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The passage of the health care bill last week didn't end the debate, of course. If anything, the rhetoric has gotten hotter with members of Congress reporting vandalism, threats of violence. Opponents of the newly signed law have vowed to repeal it and to throw its congressional supporters out of office.

As NPR's Don Gonyea reports, this kind of anger is hardly new. In fact, it's part of a longstanding tradition.

DON GONYEA: The anger over health care started early.

(Soundbite of chanting)

Unidentified Group: Kill the bill. Kill the bill. Kill the bill.

GONYEA: This chant came from the Capitol lawn on the day of the vote, but it had been a theme for protesters since last summer, back when those confrontational town hall meetings caught many Democratic members of Congress off guard. This was in Pennsylvania in August.

(Soundbite of archival recording)

Unidentified Man #1: One day, God's going to stand before you, and he's going to judge you and the rest of your damn cronies up on the Hill.

GONYEA: And it's only gotten louder in recent weeks. Witness this Columbus, Ohio, rally earlier this month.

(Soundbite of archival recording)

Unidentified Man #2: It's bankrupt.

Unidentified Man #3: You don't know what

Unidentified Man #2: Everything the government does is bankrupt.

GONYEA: Since then, the rhetoric has gone further, including calls to take up arms, threatening phone calls to the offices of Democrats who voted for the bill. Add all that to those signs featuring images of President Obama as Hitler or accusing him of being a Marxist and the claims that he's a Muslim and not an American citizen - all common topics for placards held aloft at anti-Obama protests.

Chip Berlet is with Political Research Associates, a liberal group that tracks populist anti-government movements. He says this is nothing new.

Mr. CHIP BERLET (Senior Analyst, Political Research Associates): It happens periodically throughout U.S. history, and it happens when people are very angry, but they sort of focus that anger on conspiracy stories in which their political opponents are portrayed not as having ideological or political differences, but in fact out to destroy America.

GONYEA: Berlet cites the militia movement of the '90s as the most recent incarnation of such anger, but only the most recent. In the early 1800s, he says, people said the Freemasons were out to destroy America. Later that century, Berlet says, there were fears about the Pope and the long, long tunnel that was supposedly being dug.

Mr. BERLET: The tunnel from the Vatican to the United States was going to allow all the papists from Europe to just rush over and take over America.

GONYEA: And with this past week's threats of violence, Berlet says he worries the current state of rhetoric will lead to actual violence.

Mr. BERLET: I don't see people stepping back from the abyss, and that's what leaves me very worried.

GONYEA: But Michael Cromartie, watching all of this from the Washington-based Ethics and Public Policy Center, makes another point. He says it's not unlike the storm of abuse hurled at President Bush, his staff and other Republicans during debates on Iraq and the Patriot Act, and other issues.

And as for Democrats and others who openly speak of their concerns about potential violence?

Mr. MICHAEL CROMARTIE (Vice President, Ethics and Public Policy Theater): Well, I don't want to be one that says that it can't happen, but at the same time, people's emotions are running high, and people are in the street. But people's emotions have been running high on disagreements in American public policy in the last several decades a lot.

GONYEA: Cromartie adds that the rhetoric today is alarming.

Mr. CROMARTIE: Civility needs to be practiced on all sides, on the conservative and liberal side. But the fact of the matter is I think we can do this without people getting out of control.

GONYEA: Both Cromartie and Berlet agree that political leaders in both parties should seek to channel these emotions and restrain them, in part by moderating their own language - even if they can't find ways to work together when it comes to policy.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington.

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