ST. LOUIS — While a healthy, public debate around health care reform positively reinforces our proud democratic traditions, heckling, yelling, disrupting and even assaulting those you disagree with doesn’t. But that’s exactly what’s happening here in St. Louis and across the country.

On Aug. 6, Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-Mo., held a town hall meeting at Bernard Middle School Gym in St. Louis County. An overflow crowd showed up. Then things got out of hand as anti-public-option protesters began to disrupt and interfere with the planned proceedings. In all, six people were arrested by St. Louis County Police — hecklers and bystanders.

Rep. Carnahan issued a statement the following day. It said in part:

‘Sadly we’ve seen stories about disrupters around the country, and we have a handful of them here in Missouri. Instead of participating in a civil debate, they have mobilized with special interests in Washington who have lined their pockets by overcharging Americans for a broken health care system.’

In my opinion, Brown Shirt, Nazi tactics — or astroturfing as it’s being called — has no place in American politics. And those fringe elements who participate in such activity have no place in mainstream political discourse.

Their assaults aren’t just assaults on the individuals and issues involved. They are an assault on the American body politic. They are an assault on the traditions of Jefferson, Madison and Hamilton. On Emerson and Thoreau. On Douglass and Tubman. On Dr. King and Rosa Parks. And on President Obama and all of the hope and change his administration represents.

Unfortunately, it seems the right-wing, anti-public-option forces are desperate. That is why they have dropped the bar so low and are relying on Brown Shirt tactics.

However, their desperate acts only prove that they have lost the war of ideas and intelligent discourse. They know that they are going against mainstream America, which is why they are relying on fringe elements and bully tactics.

Their goals are clear. First they want to disrupt and confuse public forums, preventing real issues from being discussed. Second, they want to gain media attention and project a distorted view of American sentiment towards health care reform. Third, they want to scare members of Congress into silence or submission, as well as ordinary citizens.

The experience was so traumatic for Javonne Spitz, from O’Fallon, Mo., that she told the St. Louis Post Dispatch: ‘These tea baggers are dangerous. I’m not going to any more town hall meetings until these people calm down.’

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what the right-wing, anti-public-option forces want. They want people to stay home. They want people scared. They want people to feel intimidated and afraid. Their tactics are Nazi tactics.

Joyce Flecke, from south St. Louis County, said the forum became ‘a complete waste of time.’ Undoubtedly, the hecklers kept her from participating in any meaningful way.

According to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, astroturfing is ‘nothing more than destructive efforts to interrupt a debate that we should have, and are having. They are doing this because they don’t have any better ideas.’

As long as a healthy public discourse on health care reform and the public option continues, we will win. Millions of Americans will gain health care, something every citizen of every other industrial nation has. Additionally, the Obama administration will score another victory — further isolating the failed policies of the Bush administration and the right wing it represents — and grassroots people’s forces, unions and community groups, will gain momentum and energy as we try to move our country in another direction.