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Violence through a partisan lens

House Speaker Paul Ryan addressed the House of Representatives after Wednesday's shooting at a practice of lawmakers for the annual charity congressional baseball game.

The annual congressional baseball game is one of those good-natured if self-referential Washington rituals, giving Democrats and Republicans a chance to battle it out in balls and strikes rather than bills and votes.

That's what Republican Majority Whip Steve Scalise was practicing for on Wednesday morning when he several others were shot by a gunman who reportedly first asked which party the representatives belonged to before opening fire. Two Capitol Police officers, a congressional aide and a lobbyist were also wounded, while the shooter, 66-year-old James Hodgkinson, an Illinois man who had been active in liberal politics and was angered by President Trump's election, was killed.

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It is only our latest case of "even this." Even this friendly game must be smeared by the kind of irrational animus that has divided the country into us-vs.-them.

Somewhere along the way, political differences have become a bitter, zero-sum game, played by any and all, on social and conventional media, in the mixed-up heads of the deranged and in the real-life where we all actually live.

Partisanship more than baseball is the real American pastime.

Keyboard warriors engage in pitched if risk-free battles, trolling and meme-ing one another in delight. There are talk radio shows, podcasts, websites and the like that do their part to inflame their audiences and generate ratings and clicks.

It's all harmless, until suddenly it isn't. Even if there isn't a direct line that can be drawn between rhetoric and action, it is clearer than ever before that words indeed have consequences, however unintended. The only mystery is why we have to be reminded of that, time and again.

The stabbing of the men on a Portland, Ore., bus who came to the defense of girls being harassed by someone spouting anti-Muslim hatred, or the shooting of an Indian man in Kansas by a guy screaming "get out of my country." The Dallas police officers ambushed and killed by a man who said he was angered by cops who had shot black men.

No one "told" these killers to act out on the hatred that others merely vent before goin about the rest of their lives. The toxic climate may not be to blame — that rightly falls on the trigger puller — but its poisonous effects sicken nonetheless.

It didn't take long for today's shooting to play out in wholly predictable fashion. There is no "too soon" anymore. Social media allows anyone to tweet first, think later. Get your hot take out there before anyone else. Everything, no matter how horrible, is mere fodder to grind your personal political ax.

First son Donald J. Trump Jr. was ready, retweeting someone who linked the shooting to a version of "Julius Caesar" in which the actor playing the assassinated ruler was made up to look like his father.

We can't say we wholly disagree with him. Comparing President Trump to Caesar may have more nuance and artistic merit than Kathy Griffin wielding a fake severed Trump head, but depicting the assassination of the sitting president, whatever the context, takes matters too far. We've seen too many attempts at the real thing for it to be played for either tragedy or comedy.

There were multiple calls as well to, for God's sake, just drop the partisanship for a moment and consider that real people with real feelings and real families were grievously injured for no reason. That one of those to respond with grace was former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords, herself shot and disabled by a would-be assassin in 2011, added poignancy to the moment, but also a pang of realization that little has changed despite the shock of that incident that left six dead.

That shooting was preceded, you may remember, by Ms. Giffords appearing in the crosshairs of Sarah Palin's "target list" of 20 lawmakers to be unseated for the sin of voting for Obamacare. "Don't retreat," the former governor of Alaska and failed vice-presidential candidate gaily tweeted, "Instead- RELOAD!"

We don't believe the shooter in that case was any more motivated by Ms. Palin's cavalier rhetoric than Hodgkinson was by Ms. Griffin or Julius Caesar. But those who would seek to employ the language of violence to make a political point need to consider for a moment what their words would look like when carried to their literal ends.

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