s Open Carry laws; domestic violence, since that attacker, like many mass shooters, had a history of domestic violence charges; and political extremism and domestic terrorism, since the shooter was apparently motivated in part by unhinged opposition to Donald Trump and the 2017 GOP. If we can engage with those issues with nuance and thoughtfulness, rather than the kinds of soundbites that are all too tempting in these moments, perhaps this tragedy can become a force for positive change.
Yet as an public American Studies scholar, I would argue that we can and should link a few of the key victims of this tragic shooting to another longstanding and ongoing national history and debate: one between more exclusionary and more inclusive definitions of American identity, between visions of a national community that leave certain cultures out and visions that consider those cultures integral parts of who we have been and who we are.
Representative Scalise embodies the exclusionary definitions of America. He has long been linked to the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist organizations in Louisiana; while he has denied the most overt such links, he did once apparently describe himself, in a conversation with local political reporter Stephanie Grace, as “like David Duke without the baggage.” Grace went on to parse Scalise’s description, noting, “I think he meant he supported the same policy ideas as David Duke, but he wasn’t David Duke, that he didn’t have the same feelings about certain people as David Duke did.”
Yet even the most charitable description of David Duke’s “policy ideas” would have to define them as exclusionary, as arguing for and seeking to amplify a white supremacist understanding of American identity and community. Whatever the particular issue — from English as a national language to Christian prayer in schools, worries about “inner-city crime” to hard-line immigration policies — Duke’s positions begin with that white supremacist understanding, a mythic narrative of a homogeneous and now endangered past that works to move America closer to that imagined identity in the future. (To, one might say, “Make America Great Again.”)
The heroic Capitol police officers who defended Scalise and his colleagues on Wednesday, however, exemplify an inclusive alternative vision of American identity. Special Agent David Bailey, an African American officer, was wounded but continued to return fire at the shooter, fatally wounding him and preventing any further bloodshed. And Special Agent Crystal Griner, a fellow African American and also a gay woman in a same-sex marriage (Representative Scalise authored the proposed 2008 Constitutional Amendment to “protect traditional marriage,” illustrating how much LGBT issues are folded into his exclusionary vision), likewise returned fire and helped protect all of the practice’s attendees despite herself being wounded. A third officer of Hispanic heritage, Henry Cabrera, also protected Scalise after his wounding but was not himself wounded.
These heroic, multiethnic officers offer just a latest example in the long history of Americans of color volunteering to serve a nation that has too often excluded them.
These heroic, multiethnic officers offer just a latest example in the long history of Americans of color volunteering to serve a nation that has too often excluded them from full citizenship and civic participation. From the African American soldiers who have served in every military conflict from the American Revolution on; to the Native Americans and Filipino Americans who fought under white supremacist Andrew Jackson in the War of 1812’s Battle of New Orleans; to the Chinese Americans who fought in the Civil War at the same time that the “Yellow Peril” narrative was defining them as an alien menace; to the tens of thousands of Japanese Americans who volunteered for the army during World War II, many thousands of them volunteering from the internment camps; time and again these Americans have brought the inclusive national community they represent and embody to civic service, defending our ideals even when our realities have far too often failed them.
Perhaps Representative Scalise and his ilk will change their positions on same-sex marriage, on immigration, on race and American identity in response to these latest heroic services and sacrifices. But no matter what, all Americans can and should take this opportunity to learn about and engage with the historic and ongoing battle between exclusionary and inclusive visions, a conflict made strikingly present in these Alexandria figures. No national debate better encapsulates so many of our contemporary questions, and none will be more crucial to deciding who we want to be as we move forward into an increasingly imperiled, but unquestionably shared, future.