Recently congressman Steve Israel convened a town hall meeting on healthcare reform. I had seen these meetings on television and was not surprised to see a large group of opponents wielding signs.
Prior to entering the hall I engaged several of them in conversation, and found a man who was really interested in civil discourse, the others were clearly there to create trouble.
Once inside the theater the security officers did not allow the signs except for the back row. The slogans and yelling from the audience was orchestrated. The opponents were not all grouped together, but they often signaled to each other to stand up and yell as various things were said.
Mr. Israel, to his credit, had thought this meeting out. The rules for asking questions were
Only constituent’s questions would be answered and those questions had to be submitted in writing on a form with the questioners name and address. This was done to prevent the "floating mob" that go from one meeting to the next to totally disrupt the proceedings.
I was seated in the third row so that most of the people in the hall were behind me. Therefore I could not see them unless I turned toward the back of the auditorium. This turned out to be an advantage to me. Here is what I sensed.
Whenever the congressman or one of the other speakers (there were three others beside Steve Israel) spoke verbal hoops and hollering began to obscure the answer to a question, they would jump out of their seats and motion to members of their contingent that they needed more noise. This boisterous yelling out, and standing up can be very disconcerting to a speaker unless he has seen this “scary movie” before. The congressman appeared totally at ease and unimpressed with this phony display. In fact he was smiling most of the time and resisted any impromptu responses to what was being yelled out to him.
On the other hand when the congressman or one of the other speakers made an important point, the supporters would applaud. The applause was very rich and, robust, and indicated that most of the people in the hall were with the congressman.
Here is what else I observed; only one of the protesters had posed a question, indicating that most of them were not in Mr. Israel’s district.
This negative and disruptive contingent was only about 25% of the audience, but they were able to look more formidable than they actually were.
It was apparent that this was a floating mob, and none of this was spontaneous. Instead this was a well-orchestrated attempt to subvert any dialogue between the people and the congressman. It didn’t work!
When I was 22 years old I was hospitalized for 14 days. During that time I read a couple of books on the rise of the Nazis. The "Brown Shirts" would go to the political gathering places and disrupt the meetings by the use of the same tactics we have been witnessing at these so called town hall meetings. Most of the intelligentsia of Germany considered these Brown Shirts buffoons, but they systematically built political power based on fear caused by the lies they spawned.
It is always dangerous to make these historical comparisons, and these people ar not the Brown Shirts, but the tactics are amazingly similar.
This editorial is not about healthcare reform, or whether you are for it or against it. It is about process. There are many legitimate questions that must be asked and answered before we make this dramatic change, but these disruptive people are not going to get us there.
Democracy makes this kind of mischief possible, so it is incumbent on all of us to be wary and watchful. There is a terrible price to be paid if we are not.
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