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Threats, jeers saturate health-care debate

A vandalized sign stands outside a congressman's office in Smyrna, Ga. Are such incidents evidence of some new political virulence?
A vandalized sign stands outside a congressman's office in Smyrna, Ga. Are such incidents evidence of some new political virulence?
John Bazemore, Associated Press

NEW YORK — The images are striking: One congressman's office defaced by a swastika, other congressmen heckled at public meetings, videos and placards likening Barack Obama to Hitler, private citizens with guns joining anti-Obama protests.

Outside one meeting hosted by Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., authorities detained a man with a sign reading, "Death To Obama, Death To Michelle And Her Two Stupid Kids."

In this season of searing political heat generated by the health-care debate, these incidents have raised divisive questions of their own. Are they simply the latest twists in a long tradition of vigorous, public engagement or evidence of some new, alarming brand of political virulence?

"Hate, if it ever truly threatened to leave the political stage, is most definitely back, larger and nastier than ever," University of Missouri journalism professor Charles Davis wrote this week in his local paper, the Columbia Daily Tribune. He urged the media to put a spotlight on the hate, rather than ignore it.

To some political veterans, the phenomenon is unprecedented.

"There is more anger in America today than at any time I can remember," said Sen. Arlen Specter, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, after one of a series of town hall meetings at which he was jeered.

Many conservatives agree that the depth of anger is unusual but insist it is understandable as well — with the health care issue overlapping worries about the economy.

"People are frustrated — they don't want to be lied to," said Mat Staver, president of Liberty Counsel, a Florida-based Christian legal group. "Rather than just listening, they want be heard, and they feel Washington isn't listening to them."

Another conservative activist, the Rev. Patrick Mahoney of the Christian Defense Coalition, said he was dismayed by the recent surfacing of threats against political leaders. But he noted that venomous rhetoric was nothing new in U.S. politics and recalled that former President George W. Bush had been called a terrorist and war criminal by some of his critics.

At some of the meetings, politicians and their critics have engaged in substantive dialogue over health-care policy and other issues. At other times, the exchanges have been curt.

"On what planet do you spend most of your time?" Democratic Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts asked a woman at a meeting Tuesday when she held up a poster depicting Obama with a Hitler-style mustache.

Andrew Kohut, who oversees public opinion surveys as president of the Pew Research Center, says the health care debate has fueled intense anti-government sentiment in some quarters.

"I also think the conservatives are frustrated politically — they don't feel they have a leader," Kohut said. "They're worried about a government takeover of health care and feeling not so empowered with a strong Democratic Congress. All these things lead to a summer of intense points of view."