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, a Maryland Democrat, 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.
‘People are frustrated’
Many conservatives agree that the depth of anger is unusual, but insist that it is understandable as well — with the health care issue overlapping with 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 to 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.
“You’ll find on both ends of the divide — the political left and political right — the more extreme elements have completely different ideological viewpoints, but they are identical on imagery,” Mahoney said. “They use Nazi, Hitler, terrorist.”
Beyond the extremists, Mahoney said he was impressed by the backgrounds of the angry citizens appearing at recent town hall meetings. Unlike many left-of-center protesters, he said, “these are people who normally stay home and don’t get involved.”
One such political newcomer is Rick Smith, a 38-year-old North Carolina store owner who in the past thought protests were pointless. But recently he joined rallies and pickets targeting Kay Hagan, a first-term Democratic senator.
“I hope the freshmen have their eyes open to what’s going on out here — to see that they need to represent the people that put them in office,” Smith said.
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.”
Kohut expressed doubt that racism was a major factor behind the hostility toward Obama, but others disagree.
African-American congressman David Scott, whose Smyrna, Ga., office outside Atlanta was defaced with a spray-painted swastika, said he also has received mail in recent days using racial slurs.
“We have got to make sure that the symbol of the swastika does not win, that the racial hatred that’s bubbling up does not win this debate,” Scott said. “That’s what is bubbling up with all of this. There’s so much hatred out there for President Obama.”
For many of Obama’s supporters, a new source of apprehension has surfaced in the form of private citizens showing up with guns outside venues where the president was speaking.
In Arizona, about a dozen people carried guns Monday outside the convention center where Obama addressed the Veterans of Foreign Wars. And last week during Obama’s health care town hall in Portsmouth, N.H., a man stood outside with a pistol strapped to his leg, carrying a sign reading, “It is time to water the tree of liberty.”
That’s part of a longer quote from Thomas Jefferson, who wrote that the tree should be watered periodically “with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”
The Secret Service said the armed men were in compliance with state laws, and were neither trying to enter the meeting hall nor get near Obama’s motorcade route. Nonetheless, their appearance raised concern in the liberal blogosphere that the trend could lead to violence.
“It just takes one wacko with a gun to cause a huge problem at one of these events — if not trying to kill Obama then to kill others,” wrote Kansas City Star columnist Yael T. Abouhalkah.