Commentary: Tea Party is being exploited by violent fanatics

Events from the last week have made it clear that the battle for the future of the tea party is on and that the outcome will decide whether it becomes a legitimate political force or a political farce in the coming year.

It's also clear that the current direction of the tea party is attracting disturbingly ugly provocateurs.

Their strengths and weaknesses were displayed during health care reform protests.

More than a thousand people showed up at the Capitol in Washington to protest legislation they disagreed with, and thousands more staged rallies closer to their homes. Citizen involvement is important to the health of a democracy. But elements within these groups went far overboard. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver of Kansas City was spat upon, and he and others were subjected to hate speech. At least 10 Democratic members of Congress received death threats.

Among the alarming incidents:

In Virginia, a snapped propane line was discovered at Democratic Rep. Tom Perriello's brother's home after the brother's address was mistakenly listed on a tea party site with suggestions that followers go confront the representative face to face. The FBI is investigating it as a potential attack on a member of Congress.

In New York, Democratic Rep. Louise Slaughter's office window was smashed after a tea partier had put out a nationwide call online for such action. Later, her office received a call warning that snipers would "kill the children of the members who voted yes."

Even some elected officials have stepped over the line of reasonable debate. GOP Rep. Devin Nunes of California noted: "When you use totalitarian tactics, people, you know, begin to act crazy. I think that people have every right to say what they want. If they want to smear someone, they can do it."

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