Here's what we can learn from the Scalise shooting
© Greg Nash

In the wake of last week’s shooting of House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) and several others, many have questioned, what prompted this hateful act? Was it the hyper-partisan rhetoric of the Trump era? A national mental-health crises? A combination of the two?

The short answer is, yes, it’s a combination of the two.

First, it’s important to remember that violent, contentious and vitriolic rhetoric are as embedded in American history as much as our preferred symbolic images of freedom, liberty and independence.

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As recently noted by Martin J. Medhurst, a professor of rhetoric and communication at Baylor University, “You can go back to the election of 1800 between Jefferson and Adams and find a whole lot of quite outrageous statements made on both sides.” Medhurst also noted that, in 1856, “[Charles] Sumner, [ ] was caned on the floor of the Senate and almost killed. We have a long history of violence in this country, both rhetorical and otherwise.”

 

Factors such as the internet, social media, and the 24-hour news cycle have all contributed to increasing polarity in politics recently. Nonetheless, it is important to remember that this pattern is cyclical and, with greater access to information and understanding of social media analytics, will hopefully come greater open-minded political discourse.

Second, it is also important to note that, although the majority of citizens with mental illness are non-violent, a lingering stigma around mental health issues continues to play a role in our national conversations about guns, violence, and public safety. To this end, Jeffrey Engel, director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University, stated in response to the Scalise shooting that “it is unusual for someone to commit such an attack [solely] because of political motivation” and that “mental health [ ] often plays a bigger role than politics in such attacks.”

Engel points to John Hinckley, Jr., who attempted to assassinate President Reagan in 1981, but was found not guilty by reason of insanity. He went on to note that hundreds of millions of people post the type of hyper-partisan political commentary noted above online and on social media daily, but for someone to “load up a rifle and do something about it is so rare that it is actually a demonstration that the person is first and foremost not dealing with reality in the same way as the rest of us.”

According to a 2015 report by the Congressional Research Service, most offenders who commit crimes like last week’s shooting “suffer[ ] from some form of mental instability, at least temporarily.” Most mass shooters, like James Hodgkinson, the perpetrator of the Scalise shooting, are “socially isolated” and often “latch onto a political cause as a way of justifying their violence.”

As noted above, there are some obvious lessons from history regarding political rhetoric, violence, and mental health. In our recent history, the Veterans Affairs wait-time scandal of 2014 provides an interesting and less-than-obvious case-study, and shows optimism for the future. 

First, although the House and Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committees were long immune to the increasing polarization of politics in Congress, responses to the scandal in the 113th Congress evidenced “the encroachment of partisan politicization into a once relatively nonpartisan issue area.”

Although response to issues pertaining to veterans’ care have remained more partisan than past veterans’ issues, with Republicans often favoring access to private providers and Democrats often favoring providing the VA with additional funding and resources, Congress did pass the bipartisan Veterans Affairs Accountability Act last week with little opposition from either side, evidencing a glimmer of hope for those who hope to see a return to more respectful and reasonable rhetoric on Capitol Hill.

Second, veterans’ advocates have been leading the way in national conversations about mental health treatment, and a silver lining to the 2014 scandal is that it brought increased attention to veterans’ main mental health issues – access to mental health care and suicide prevention.  According to the VA, as many as 20 percent of veterans from the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan are suffering from mental health ailments and, according the VA’s 2016 veteran suicide report, an average of 20 veterans commit suicide daily.  

In response, in another bipartisan measure, Congress signed the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act in February 2015, which provided combat veterans with free medical care and medication for mental health treatment, providing a good foundation for substantive conversations about veterans’ mental health.  

Nonetheless, since 2009, there are seven reported incidents of post-9/11 veterans who have gone on a violent rampage. The most notable of these incidents are the killing of five people at the Fort Lauderdale airport in January 2017; the killing of four people at Fort Hood, Texas, in April 2014; and the killing of 12 people at the Washington Navy Yard in September 2013. 

Of course, there is still much work to do in terms of solving our nation’s mental health crisis.

For both veterans and the population at large, stigma and negative perceptions associated with mental health treatment result in barriers to effective treatment and reform.  Although Hodgkinson was not a veteran, reports of a troubled home life imply that he perhaps struggled with his mental health but, like many of our nation’s veterans, did not seek any formal treatment

However, the culmination of the oversight and reform efforts in the wake of the 2014 VA scandal was a renewed, bipartisan focus on accountability in the current Congress, with last week’s legislation as the first of many steps in restoring trust to the beleaguered agency, especially for those in need of mental health treatment. 

Similarly, perhaps the first step and a silver lining to last week’s high-profile shooting will be the emergence of a productive, bipartisan conversation around how to tone down the toxicity of political rhetoric in the age of Trump, and a renewed focus on more important policy issues such as solving the mental health crises and the prevention of terrorism both at home and abroad. 

Rory E. Riley-Topping has dedicated her career to ensuring accountability within the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to care for our nation’s veterans. She is the principal at Riley-Topping Consulting and has served in a legal capacity for the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, the National Veterans Legal Services Program, the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, and the Department of Veterans Affairs, and can be reached on Twitter @RileyTopping.


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