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Hell on Wheels

A million signatures, a stretcher, and a dream.

At around 2 p.m. on Wednesday, a few supporters and television cameras gathered near the Capitol to watch as two burly men unloaded 1.3 million signatures on 61,000 pages of paper from an ambulance onto a stretcher. The stretcher was wheeled over to a small stage stuffed with Republican congressmen and conservative talk radio hosts. There, speakers such as Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, carrying a "National Health Care: A Lethal Injection" t-shirt, expressed solidarity with the petition-signers and spouted some vague but familiar talking points: 1) Reform may be necessary, but 2) it shouldn't drive up costs or taxes, and 3) we should help our neighbors so they don't need health care anyway. The petition was similarly fuzzy and brief, with a call for pleasant-sounding nouns like choice, access, fairness, and responsibility. There was no mention of death panels, abortions, or rationed care.

The event, in other words, hardly seemed to merit its own dramatic life-and-death entrance.

But the spectators who gathered to watch seemed to be in tune with the intended imagery. Most town hall events weren’t the crazy hate events they were reported to be, and indeed yesterday the crowd was mostly calm. Talk show host Janet Parshall called the assembled normal Americans painted by the press as "swastika-wearing people ... programmed by someone in Washington. These are people who are saying enough is enough." But every single audience member I spoke to said other things, as well. The government is promoting an "evil plan" and has a "pro-death agenda," a retired physician named Karl Hunt told me moments before he asked me to pray with him and handed me a copy of the New Testament. Death panels weren't mentioned by name, but Hunt and his friend Andrew Puryear seemed certain such a thing could exist if the health care reform bill passed. "Let's look at Nazi Germany--if someone was disabled, they were put to death," Puryear said. "It can happen that easily with a bad administration."

It's already happening in other countries with socialized medicine, said Rayna Voychak and Debbie Gonzalez, who traveled from New York and Florida, respectively, to attend the press conference. Their grandfather, who was Canadian, died of cancer 15 years ago, receiving morphine in lieu of treatment for the final eight months of his life. "He was old, he was 67, and he was retired. He wasn't putting any taxes into the system, so why keep him alive?" Voychak said. When asked whether he requested treatment for his disease, they were unsure.

Why would the government want to do such a thing? Maybe to maintain control, Gonzalez said. Hunt theorized that Obama's administration had been infiltrated with Hemlock society members and pedophile defenders--"all they've got in their heart is evil."

So what did they want from Obama? For starters, he should listen to the Republicans, with every speaker arguing that Republican plans would be far less harmful than the current proposals. One hopeful talk radio host, Dennis Prager, said he hoped Obama would use his address to Congress to say "I love the American people and I am scrapping this plan." (Obama didn’t.) At the very least, the speakers said they were hopeful that the petition wouldn't fall on deaf ears.

Perhaps it won't--1.3 million signatures aren’t insubstantial. But the end of the demonstration was dismal to witness. As the talk radio hosts spoke, the politicians stepped off the platform and walked back to their offices, the burly men stacked the 15 boxes of signatures back onto the stretcher and wheeled it away, and the crowd dispersed--back to sight-seeing or other Wednesday afternoon activities. The Capitol went back to looking exactly as it had two hours earlier, and the ambulance drove away, never having turned on its sirens.